Opposition groups and figures in Central Asia face a very tough task. They are battling for a “political space” in a region where the ultimate priority for the governments is regime survival.
Simply put: Central Asian governments don’t look kindly upon challengers.
Indeed, there seems to be no opportunity for political opposition in some of the Central Asian states. But in the last half decade the world has seen challenges to entrenched authorities, for example in Burma and the Middle East, where five years ago few could have foreseen such changes taking place.
RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, organized a roundtable to examine the state of the opposition in Central Asia today, what opportunities such groups and people have to carve out a niche in politics, and the obstacles that stand in their way.
RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service Director Mohammad Tahir moderated a discussion on the topic. The panelists were Muhiddin Kabiri, the head of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan; Edil Baisalov, noted Kyrgyz political activist; John MacLeod, a senior editor at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting and noted Central Asian specialist; and myself. (Both Kabiri and Baisalov also have experience as opposition leaders and members of the government.)
To understand where Central Asia’s opposition is today, and where it might be headed tomorrow, it is necessary to remember when it all started, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, when there was a hope that Eastern Europe could prove a model for Central Asia.
MacLeod said at that time there were processes that looked similar. “I think that Central Asia had a lot in common with Eastern European and western portions of the Soviet Union at the beginning in that you had the Communist Party struggling to come to terms with the break-up and you had a kind of a broad popular movement…many of them [led by] former dissidents…”
In the first six months after the collapse of the USSR, opposition groups in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan moved quickly, perhaps too quickly, and they set the stage for the situation throughout Central Asia today.
In Uzbekistan, students, Islamic groups, and the parliament challenged President Islam Karimov. In Tajikistan, the various political forces unleashed by independence pulled the country into a civil war.
This contributed to the development of the regimes in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan where, as MacLeod explained, “the leaders of the then Communist Party effectively captured the state, they captured the agenda, they quickly rounded-up and removed the opposition either forcing them to leave the country, putting them in prison, and certainly destroying their ability to mobilize people.”
The governments in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan were more tolerant allowing political parties to register and permitting independent media but working to rein in these forces when they became a nuisance.
Until mid-1997 Tajikistan was consumed by civil war. The war ended with a deal for government to share power with the opposition it had been fighting militarily. Originally the opposition, which included secular groups but was dominated by the Islamic Renaissance Party, had 30 percent of the places in government. That percentage has dwindled gradually (and after the March 1 parliamentary elections has disappeared) and along with it the political space for Tajikistan’s opposition.
Kabiri noted, “It's very difficult now for our party to be the only [legally registered] Islamic party in the region. From one side we're trying to keep our members and followers in favor of the law; from another side we have a lot of social and economic problems produced by migration and the situation in Afghanistan.”
Kyrgyzstan was the Western democracies’ great hope to be a model for Central Asia and in some ways it still is. Despite protests twice ousting the country’s presidents, and the violence that accompanied the second ouster and subsequent ethnic clashes in the south, Kyrgyzstan remains the only Central Asian country where the political opposition has ample space to maneuver.
But is it a model other Central Asian countries can follow?
According to Baisalov, not really. “I don’t think actually that Kyrgyzstan is different because of the strength of the opposition. I see it differently; it's because of the weakness of the state,” he said.
The panelists looked at the near-term future for the opposition, keeping in mind that leadership, but not necessarily regime change is not far away as the two “old men” of the region -- Karimov and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev -- are well into their 70s and rumored to have health issues.
MacLeod predicted the change of leaders in those two countries “wouldn't lead to a sudden upsurge in democratic debate and discussion.”
Kabiri pointed out the paradox of a strong opposition in Central Asia saying, “If the opposition wants to be stronger it means that the opposition should move to the right or become more radical. But to become more radical, to move further to the right, it means that the situation will become more dangerous in the region as a whole.” He concluded: “I feel that in our situation in Central Asia it's not possible for opposition parties or groups to be stronger than they are now.”
And Kabiri gave a good reason why when comparing political change in Eastern Europe to Central Asia. “Because our area is different, surrounded by such countries as Russia, China, and Afghanistan so the priority in our region is stability and fighting against terrorism and radicalism, not human rights or democracy.”
Baisalov offered this view.“I think the future is more similar to our neighbors to the south like Afghanistan and Pakistan rather than the Eastern Europe that we wanted to have as a model,” he said.
And Baisalov indicated even within Central Asia there is an opinion that perhaps preserving the status quo is the best goal for the nearfuture. “We wish even more for ourselves for stability and security in our region because what we've seen in the past decade is [the] many lessons of the so-called Arab spring. What sort of toil and hardship and uncounted tragedies can bring some opening up of the political space in societies, which simply put are not ready?”
As one could imagine, there are many interesting and valid points in the discussion but space limitations prevent me from adding more to this text. The audio of the panel can be heard here:
* Due to the poor phone connection from Tajikistan, Kabiri’s audio is sometimes difficult to hear. What he said was important and we consider it important that the audience is aware of his full comments, therefore a text of what Kabiri said is below.
* The panel was conducted on February 26, so Kabiri was speaking before Tajik parliamentary elections were held.
Muhiddin Kabiri comments
"If I understood you right, why is it the opposition in Central Asia could not be so effective and I think that situation is the central issue, which is that the opposition cannot be effective. If the opposition would want to be more active, more effective, it would be very dangerous for at least the power regime. They consider the opposition as dangerous sources. In another case, if the opposition wants to be stronger it means that the opposition should move to the right or to become more radical. But to become more radical, to move further to the right, it means that the situation will become more dangerous in the region as a whole. That is why the opposition in Central Asia is trying to be moderate, to use the same rules, rules of game, and has failed. I feel that in our situation in Central Asia it's not possible for opposition parties or groups to be stronger than they are now."
Kabiri is asked why is it impossible for the Central Asia opposition to be active and play a prominent role?
"Because our area is different, surrounded by such countries as Russia, China and Afghanistan so the priority in our region is stability and fighting against terrorism and radicalism, not human rights or democracy. So I think the international community also understands [how] this situation is. I can say that now the priority for all of Central Asia is not democracy or human rights but stability."
How is it possible for an Islamic party to exist?
"It's very difficult now for our party to be the only Islamic party in the region. From one side we're trying to keep our members and followers in favor of law from another side we have a lot of social and economic problems produced by migration and the situation in Afghanistan. All of these factors are making especially the young people more radical so our duty, the Islamic Party, is to keep this process under control and in the meantime defend ourselves from all of this propagandistic attack against us because the situation in the Middle East, in Syria, the situation with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria makes for us a lot of problems so our opponents use this situation against us and they want to show people [that] our party is part of the global Islamic movement, radical movement. So now the situation is more difficult for us especially in this period with parliamentary elections. You know on March 1 we have parliamentary elections so our duty as the only Islamic party in the region is on the one hand to improve democratic values, and on the other side to defend against this propaganda attack."
Kabiri is asked how his party can absorb the likely loss in parliamentary elections and still remain a legitimate political force.
"You know, just two days before the elections, the question is very specific. Some people were hearing some comments that Tajikistan doesn't need such kind of opposition in parliament especially Islamic opposition. Some people think that my country is in a different situation and our post-conflict era has finished so the activity of the Islamic party as the main opposition party, which was necessary in some years after the civil war somehow it's not necessary [now] to have such kind of opposition. But I feel that if our party will be outside of parliament, which some people want, it will help radical groups especially extremist groups which are against any elections or parliamentary systems. So I think, I hope that our election will show to the people, to give them some positive or optimistic feelings that Tajikistan will be a democracy and [there will be] rule of law. But if the results of the elections are falsified, I think that pessimism will increase, it will be a more dangerous situation for the regime.
Kibiri is asked how many seats he thinks the IRP will win in the election.
"At least to have a faction in parliament, so at least five seats but now we have only two seats but when I meet the people I see we have strong supporters in our society.