Democracy remains a dream in Central Asia, but one that will be realized through civilian struggle according to activists who live in the region’s authoritarian regimes.
These young pro-democratic minds, however, face the risk of paying a heavy price to achieve democracy in their respective states. A good example can be seen in Kyrgyzstan, which recently switched to a hard-fought parliamentary democracy in this year’s national elections after decades of uprisings against authoritarian rulers. The switch to democracy did not come easily, with a 2010 pro-democracy protest against government corruption resulting in hundreds of people being killed or injured. The year after the incident saw the arrival of the first real democracy in Central Asia.
Media expert and blogger Gulasan Kamolova from Uzbekistan says it’s almost impossible to have a discussion about politics while the means to engage in such a conversation such as blogs are forbidden in her country. Uzbekistan was named among the enemies of the Internet by Reporters without Borders (RSF) in March, and according to Kamolova the country deserves this notorious reputation. “Being a journalist is also a challenge in Uzbekistan, since many media professionals are behind bars in the country,” said Kamolova. “The journalists are always under pressure.” Kamolova’s remarks came during a meeting organized by Democrasia, which is a Turkish civil society organization aimed at connecting young civilian democracy activists from across Europe with their counterparts in Turkey.
Although blogging websites are banned in Uzbekistan, the same country allows young people to use social media to share things like personal photos or talk about daily routine life. However, the blogging ban cannot stop ardent activists like Kamolova. The young woman blogs and shares articles via some friends in Kyrgyzstan, who publish her work online on her behalf. She says one of the people who used to have a political and religious discussion website before it was banned was followed by Uzbek authorities.
An example of Uzbekistan’s oppressive regime was seen in May 2005, when thousands of people were massacred by security officials during a protest in Andijan. Uzbek authorities initially accused radical Islamists of being behind the uprising, but later admitted that poor economic conditions and popular resentment were the cause. According to Fatih Özbay, an assistant professor at İstanbul Technical University (İTÜ), the democratization of the Central Asian states depends largely on Russia. “Unless Russia gets democratized, democratization shouldn’t be expected in Central Asia,” said Özbay during the Democrasia meeting. “When democracy arrives in Russia, the [pro-democratic] civil society can raise its voice.”
Özbay says he believes that democracy is not a commodity to import but rather a lifestyle. Showing the process that Turkey has been through as an example, he says the Central Asian states are pursuing a balanced approach when it comes to Russia, China and the US, which all have interests in the region. “There are many things for the Central Asian states to learn. Turkey has had a multi-party system for 60 years and we are still discussing getting democratized,” he said.
According to Özbay, the Central Asian states are in a dilemma because they are trying to establish and maintain stability, but this stability must give way to a period of chaos before democracy can prevail. He underscores that the states in the region are going through an extraordinary process, and therefore it is normal that they are slower at establishing democracy compared to other countries. He says civil organizations in Turkey and the Central Asian states should have more intense dialogue.
The professor argues that the issue of Central Asia takes a bottom spot on the agenda of Turkish authorities, who Özbay says, are more focused on working on relations with Latin American countries. Özbay notes Turkey cannot compete with Russia in terms of being a model for the Central Asian countries, adding Turkey lost its interest in the region in the late 1990s due to the increasing impact of Russia. “Central Asia will definitely meet with democracy,” he says, “But I don’t think it will happen anytime soon.” He added that he does not also believe that Central Asia will see a version of the Arab Spring.
Kyrgyz human rights activist and lawyer Nurbek Toktakunov says Kyrgyzstan is witnessing improvements in society, which are helping to move the country towards the establishment of democracy.
The nation had its first constitution in 1993 just two years after declaring independence from the Soviet Union. This constitution, according to Toktakunov, put the interests of the people ahead of the interests of the state. The activist says the only real political movement in Central Asia is taking place in Kyrgyzstan, where the politicians have begun to hear the voice of the people. “Our politics are seen as chaos by our totalitarian neighbors,” Toktakunov says. “I am optimistic about the future of Kyrgyzstan.”
Aizat Shakieva, a media expert from Kyrgyzstan, cites Russian interference as the most serious problem in Kyrgyzstan, which sees a dominance of Russian sources in media. He says government controls information flow and pressures traditional mass media by blocking websites and making the final decisions on the reports to be published. But unlike Uzbekistan, the Kyrgyz state is not an enemy of the Internet since bloggers are considered one of the most reliable sources according to Shakieva.
He emphasizes that social media played a trivial role in the bloody incidents in Osh and Jalal Abad, where ethnic violence killed hundreds in recent years, but it was effectively used by politicians during the most recent election campaign. However, unlike the view in the Western media, the 2010 ousting of former Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was not facilitated by social media, Shakieva says.
He underscores that democracy can only be established if the people want it. The problem in Uzbekistan is that people think that democracy is what led to bloody demonstrations and the killings of civilians in Kyrgyzstan. Speaking at the Democrasia meeting, Kyrgyz Media Expert Sergey Viktorovich said a similar situation is seen in Turkmenistan. “Nobody talks about politics there [in Turkmenistan].”