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2000 In Review: Central Asia Is More Dangerous And Less Democratic

The year 2000 saw security risks grow in Central Asia while the region's commitment to democratic reform waned. The year will be remembered as one in which armed extremists proved themselves a force to reckoned with for the foreseeable future. It will also be remembered as a year when Central Asian governments' promises to move toward democracy were put to the test and found lacking. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier takes a look at Central Asia's year.

Prague, 15 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The year 2000 proved a disappointment for the five former Soviet republics of Central Asia: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

In spite of promises to move toward democracy, elections this year showed little progress has been made so far.

The security situation also deteriorated, as armed militants again invaded parts of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

This year saw the end of a cycle of presidential and parliamentary elections across the region. New elections are not expected until 2003.

During the year, Uzbeks elected a new president, Tajiks voted on a new parliament and Kyrgyz voters selected both a new president and a new legislature -- but everywhere the result was the same. Incumbents, most dating back to Soviet times, retained their positions, and showed they were willing to use all means necessary to hold onto power.

Even in Kyrgyzstan, which is often cited as the most democratic of the five, opposition parties faced numerous obstacles in registering, getting access to media and voters and keeping their leading candidates out of court. The situation was worse in the other countries.

Hrair Balian is the head of the elections department in the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. The OSCE often serves as an observer to elections in the region. Balian summed up Central Asia's elections this way.

"Those who were making progress or had made progress in the past years in terms of human rights seemed to have regressed during the elections. In all of the Central Asian countries we are seeing similar problems. The main problem being that of local officials, executive branches of government, interfering in the work of the election commissions."

Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistan-based analyst of events in Central Asia, says that the populations in the region are feeling increasingly alienated from their governments. He says that an increasing number of people, particularly in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, see their only option as going underground and taking more drastic action:

"There is no avenue for political expression in these states. Political opposition has been crushed. There is no avenue for political parties or political expression, which means everything tends to go underground. And when political opposition goes underground, it becomes radicalized. And that is what happened especially in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The opposition has gone underground and come under the influence of this huge network of mosques and madressahs (religious schools) and has become Islamicized."

The most clearly visible evidence of this new radical element is the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or IMU.

The armed group, which claims several thousand fighters, aims to overthrow Uzbekistan's government and create an Islamic state. Uzbek authorities blame the IMU leadership for setting off bombs in Tashkent in February 1999 that killed 16 people. The U.S. State Department this year put the group on its list of officially recognized terrorist organizations.

The IMU first invaded Kyrgyzstan in the summer of 1999, and returned again this year with incursions in both Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Although Uzbek and Kyrgyz soldiers effectively repelled the invaders, the incursions highlighted the vulnerability of both countries to attack.

"Fighting terrorism" this year became a focal point of the five countries' relations with Russia, which is struggling with its own Islamic separatist movement in Chechnya.

Russian President Vladimir Putin made terrorism the centerpiece of his foreign policy with Central Asia on a visit to Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan in May, shortly after being inaugurated president:

"It's no secret for anyone anymore that recently criminal attempts have been made through terrorist means to divide up the post-Soviet space. And if we don't halt this aggressive attempt, together with our Uzbek friends here in the south, we will encounter it at home."

Part of the governments' strategy to fight terrorism involved arresting suspected militants and putting them on trial. The arrests frequently drew criticism from international groups that say the arrests contravene human rights norms allowing freedom of worship.

In November, the Uzbek government ended a high-profile trial against several suspected leaders of the IMU, sentencing -- in abstentia -- two men to death and 10 others to long prison sentences.

One of those sentenced to death was Takhir Yuldash, a leader of the IMU. He says the group is not a terrorist organization but is merely defending the Islamic faith:

"The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan are not terrorists but Mujaheddin. These people took up arms to defend their religion and suffering Muslims. These goals have not changed at all. Until we achieve these goals, the leaders of this group are ready to sacrifice their lives."

Others have questioned the IMU's links to Islam and point to the group's suspected ties to illegal arms and drugs trading.

Such fervor bodes ill for future stability in Central Asia, which lacks the resources to solve basic problems and the will to make improvements in the lives of ordinary people.