Soon after the implosion of the erstwhile Soviet Union was announced in 1991, almost all Central Asian States — five Central Asian and two trans-Caspian states– declared their independence from Soviet control.
Inexperienced in a democratic dispensation and having lived for a long first under the autocratic Khans and then under the oppressive ideology of Marxism, the people of Central Asia did not find an opportunity to wriggle out of the cocoon of the stymied mindset of the Middle Ages.
However, a line has to be drawn between the medieval regime of the Khans and the modernized lifestyle of the Soviet government. The latter pulled them out of the darkness of illiteracy and ignorance, superstition, and the slavery of feudalism.
The Soviet regime ushered in the climate and vision of modernism and the age of science and technology.
Nevertheless, tasting political freedom and democratic rights remained a distant dream. Not used to democratic practices and institutions, the erstwhile communist leaders re-christened their respective states as republics without adding the word democratic. Perhaps they did not want to risk offending the newly renamed Russian Federation.
It was a foregone conclusion that these Republics, though pretending to be independent, were not out of the sphere of influence of the Russian Federation. They had to remain glued to the Russian Federation, not for political reasons but for many other factors like economy, defense, trade and commerce, connectivity, technology, language, educational and medical system, etc.
This was lucidly explained by the former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who said,” We are bound to Russia by a thousand and one bonds.”
If the leadership of the CARs continued to remain in the hands of proselytized communists and the former Secretary Generals of the Regional Communist parties became the Presidents of the re-christened republics, it should not strike a surprise. The circumstances in which these leaders withdrew from the rather hollow Marxist universalism to regional allegiance were like history that had sucked them into its vortex.
The capitalist world was not going to leave them alone and without interference. After all, the Central Asian region retained the virginity of its natural wealth because the Soviets did not have the financial capability to invest in mega projects to benefit themselves and let the republics draw the maximum benefits.
Tajikistan’s Rogan hydroelectric power plant is the best example in this context.
The people of these republics were not conversant with the various rights that free people should enjoy. That is one of the reasons why no consequential stir for freedom was noticed for the last thirty years of independence.
However, there were bilateral disputes like those between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan or between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
Demand For Constitutional Reforms & Political Rights
But for the first time in the history of Central Asia, a strong movement demanding constitutional reforms and conceding of political and other rights of the people raised its head in Kazakhstan in January 2022.
The demonstrations were so threatening as to force the government of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to call in Russian troops under the provisions of the CSTO. The interesting point to note is that Kazakhstan is the most prosperous among all republics of Central Asia, with large deposits of oil and gas.
When the storm of opposition subsided, President Tokayev instituted a court of inquiry into the January turmoil and promised to bring necessary reforms. On June 17, 2022, President Tokayev signed a decree of constitutional amendments that limited presidential tenure to a single seven-year term and called for snap elections to be held on November 20.
He announced a slew of reforms that will have far-reaching impacts not only for the people of his country but are bound to change the entire landscape of the political arrangement of the Central Asian Republics one and all.
Distribution Of Power
In September, Tokayev instructed his officials to prepare a new reform package that further “decentralizes and distributes” power between the government, ministries, and regional heads (animats). It envisages a mixed electoral system, simplified party registration procedures, and increased regional independence.
These political and economic reforms send a positive signal to foreign investors. But to fully repair Kazakhstan’s image and economic growth, Astana needs to pursue a balanced foreign policy and increase economic cooperation with the West and East.
There is hope among Kazakhs that the reforms will continue after Tokayev is re-elected in the next presidential election. Tokayev is aware that providing economic security will help him consolidate power
. That thinking was evident in Tokayev’s September 2022 promise to raise the minimum wage by 17% and pensions by 27%.
Eye On Closer Cooperation With US & China
In his foreign policy, Tokayev pursued a balanced relationship with Russia and the US. He has refused to stand in the Ukrainian despite entreaties by Putin. He has refused to get involved in military and defense cooperation.
In an interview with a Russian TV channel in June, President Tokayev announced he would not assist Russia in circumventing sanctions. Tokayev is expected to pursue independent foreign policy, as he is not limited by “patronage” relations with Moscow like his predecessor Nazarbayev.
At the 25th Saint Petersburg Economic Forum on June 17, 2022, Tokayev emphasized that Kazakhstan will not recognize the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics as independent states.
Kazakhstan will instead bet on closer cooperation with the United States and China. The United States is one of the largest investors in the Kazakh economy, with a direct investment inflow of about US$1.9 billion in the first quarter of 2022 — nearly twice as much as the same period in 2021, said a commentator.
China was among the first foreign countries to establish commercial and technological relations with Kazakhstan. On his visit to Samarkand in September to participate in the SCO summit, Chinese President Xi first landed in Astana.
Xi’s visit showed that China is eager to strengthen relations with Kazakhstan. China has invested around $20 billion into the Kazakh economy since 1991, reflecting its position among Kazakhstan’s top five foreign investors.
Investments from China and the United States will provide a solid foundation for the further economic development of Kazakhstan.
Kazakh President’s liberal policy could become a role model for other CARs. Still, the question is whether the leadership in those countries will take a pre-emptive step towards introducing credible democratic dispensation in their countries.
It is also to be apprehended that conservatives and anti-liberalization vested interests could create problems in the path of liberal forces whom the Kazakh president wants to woo.
At the same time, the liberalization move by the Kazakh President may not be taken by China in good taste because it could stimulate the anti-Han movement among the Uyghurs. That might have been one of the purposes of Xi’s one-day halt in Astana on his way to Samarkand.
- Padma Shri KN Pandita is the former Director of the Centre of Central Asian Studies at Kashmir University. Views expressed here are of the author’s.
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