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Central Asia: Senior Officials Discuss Prospects Of Civil Societies

  • Roland Eggleston

Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany; 8 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The five Central Asian states have completed the first seven years of their movement toward democracy and the creation of a civil society. But what happens now?

That is the theme of a seminar under way this week in the German mountain resort of Garmisch-Partenkirchen. The seminar is organized by America's Marshall Center for Security Studies. Senior political and military officials from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are discussing how their countries are developing.

The purpose of the seminar was expressed at Monday's opening session by Central Asian specialist Shirin Akiner . She said "the new independent states of Central Asia came into existence with little preparation for democracy." Akiner said the five "were hurried into adopting this new system," adding that "it is fair to ask how they have managed."

The overall answer from both Western moderators and Central Asian delegates was that, on balance, the first seven years have gone far better than most foreign observers predicted. But many also agreed with a Central Asian delegate who said: "We have reached the end of the beginning. Now we have to go further. Major problems remain to be resolved."

One of them is providing what is called a civil society -- genuinely free elections, an orderly transfer of political power, a transparent political society, freedom of activity by non-governmental organizations and respect for the rule of law. In August, Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov told parliament that a strong civil society is necessary for the functioning of a civil state. Other regional leaders have said much the same.

Shirin Akiner suggested that one of the problems which had to be faced in Central Asia was the institution of the presidency and the role of the president. She argued that there were three possibilities -- the ceremonial figurehead, a political president with powers limited by the constitution, or an authoritarian president. She said that, on paper, most countries opted for the second choice but in practice some were authoritarian.

Akiner said another issue to be faced was the transition from one leader to another. One test of a stable society was a mechanism for the orderly transfer of power from an outgoing - or dying - leader to another.

Bess Brown, a senior official at the Tashkent office of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), said creation of a civil society is "one of the most important elements in ensuring that the countries of Central Asia continue along the path of democratization." She said it was also one of the most trustworthy ways in which to guarantee that the rights of individual citizens will be respected and protected. In Brown's view, some Central Asian administrations are some distance from creating a civil society.

Some of Brown's comments provoked protests. For example, she identified Turkmenistan as the country where the "understanding of the concept of a civil society is weakest." A Turkmen delegate said Brown appeared unaware that a civil code had been under discussion throughout the year and that more than 2,000 amendments had been submitted. He said German and other foreign experts were helping in the process. He also told the seminar that around 200 non-government organizations had been registered.

Brown's argument was that Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov believed that creation of a national consciousness must precede all else. She said that "this is his justification for his authoritarian rule and cult of personality," adding that "only now are (there) indications that (Niyazov) may hand over some of his powers to the national legislature." Brown argued that in Turkmenistan there is no question of tolerating political opposition.

But Brown said that some sections of the population, particularly university students and academics, had demonstrated what she called "a great eagerness" to learn about the basic principles of a civil society. She said the OSCE was developing a packet of democracy projects which would be introduced next year.

In a comment on Tajikistan, Brown said the emphasis was on implementing the peace accord signed last year with the goal of ending the five-year civil war. She argued that only the development of a civil society in Tajikistan would overcome the divisions exacerbated by the civil war.

In Brown's view, the most understanding of the principles of a civil society were shown in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. But she argued that even here there were some "serious instances of backsliding in basic freedoms such as assembly, the media and the holding of free and fair elections." These comments also provoked protests.

Much of the debate on a civil society focused on the role of non-government organizations (NGO). The question was whether they should be strictly non-governmental and possibly hostile to the authorities or whether they should work together with the authorities to resolve issues. One speaker said that in his experience there was no point in working with an NGO unless it had contacts with the authorities and could influence decisions. He said that NGOs without contacts were "useless."

NGOs have wide-ranging interests. One may monitor the right to free speech in a given country while another keeps an eye on the environment and a third may examine the background of judges.

Some speakers recalled that in his address to the Uzbek parliament in August, President Karimov said that NGOs were among the most important vehicles for creating a civil society. But Bess Brown suggested that the Uzbek president had a false concept of what an NGO should be. She said that "as envisioned by the Uzbek president, non-governmental organizations should be a means of mobilizing various interest groups within the population to support and promote government objectives." Brown added that in Karimov's understanding, "such organizations are supposed to help the population understand that what the government does is in their best interest -- rather than to help the government understand the needs and desires of the population."

In the debate that followed, some argued that non-governmental organizations which did not work with a government could be perceived as being hostile to that government. But a Kazakh delegate and several others took the floor to argue that the fact that an NGO was opposed to the government on some particular issues did not mean that it wanted to overthrow the government.

Later in the week, the Central Asian seminar in Germany will discuss multi-party politics, security issues, and the problems of creating a climate for foreign investments.