Tracing the Pathways of Autocracy and Authoritarianism across Central Asia

A rally on the main square of Bishkek. Photo: Omurali Toichiev.

Valev, Radoslav. (2024). “Tracing the Pathways of Autocracy and Authoritarianism across Central Asia.” European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). July 10, 2024. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0058

 

The fourteenth event in ECPS’s monthly Mapping Global Populism (MGP) panel series, titled “Tracing the Pathways of Autocracy and Authoritarianism Across Central Asia,” convened online on June 20, 2024. This event delved into the evolving autocratic political landscape of Central Asian countries. Moderated by Dr. David Lewis, a respected professor of Politics at the University of Exeter, the panel featured insightful presentations that dissected various aspects of autocracy and authoritarianism from multiple disciplinary perspectives.

Report by Radoslav Valev

In a comprehensive examination of Central Asia’s political landscape, the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS) hosted the fourteenth and final event of its academic year in the monthly Mapping Global Populism (MGP) panel series. Titled “Tracing the Pathways of Autocracy and Authoritarianism Across Central Asia,” this online event convened on June 20, 2024, bringing together a distinguished panel of scholars to discuss the region’s evolving dynamics. Moderated by Dr. David Lewis, a respected professor of Politics at the University of Exeter, the panel featured insightful presentations that dissected various aspects of autocracy and authoritarianism from multiple disciplinary perspectives.

Dr. Lewis set the stage by reflecting on the evolving discourse around authoritarianism and democracy in Central Asia. He noted the increasing complexity of political systems influenced by populism and regional dynamics, underscoring the shift in international engagement shaped by geopolitical factors rather than clear democratic promotion strategies. Dr. Lewis emphasized the importance of understanding the nuanced aspects of authoritarian regimes, including informal economics, clan politics, and power struggles, beyond mere repression.

The subsequent presentations offered deep dives into specific manifestations of autocracy in the region. Dr. Aksana Ismailbekova, a Postdoctoral Researcher at Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient, analyzed Sadyr Japarov’s rise to power in Kyrgyzstan, attributing his sustained popularity to his portrayal as a "man of the people" and his strategic adaptation to different cultural contexts despite authoritarian measures. Dr. Dinissa Duvanova, Associate Professor at Lehigh University, examined Kazakhstan’s shift towards populism under President Tokayev, arguing that it is a strategic adaptation to maintain autocratic rule by balancing elite interests with popular demands. Oguljamal Yazliyeva, a Ph.D. researcher at Charles University, explored how Turkmenistan’s autocratic system, influenced by Soviet legacy and tribal traditions, cultivates a personality cult around its leaders through controlled media and traditional respect for authority.

Although one of the speakers, Dr. Diana T. Kudaibergen(ova), could not join due to connectivity issues, the panel provided a rich exploration of Central Asian political systems. Dr. Lewis concluded by highlighting the value of this nuanced approach to understanding governance in the region, moving beyond simplistic binaries of democracy and autocracy, and expressed enthusiasm for the ongoing research in this complex field.

Moving Beyond Simplistic Binaries of Democracy and Autocracy 

Dr. David Lewis, the moderator of the panel, gave an overview of the context of the topic of the panel. He began by reflecting on the evolution of discourse surrounding authoritarianism, democracy, and liberal values in Central Asia over the past two decades. Initially, in the early 21st century, liberal democracy was seen as the dominant global paradigm, but this has been increasingly challenged. The rise of populism in Western democracies and a more nuanced understanding of political systems in regions like Central Asia have contributed to a more complex view of authoritarianism and democracy.

Dr. Lewis noted that populism, once associated with revolutionary movements, is now also prevalent in regime politics and authoritarian systems. He highlighted the shift in international engagement with Central Asia, often driven by geopolitical factors rather than a clear strategy for promoting democracy. Dr. Lewis emphasized the importance of understanding the complexities of authoritarian regimes beyond simple repression. This includes examining informal economics, clan politics, regional dynamics, and power struggles that persist even in non-democratic systems.

He remarked that the new generation of political scientists in Central Asia is providing more nuanced insights into these political systems, contributing to a more complex body of literature on the topic. Dr. Lewis concluded by expressing enthusiasm for the panel’s focus on this subject, seeing it as an opportunity to explore the latest research on Central Asian political systems. He emphasized the value of this more intricate approach to understanding governance in the region, moving beyond simplistic binaries of democracy and autocracy.

Dr. Aksana Ismailbekova: “Clean Politics: Kyrgyzstan between Informal Governance and Democracy”

Dr. Aksana Ismailbekova discussed Sadyr Japarov’s rise to power in Kyrgyzstan following the October 2020 revolution. She began by arguing that despite implementing authoritarian measures, Japarov has maintained popularity by portraying himself as a “man of the people” and leveraging his personal history of suffering and injustice. Japarov has demonstrated a talent for speaking the language of local people and using simple language that resonates with them. Dr. Ismailbekova argued that Japarov’s success lies in his ability to wear “several hats” simultaneously. He presents himself as a simple man, a Native Son, while proposing authoritarian power.

The presentation by Dr. Aksana Ismailbekova discussed Sadyr Japarov’s rise to power in Kyrgyzstan following the October 2020 revolution. She began by arguing that despite implementing authoritarian measures, Japarov has maintained popularity by portraying himself as a "man of the people" and leveraging his personal history of suffering and injustice. Kyrgyzstan has experienced three revolutions in recent history (2005, 2010, and 2020), driven by public dissatisfaction with government corruption, fraudulent elections, and mismanagement. The 2020 revolution, sparked by the mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic, led to the overthrow of President Jeenbekov and the rise of Japarov to power.

According to Dr. Ismailbekova, Japarov, who was released from prison during the 2020 protests, quickly seized the opportunity to become acting president and prime minister. He criticized previous leaders for corruption and mismanagement while promising justice. However, he soon began consolidating power by amending the constitution to increase presidential authority, restricting media freedom, and taking control of the judiciary and foreign policy. Dr. Ismailbekova attributed this to Japarov’s ability to mobilize mass support by playing on emotions and using strategies of kinship. His personal suffering and tragic life story have become key elements in his political narrative, allowing many Kyrgyz citizens to identify with him.

Japarov’s biography plays a crucial role in his political appeal. In 2013, he organized protests to nationalize a gold company, leading to criminal charges and forcing him into exile. He often refers to this experience, claiming to understand the hardships faced by millions of Kyrgyz migrants, primarily in Russia. Dr. Ismailbekova emphasized how Japarov has become an "embodiment of injustice" in Kyrgyzstan. His attempted suicide in prison, which he claimed was a protest against the corrupt court system, resonated with many citizens. Furthermore, Japarov’s personal tragedies, such as losing his son and parents while in prison, have garnered sympathy and support from the public.

Dr. Ismailbekova underscored that Japarov’s suffering has been translated into political capital. He is perceived as more relatable than other candidates, someone who has experienced the injustices of the system firsthand. This narrative of suffering has been cultivated as a necessary virtue for being a good president. Dr. Ismailbekova noted that Japarov has positioned himself as the "hope of the nation" in a failed democracy. This narrative has been well-received by many of his constituents.

Interestingly, since Japarov became president, historians have begun searching for his ancestors to legitimize his right to lead Kyrgyzstan. Some claim that Japarov is a direct descendant of the Khans (a title historically given to rulers and military leaders in Central Asia), suggesting that the search for justice is "in his blood." Dr. Ismailbekova highlighted how Japarov adapts his image to different situations. For example, when visiting southern Kyrgyzstan, he wore the hat of Iskhak Razzakov, the first Secretary of the Communist Party of Kyrgyzstan, appealing to villagers and relatives by claiming to continue Razzakov’s mission.

Japarov has demonstrated a talent for speaking the language of local people and using simple language that resonates with them. Dr. Ismailbekova argued that Japarov’s success lies in his ability to wear "several hats" simultaneously. He presents himself as a simple man, a Native Son, while proposing authoritarian power. 

The international media has taken notice of Japarov’s rise to power, with many articles focusing on his journey "from prison to presidency." This narrative reinforces his image as someone who has overcome adversity. 

In conclusion, Dr. Ismailbekova suggested that the popularity of Japarov stems from citizens’ identification with his tragic life story and his ability to tap into the emotional experiences of the Kyrgyz people. Japarov’s political strategy involves constantly referring to his personal history, particularly during elections. Dr. Ismailbekova concluded that Japarov’s approach has maintained his popularity. His ability to understand cultural nuances and to present himself as one of the people have been key to his success. 

Dr. Dinissa Duvanova: “Autocracy’s Past and Present in Kazakhstan”

Dr. Dinissa Duvanova argued that the seeming populist pivot in Kazakhstan is better understood as a strategic adaptation within a stable autocratic framework. The balance between elite interests and popular demands, mediated through regulatory constraints and economic management, continues to define the country’s political landscape. The increase in state capacity and regulatory oversight, influenced by economic conditions, highlights the nuanced strategies employed by the regime to maintain its authority.

Dr. Dinissa Duvanova began her presentation by stating that in Kazakhstan, the link between the autocratic nature of its political regime and populism appears tenuous compared to other cases. After the January 2022 protests, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev addressed the joint session of the Senate and Mazhilis (The Lower House of the Parliament in Kazakhstan) via a Zoom call. In his speech on January 11, 2022, he criticized powerful elites and profitable companies in Kazakhstan, suggesting it was time they paid their dues to the people. Tokayev proposed establishing a National Fund to collect these debts and redistribute them to the population. Dr. Duvanova suggested that this can be seen as a potential shift towards a populist style of governance, though it may also reflect a continuation of established strategies to maintain autocratic stability.

Following the protests, Tokayev initiated a crackdown on elite leaders behind the unrest, leading to the imprisonment and asset seizure of key figures. However, the extent of asset seizures varied significantly; for instance, only a small fraction of the estimated wealth of members of former President Nazarbayev’s family was confiscated. This indicates that while there was a response to popular demands, it may not represent a deep-rooted commitment to populism but rather a tactical move within a broader autocratic framework.

Dr. Duvanova added that in her research, detailed in her book "Thieves, Opportunists, and Autocrats," she argued that what appears as a populist pivot in Kazakhstan is actually another iteration of maintaining stable autocratic power perfected during Nazarbayev’s era. This involves strengthening and institutionalizing authoritarian state mechanisms, balancing elite interests with those of the masses. This balance is crucial for autocrats to sustain their rule, ensuring both elite support and popular acquiescence.

Moreover, Dr. Duvanova argued that one way to think about state-building by autocrats is the need to balance the particularistic demands of elites with the promotion of collective goods. Neglecting the latter can lead to economic decline, intensifying competition for rents and destabilizing the regime. Therefore, autocrats must invest in economic performance, benefiting the national economy and, by extension, the populace.

A notable quote from Tokayev’s January 11, 2024 speech highlights this balancing act: "For my friends, everything; for my enemies, the law." This saying, originally attributed to Latin American politician Oscar Benavides, encapsulates the Kazakh autocracy‘s approach to governance, rewarding loyal elites while maintaining a facade of legal accountability for others.

The concept of a regulatory authoritarian state, which Dr. Duvanova explored in her research, involves the systematic construction of formal regulatory constraints on state agencies. These constraints ensure more predictable and accountable bureaucratic behavior. Data from Kazakhstan show a significant increase in formal regulatory constraints since the mid-2000s, driven primarily by ministerial orders rather than legislative statutes. This regulatory expansion corresponds with fluctuations in oil revenues, with more stringent regulations emerging during times of declining oil rents and vice versa.

Popular protests, such as those in January 2022, often prompt autocrats to streamline state institutions to improve responsiveness and effectiveness. Additionally, declining resources necessitate a focus on enhancing economic performance to maintain regime stability. The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, leading to rising oil prices, provided Kazakhstan with increased resources, potentially alleviating some pressures to pursue populist policies aggressively.

Dr. Duvanova’s quantitative research demonstrates that in times of economic difficulty, characterized by declining state resources, there is an increase in regulatory oversight to curb bureaucratic opportunism. Overall, Kazakhstan has emerged as a high-capacity autocracy, evidenced by its regulatory quality and state capacity ratings. This increase in state capacity has occurred alongside systemic corruption and favoritism towards regime associates. Despite the heavy-handed use of regulations to manage economic activity, these regulations are often biased towards private interests.

The signs of liberalization under Tokayev can also be seen as the rise of digital authoritarianism, with increased digitalization of state services improving efficiency and state capacity. However, there is little evidence of reliance on transparency, public accountability, and oversight, as restrictions on press freedom and an independent judiciary persist.

In conclusion, Dr. Duvanova argued that the seeming populist pivot in Kazakhstan is better understood as a strategic adaptation within a stable autocratic framework. The balance between elite interests and popular demands, mediated through regulatory constraints and economic management, continues to define the country’s political landscape. The increase in state capacity and regulatory oversight, influenced by economic conditions, highlights the nuanced strategies employed by the regime to maintain its authority.

Oguljamal Yazliyeva: “Autocracy in Turkmenistan and the Role of Media in Cultivating Personality Cult”

Oguljamal Yazliyeva argued that Turkmenistan’s autocratic system is deeply entrenched, supported by a tightly controlled media apparatus that perpetuates a strong personality cult. The government’s use of historical tribal traditions recycled Soviet methods, and modern media techniques has created a robust system of authoritarian control. While this system appears stable, the lack of alternative media and independent information sources poses significant challenges for potential democratic development in the country.

Oguljamal Yazliyeva began her presentation by stating that Turkmenistan’s autocratic system and the role of media in cultivating a personality cult is a complex topic that intertwines historical, political, and cultural elements. The country, one of the five Central Asian republics, gained independence in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Since then, it has developed into one of the most isolated nations in the region, with a political system characterized by authoritarianism and a strong personality cult surrounding its leaders.

Yazliyeva argued that the foundations of Turkmenistan’s current political culture can be traced back to two main sources: the recycling of the Soviet system and the historical tribal traditions of the Turkmen people. The first president of independent Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov, promised to develop the country towards democracy but emphasized that it would be a step-by-step process. In reality, this approach led to the state maintaining control over every aspect of life, including the media system.

The Turkmen government has utilized various strategies to legitimize its power and consolidate its authoritarian rule. One such method is the use of national symbols, such as the five patterns on the Turkmen flag representing the country’s five provinces. This symbolism serves to connect the current political system with the tribal history of the Turkmen people.

Yazliyeva also importantly noted that the media plays a crucial role in strengthening and consolidating the authoritarian regime in Turkmenistan. All media channels, including television, radio, print media, and the internet, are under strict state control. The constitution of Turkmenistan nominally guarantees freedom of speech and prohibits censorship, but in practice, the government exercises complete control over all media outlets.

Television remains a significant platform for the government to disseminate information about its policies. A survey conducted by Yazliyeva among Turkmen people revealed that more than 25% of media consumption is through television. Interestingly, over 50% of respondents prefer Russian-language media, which the government also uses to spread its message.

The Turkmen government employs the media to create a cult of personality around its leaders. This is particularly evident in the use of specific epithets and phrases to glorify the president, such as "Father of the Nation, be healthy." In news broadcasts, these glorifying phrases are repeated multiple times, even in short reports about mundane events like sports.

According to Yazliyeva, the media landscape in Turkmenistan is characterized by repression, propaganda, and suppression. Academic literature on the subject is limited, but existing studies describe a system where all media channels are under state control. Even the single platform considered "private" was launched under government leadership and remains under strict official control.

Yazliyeva  added that the government uses media to consolidate its power through various means. One strategy involves broadcasting content that instills fear in the population. For example, television shows often depict the wrongdoings and subsequent imprisonment of individuals who deviate from government policy. Another tactic involves showcasing acts of extreme deference to the leader, such as hand-kissing or bowing, which are not traditional in Turkmen culture.

Yazliyeva underscored that the personality cult surrounding Turkmenistan’s leaders is a central feature of the country’s political culture. This phenomenon takes root in the historical tribal conditions, the legacy of Soviet communist control, and the idiosyncratic personality of the state leaders. The media consistently promotes the key role of the state leader in Turkmen society by glorifying them on various platforms.

Interestingly, Yazliyeva argued that the consolidation of this authoritarian regime is not solely the work of the political elite. Ordinary citizens also participate in and accept this system, partly due to traditional respect for patriarchal structures and tribal kinship. This acceptance makes it easier for the government to maintain its grip on power.

The development of Turkmenistan’s political system and media landscape since independence has resulted in a unique model of political culture. This model, based on authoritarianism and one-man rule, has played a significant role in building and maintaining the cult of personality around the country’s leaders, from the first president Saparmurat Niyazov to his son and current president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov.

In conclusion, Yazliyeva argued that Turkmenistan’s autocratic system is deeply entrenched, supported by a tightly controlled media apparatus that perpetuates a strong personality cult. The government’s use of historical tribal traditions recycled Soviet methods, and modern media techniques has created a robust system of authoritarian control. While this system appears stable, the lack of alternative media and independent information sources poses significant challenges for potential democratic development in the country. As such, the introduction of alternative media could be crucial in providing Turkmen citizens with diverse perspectives and information about their country and the world at large.

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