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Caucasus/Central Asia: Report Calls Western Approach 'Too Arrogant'

  • Ben Partridge



In the second story of a two-part series, RFE/RL's Ben Partridge looks at the conclusions of a new academic study on the West's involvement in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Here Partridge looks at reasons why the region has proved more resistant to Western-style economic and political reforms than had been forecasted.

London, 2 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- In a recent study on Western engagement in the Caucasus and Central Asia, Oxford professor Neil MacFarlane says initial confidence that the region would swiftly embrace democracy and market reforms was misplaced. In hindsight, it seems to reflect Western arrogance and a failure to understand the region's cultural traditions and Soviet legacy.

The three Caucasus countries -- Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia -- and five Central Asian nations -- Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan -- have been bombarded by advice from Western governments, agencies and commercial interests.

The Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is just one of many agencies seeking to help the transition to free markets and democracy, says spokeswoman Melissa Fleming. "We do try to steer these countries on the course of democratic development. But that's very general. We also tailor each of our missions or offices specifically to the needs of the country." However, the study by MacFarlane, a professor of international relations at Oxford, finds the result of all the efforts -- from a western perspective -- has been disappointing.

He says it "has become clear that there is significant resistance to many aspects of the Western agenda." He says the politics of the region "remain far short of consolidated democracy." Political parties and legislatures remain weak. Structures of power tend to be personalistic. Judicial structures remain arbitrary and often used for political purposes. Human rights are frequently violated.

The situation varies from country to country. At the low end is Turkmenistan, where there have been no elections judged free and fair by observers. At the other end is Georgia, which has had two sets of free elections, and where there is a diverse party structure.

Still, most of the region has failed to adopt Western-style modes of governance and economic management, and is trailing far behind the Central European countries in adopting effective reforms.

Why is this? MacFarlane says the political and cultural habits of the Central Asian and Caucasus countries have proved resiliant to the Western liberalizing challenge. He also says Western hopes of a rapid implementation of political and economic changes has proved to be too optimistic in what he calls "weak and poorly consolidated states." He notes that the region is "not particularly fertile ground for the liberal agenda."

The region's capacity to respond to the Western political and economic agenda is constrained by an absence of any historically rooted tradition of civil society and democratic governance. This has been reinforced by the Soviet legacy, which was one of hostility to independent associations with political and social agendas.

The Soviet era also produced a profound indifference -- if not cynicism about -- the state and political engagement. Politics was not something you did; it was something other people did to you.

The region's population has not been engaged in politics and, consequently, evinces little, if any, sense of political obligation.

When coupled with the disillusionment and chaos that have characterized the post-Soviet era in much of the region, these attitudes have contributed to a widespread popular deference to strong leadership. To the extent a leader and his circle provides a modicum of order, the population has tended to support them.

This phenomenon appears to be particularly strong in those Caucasian societies that have experienced civil conflict -- in Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia or south Ossetia. This has certainly been true of Georgia (outside minority areas) and Azerbaijan.

Melissa Fleming, of OSCE, says these societies need international mediation in order to help them cope with tense situations. "Some of these countries like Georgia are in a situation of post-conflict, still unresolved, similarly in Moldova, in Armenia and Azerbaijan, and in Tajikistan. These countries need international mediation, and they need to be pushed towards a political settlement of their conflicts, so they can be resolved, and so that finally they can put more effort into democratic development and economic development which they are all striving for." But many in the region still feel the state should play the main role in economic life. One study in the mid-1990s found that 50 percent of Uzbeks and 48 percent of Kazakhs believed that the state should control the economy. Many also feel authoritarianism is a better guarantor of stability. One Kazakh specialist suggested "In Kazakhstan, we want a little democracy, but not too much."

The construction of civil society has been problematic because people have little experience of working together for common purposes and no tradition of volunteerism. This again is a Soviet legacy: personal associations were limited to those one could trust.

Politics in the Soviet era did little to foster the tolerance of alternative perspectives that are necessary for the effective functioning of a pluralist democracy. Anyone who put forward an alternative agenda in Soviet times ran the risk of persecution.

Since most post-communist governments in the Caucasus and Central Asia comprise members of ex-communist political elites, they do not encourage tolerance of alternative perspectives. And, in the post-Soviet era, where movements that grew up in opposition to communism moved into positions of power (as in Georgia in 1991-92), they often proved to be as intolerant as were their predecessors.

The study finds that the degree of ethnic diversity within a state affects the development of the democratic process. This is particularly true of states that have experienced ethnically defined civil wars (such as Georgia and Azerbaijan).

To the extent that civil society groups have developed at all, they tend to draw their members from particular ethnic groups, rather than crossing ethnic lines. Minority social movements and political parties are generally seen as divisive by the region's governments.

Western consultants have emphasized the importance of the rule of law, or the notion that human behavior is subject to external constraint, and the consequent limitation of the arbitrary exercise of power. But there is resistance to this notion, too.

Why is this? In the Soviet era, people had little reason to view institutions that defined the law as legitimate. Therefore they felt little obligation to obey the law. This disdain for the law extended into economics, where party elites exploited state assets for personal gain.

This was particularly true of the Central Asian and Caucasus nations where leaders took advantage of their position to enrich themselves, their family and patronage networks. The study says: "In the post-Soviet era, this has continued to varying degrees."

In conclusion, the study says that the cultural and political inheritance of the Caucasus and Central Asian states is a barrier to democratization, but it is by no means insurmountable. It also says it will take a long time for the West to understand the region.

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