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Central Asia: Is There Any Escape From Lifelong Presidencies?

Presidents Karimov (left to right), Putin, and Nazarbaev (epa) July 18, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Virtually no one in Central Asia expects radical changes from elections scheduled for later this year in Uzbekistan and neighboring Kazakhstan. Incumbent Islam Karimov is widely expected to hold on to his presidential post in Uzbekistan, and another compliant parliament is likely to emerge from voting in August to help Nursultan Nazarbaev further consolidate his presidency-for-life.

It is a familiar scenario in post-Soviet Central Asia -- with the recent exception of Kyrgyzstan. Is there any escape from presidencies-for-life in the region?

Few observers would predict that Uzbekistan will have a new president after an election scheduled for December -- or even after any future election, so long as entrenched incumbent Karimov is alive and healthy.

The current presidents of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan -- both in their late 60s -- have ruled since 1989. In nearby Turkmenistan, President Saparmurat Niyazov kept a tight grip on power for 21 years -- until his death in December. In Tajikistan, President Emomali Rahmon has dominated politics since 1992 and began a fresh seven-year term in November.

Soviet Habits Die Hard

James Nixey is the manager of London-based think tank Chatham House's Russia and Eurasia program. He calls the lifelong presidency a Soviet legacy.

"The main reason for lifelong presidencies is probably due to the fact that we are looking at not so much a post-Soviet generation of politicians here -- we are looking at people who grew up under the Communist Party, under the Soviet Union," Nixey says. "And the inclination or instinct is to do exactly what the Soviet leaders did, with the exception of [Nikita] Khrushchev -- and even [Krushchev's exit] wasn't out of choice -- which was to rule until they die."

Some of Central Asia's voters clearly regard their respective president as a guarantor of stability and peace. Others are faced with no viable alternatives to the current leaders.

During the last election campaign in Tajikistan, many voters said they had never even heard of any of incumbent Rahmon's four challengers.

Keeping A Lid On Competition

Rahmatullo Valiev, the deputy leader of Tajikistan's Democratic Party, dismisses the idea that there are no reasonably alternatives to presidents in the region. Valiev tells RFE/RL that authorities in Central Asia provide potential contenders with no opportunity, dismantling the opposition and eliminating any possible political threat.

"What kind of nation it would be if there were no one among 7, 10, or 15 million people who was capable of holding the presidency -- apart from just that one person," Valiev says. "What it means is that the government has opted for flawed policies and there is no opportunity for new people to enter [the political scene]."

Valiev says Central Asia's leaders are denying an entire generation the chance to try and serve their countries.

...In Ruthless Fashion

Michael Hall, the director of the International Crisis Group's Central Asia project, tells RFE/RL from southern Kyrgyzstan (Osh) that in some countries -- especially Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan -- the fear of possible retaliation keeps many opposition politicians from daring to challenge incumbents.

When political opposition was at its post-Soviet peak in the region in the 1990s, the region's governments responded ruthlessly with criminal prosecutions or worse. In some cases, unsuccessful presidential challengers felt sufficiently persecuted to go into foreign exile. Uzbek opposition leader Muhammad Solih's departure did not end his nightmare -- two of his brothers were sentenced to lengthy prison terms on what rights groups called politically motivated charges. The brother of Tajik oppositionist-in-exile Abdumalik Abdullojonov was sentenced to death and subsequently executed after a case that followed a narcotics-possession arrest.

Prominent opposition leaders have frequently been thrown in prison, disappeared, or turned up dead in Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, as well.

Role Models, For Better Or Worse

It is tempting to say that political suppression, fear factors, and other strong-arm tactics have paid off handsomely for Central Asia's autocrats. But will they really get away with presidencies-for-life?

Experts and politicians offer mixed views.

Edil Baisalov, an independent political analyst in Bishkek, says he cannot see a way out of the situation anytime soon. Baisalov cites two contributing factors to lifelong presidencies in the region. First, he says Western governments have supported Central Asian leaders for the sake of counterterrorism as well as the region's vast energy resources. Moreover, he says, influential players like Russia and China do not question Central Asian leaders' long tenures in power.

"With the American influence on the fall and Europe not [being] an important player in Central Asia, I think China and Russia -- and, naturally, the local leaders -- are not very much interested in keeping in line with constitutions," Baisalov says.

Political opponents in the region tell RFE/RL that events in Russia might also hearten opponents of electoral transfers of power at the top. They say that if Russian President Vladimir Putin -- who was himself hand-picked by his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin -- manages to stay in power beyond the end of his second term in 2008, it will embolden antidemocratic forces.

But Chatham House's Nixey also offers a less gloomy assessment. He says there is a way out of the cul-de-sac of lifelong presidencies. He says Central Asia's younger, post-Soviet generation -- and particularly those who have studied or lived in Western democracies -- are certain to question the current systems.

RFE/RL Central Asia Report

RFE/RL Central Asia Report

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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.