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Central Asia: Leaders Show No Signs Of Retiring

  • Bruce Pannier

Prague, 11 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- None of the five Central Asian leaders shows any sign of retiring from political life soon.

Though all five claim to be taking their countries down their own unique path to democracy, all rely on the same tactics to stay in office.

To weaken political opponents, leaders in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan have moved elections forward and have modified the constitution when necessary.

In addition, leaders in Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have called referendums to bypass elections altogether.

But while the efforts may have led to temporary stability, the five -- Kazakhstan's Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kyrgyzstan's Askar Akayev, Tajikistan's Imomali Rakhmonov, Turkmenistan's Saparmurat Niyazov and Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov -- could face growing instability. Factors contributing to this include a lack of legitimacy, perceptions of falling living standards and growing tribalism and regionalism.

None of the five are "founding fathers" in a traditional sense. Their countries did not become independent through revolution and no one rallied around them. In fact, the opposite is true. Independence happened almost unexpectedly, and most of the current leaders were opposed to the breakup of the Soviet Union that led to national independence for their countries.

Independence gave the indigenous peoples the opportunity to re-acquaint themselves with traditional religions and native languages. The leaders even promoted the return to national roots. But as the state-subsidized infrastructure of the Soviet-era decayed, these cultural gains were gradually wiped out by perceptions of falling living standards. The failure is underscored by the fact that the countries have rich natural resources, including natural gas, oil, gold and other precious metals.

All five leaders have held opposition and dissent to a minimum. The elections in Kazakhstan last month were a classic example of this. Nazarbayev's most serious challenger was excluded from participating by court decision. But even if the challenger had been allowed to run, he would probably not have won. As in the other four Central Asian countries, the dominance of the current leaders means that there are no clear candidates to assume the highest office.

Still more potentially fateful, some of these presidents are promoting the kind of tribalism and regionalism that may make it impossible for anyone to govern after they leave the scene.

For example, Turkmenistan's President Saparmurat Niyazov announced at the end of last year that no one from the Yomut clan should succeed him as president. For better or worse, the Yomuts are in charge of Turkmenistan's oil industry. Will the Yomuts be willing to stay out of power in a post-Niyazov Turkmenistan with no guarantees they can hold what they have now?

North-South regionalism exists in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan has rivalries between the major cities, Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara, and also with the people of the populous Fergana Valley. And all of these splits could divide these countries after the current rulers leave.

By clinging to power, these five presidents create an awesome burden for themselves. But even if they succeed in improving the lives of their own population, there will be no guarantee that their departure will not throw the countries into chaos. And if that happens, it is unlikely that historians or the Central Asian populations will remember them with any particular fondness.