Independence 25 years ago promised to bring freedom and prosperity to central Asia, but kleptocratic regimes have left many yearning for the past
he road out of Kommunizm, a small town in southern Tajikistan, is badly paved and bumpy. Like most things here it was built long ago, when the ruling ideology that gave the settlement its name was still thriving.
Home to just 7,000 inhabitants, Kommunizm was at the very edge of the Russian empire, first tsarist then Soviet; a mere 50 miles from Kunduz in northern Afghanistan.
All around the former collective farm is the once splendid iconography of the Bolshevik order. Busts of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin look on to what used to be the main square, while a trio of heroically poised Soviet archetypes have been cast to one side in a car park.
On the stage at the Palace of Youth, a building with wide white columns and a grand central hall with gilded chandeliers, a portrait of Lenin has been replaced by the gently smiling visage of Emomali Rahmon, president of Tajikistan. But apart for the omnipresent Rahmon, there is not much new in Kommunizm. Things have merely decayed.
Like the rest of Tajikistan and the four other former Soviet “Stans” – Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan – Kommunizm is marking 25 years of independence, thanks to the slow-motion collapse of the Soviet Union in the autumn of 1991. But for all the overblown rhetoric and parades across the region, the celebrations had a bittersweet tinge.
While efforts at nation building in the newly independent countries have had some success, the collapse of the planned economy and its replacement with kleptocratic regimes has meant the standard of living for most people in the region has sharply declined over the past quarter of a century.
In Kommunizm’s Palace of Youth, the paint peels from the walls, and visitors have to zigzag to avoid falling through rotten sections of the flooring. It is hard to avoid the weight of the metaphor.
The “Stans” occupy a chunk of land that has always been at the crossroads of empires: China to the east, Russia to the north, Turkey to the west, Afghanistan and India to the south.
In the 19th century, London and St Petersburg jostled over the territory in what was known as the Great Game, with the Russian and British empires just a few miles apart at points in the Pamir mountains. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the “war on terror” saw many people speak of a “new great game”, as the US moved airbases into the region to support the Afghan war effort.
But even as global powers jostled over central Asia, the region remained little known and mainly ignored, except for satire of its dictatorships and apparent backwardness – Sacha Baron Cohen’s hapless Kazakh reporter Borat, or the recent British comedy The Ambassadors, following British diplomats in (fictional) Tazbekistan. Last year, a New York Times typo saw the accidental invention of a brand new state: Kyrzbekistan.
Local intellectuals bristle at these caricatures, and point out that the region is home to many great civilisations; the ornate 10th- and 11th-century manuscripts on display at Tajikistan’s national museum are a reminder of the sophisticated societies that previously flourished here.
But it is the legacy of the Soviet Union, the most recent empire to control the lands, which is most in evidence today, from the steppe of northern Kazakhstan to the cotton fields on Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan.
Across the region, once-dazzling mosaics depicting happy nomads embracing socialism and strapping athletes bringing glory to the joint motherland are surrounded by decaying infrastructure.
In Kommunizm, as across the region, the socialist art is less about any real Soviet past, and more about the memory of an imagined happy future, now gone forever.
“We knew things were difficult then, but the party told us that tomorrow everything would be better. We knew there was a plan and in five years or 10 years it would all be better. But now we don’t know what will happen tomorrow; we’ve lost that hope,” said Medetkhan Sherimkulov, who was the Kyrgyz Soviet republic’s head of ideology in the 1980s and now teaches political science at a Bishkek university.
As a bright young communist cadre, Sherimkulov earned a philosophy PhD at Moscow State University in the 1970s, specialising in transitional societies. He planned to put his knowledge to use in the continuing mission to Sovietise central Asia, but he ended up managing a shift in the opposite direction. As speaker of the first Kyrgyz parliament, it is his signature on Kyrgyzstan’s declaration of independence, ushering into existence a country he neither wanted nor expected.
“We lived for 70 years with the Soviet Union; you can’t expect us to transition to a democracy overnight. If you try to make the transition too quickly, chaos ensues,” said Sherimkulov over tea and plov (pilaf) in a Bishkek teahouse.
“You are used to your own system, and then it changes overnight. Imagine if in England they turned it into a dictatorship overnight. You can’t transition that quickly. Democracy was hijacked by demagogues. It was spoiled, and got a bad reputation.”
In the early 1990s, Communist party bosses in the region reincarnated themselves as national leaders, stepping into the ideological vacuum with new legends and heroes, often with scant attention to historical fact. In Astana and Ashgabat, the Kazakh and Turkmen leaderships built gaudy, fantastical cities from scratch, projections of the golden ages to which their nations were purportedly headed. Lenins were replaced by billboards of smiling presidents, just as omnipresent as the Soviet leaders once were, and equally hagiographic.
In Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, it is nearly impossible to find a point in the city from which a portrait of Rahmon is not in the sightline. Here he cradles sheaves of wheat pensively, there he sips a cup of tea or wags a finger in a meeting. Most often, in the full-body shots that cover the facades of whole buildings, he strides purposefully, into a glorious Tajik future that is remarkably absent from any reality existing outside the world of the billboards.
The Turkmen president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, went even further and had a gold statue of himself erected. He has been officially styled as Arkadag, “the protector”; Rahmon is the “founder of peace and national unity”, while Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev is merely Elbasy, “leader of the nation”. There is talk of renaming the capital, Astana, in his honour.
The laws anointing the men with these titles typically also provide them and their families with immunity from prosecution, and indeed, behind the personality cults and nationalism is something more basic and venal. In all five countries, family members and close associates of the rulers have enriched themselves. Central Asia is one of the world’s most corrupt regions, but foreign businessmen and politicians have had few qualms about coddling the region’s autocrats, keen to access resources and use airbases, as foreign adventurers on the silk route once courted emirs for trading rights.
Moral clarity has been in short supply. The then British ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, was fired in 2004 after speaking out against human rights abuses in the country, perhaps the most repressive autocracy of them all.
A decade later, and Karimov was still being courted by western politicians. “Uzbekistan is an important partner in bringing peace, prosperity to central Asia. Good discussion w/ President Karimov,” secretary of state John Kerry wrote on Twitter in 2015 about a man who was accused of boiling his opponents alive. Kerry accompanied the tweet with a photograph of the two men shaking hands and smiling.
Karimov, who was the first secretary of the Uzbek Soviet republic and then Uzbekistan’s first president, died a few days short of his country’s 25th birthday. He left a legacy of poverty, forced labour and strict censorship. His death, rather than ushering in a period of openness, has merely seen one of his associates take over the reins.
Of the five countries, only in Kyrgyzstan has there been an enforced change of leadership; revolutions twice rising up to wash away corrupt rulers, one of whom fled to Moscow and another, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, to Belarus. His son Maxim made a dash to London in his private jet, with what Kyrgyz authorities allege is hundreds of millions of dollars of pilfered public money.
“I pleaded with the Americans to go after him. Putting him in an orange suit would be the best thing imaginable to happen to US-Kyrgyz relations,” said Edil Baisalov, briefly chief of staff to the interim president after the Bakiyev family was deposed in a 2010 revolution. Instead, the Americans dropped the case against him, and Bakiyev Jr is rumoured to be living comfortably in Surrey.
Kyrgyzstan’s current president, Almazbek Atambayev, has gained a reputation as an impulsive and erratic leader, and International Crisis Group’s Deirdre Tynan described the country’s politics as “perpetual low-grade chaos”. The revolution that deposed the Bakiyev clan was followed by terrible ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan, where there is a large ethnic Uzbek population. More than 400 people were killed.
The country’s violent recent past has led many to wonder whether a stable autocracy might be better than a relatively liberal state with revolutionary energy and freedom of speech.
But while applying western standards of democracy to central Asia may be naive, there is no doubt that the dictatorships have not, on the whole, brought Singapore-style prosperity. For the vast majority of citizens in the five countries, everyday life is hard work, and most are significantly worse off than during the Soviet period. The societies are still recovering from what they lost in the Soviet collapse.
“In any central Asian country, if there was a referendum on some kind of integration project that would basically be a new Soviet Union, at least two-thirds of people would vote for it,” said Parviz Mullojanov, a political analyst in Dushanbe.
In the 1970s, the city of Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan was around 50% Russian. Arsen Ambaryan, an ethnic Armenian lawyer who has lived in Osh most of his life, recalled that of the 30 children in his 1977 high-school class, about 20 were Russians. Only one of them still lives in Osh.
The rest all left during the early post-Soviet period. The Russians tended to be professionals: doctors, teachers, engineers, and their departure took a huge toll on the societies they left behind. Many professional Uzbeks, Kyrgyz and Tajiks also left for Russia, taking advantage of easy citizenship programmes in the 1990s. They left behind societies with poor healthcare and broken education systems. Grandparents tend to be better educated than their grandchildren across much of the region.
As well as lost intellectual capital, much of the industrial infrastructure also fell into decay in the years after the Soviet collapse, as it did elsewhere in the former Soviet lands, from Siberia to east Ukraine, leaving social devastation in its wake.
“Our factories were well developed and were high class by [Soviet] Union standards, but of course they couldn’t compete with European and Chinese factories. So as soon as the union collapsed, and we lost that integration and that planned economy market, everything was in trouble,” said Sherimkulov, the former party boss.
With jobs in central Asia in short supply, young men have had to migrate, usually to Russia, to do unskilled labour to send money home to sustain their families. Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have natural resources that swell the state coffers, but in the other three countries, remittances from migrant workers are what keeps the economies afloat. In Tajikistan, they account for around half of GDP.
In Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, it is hard to find a man in his 20s or 30s who has not been to Russia to work. Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, is plastered with advertisements for buses making the gruelling three-day journey across the steppe to the Russian capital. Across the region, thousands of men depart each day to Moscow and other cities across Russia, where they work in grim conditions with few labour rights, for poor salaries that are nevertheless much better than they could expect at home.
National borders wind their way through communities, frequently with no apparent logic. They are another difficult legacy from the Soviet period, designed to mark not international boundaries but internal administrative jurisdictions.
In a situation where the new nations are creating new nationalisms, minority populations excluded from national myth-making enhance the potential for unrest. In northern Kazakhstan, large communities of ethnic Russians make Kazakh authorities nervous about a potential “Crimea scenario”.
Further south, in the densely populated Fergana Valley, the wavy, overlapping borders of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are hangovers from the Soviet borders, and often appear as if drawn at random by a drunkard holding a pencil.
Particularly tricky is the presence of several exclaves – towns belonging to one country placed well inside the borders of another. The town of Sokh, for example, is part of Uzbekistan, but fully surrounded by Kyrgyzstan, and its 20,000 population are almost entirely ethnic Tajiks. Shepherds are frequently shot by border guards, while people trying to go to the next village for shopping or visiting relatives are subject to border checks and corrupt officials trying to extort bribes to allow them to cross.
But the most alarming menace lurking at the door is radical Islam. Over the centuries, central Asian societies were traditionally Islamic, though religion was repressed in the Soviet period. In the newly independent states, Islam is back, but the paranoid regimes frown on any kind of conservative Islam, even non-radical forms.
In Turkmenistan, beards have been banned and attendance at mosques discouraged; while in Tajikistan, police keep a watchlist of veiled women and men with long beards. Even in relatively liberal Kyrgyzstan, giant billboards have appeared in recent months across the country, showing women in traditional Kyrgyz dress on one side, and wearing black veils on the other, with the question posed, “Where are we headed?”
With non-violent conservative Islam frowned upon in the region, a trickle of people are moving across to violent extremism.
An Islamic State video released in 2015 purported to show dozens of young Kazakh boys receiving training and instruction at a terrorist training camp, presumably in Syria. Kazakhstan has seen two purported Isis inspired attacks this summer, including a July incident in which four police officers and one civilian were killed by gunfire in the financial capital, Almaty.
Most dramatically, the chief of Tajikistan’s Omon riot police Gulmurod Khalimov, rumoured to be a hot-shot sniper and favourite of the president, disappeared last year and resurfaced in an Isis propaganda video promising to hunt down and kill Americans.
While it is clear that there is a radicalism problem, rights activists say the governments have used the fight against extremism to go after moderates and dissenters. In Tajikistan, the Islamic Renaissance party, a moderate Islamic force calling for a secular state with religious freedoms, has been hounded into exile. Hundreds of its supporters have been rounded up and jailed.
Shabnam Khudodoydova, a Tajik woman living in Russia, also reported persecution under the guise of a crackdown on extremism. After she began to post in opposition political forums and writing that the Rahmon regime had “made slaves and sheep” out of the Tajik people, she noticed she was being followed in St Petersburg, and fled to Belarus. There she was arrested, beaten up in custody by men she believes were Tajik security agents, and held in jail for several months, before being released and fleeing to Poland.
She later discovered she had been put on the Interpol watchlist, accused of being a recruiter for Isis. “I am not a terrorist, I’m not an Islamist, I’m actually an atheist. I’ve never even believed in God,” she said by Skype from Poland.
There is now a chicken and egg situation: the governments of the region claim their repressive policies are a response to the very real threat posed by Isis and other Islamist movements.
Cynics suggest that the suffocating stranglehold on political and religious life leaves no middle ground: for those who want an escape from the confines of the regime, extremism can be the only option. “When you push out the moderate Islamic alternatives you leave more potential for people to get radicalised,” said one western diplomat based in the region.
In Kara-Suu, a town not far from Osh on the border with Uzbekistan, the imam of the local mosque, Rashot Kamalov, has been jailed for calling for an Islamic caliphate.
In a grimy teahouse not far from the town’s teeming market, Dilyar Jumabayev, a supporter of Kamalov, said the imam had not called for people to go to Syria, but merely preached about current injustices. The region, mainly made up of ethnic Uzbeks, is poor; on the road from Osh the carcasses of Soviet industrial plants lie derelict and abandoned.
Police keep a close eye on Jumabayev, and during one search of his house, he was beaten and had his front teeth kicked out. He was later sentenced to 10 months in prison for resisting arrest. “What has democracy brought us in 25 years? I was never a fan of the Soviet Union but at least people worked then. Now there is no work, the factories have closed. I am selling everything in my house including the refrigerator so that I can afford medicine,” he said.
In Osh, lawyer Khusanbay Saliyev is dealing with hundreds of cases for possession of extremist literature, and said he believed about 90% of them to be fabricated by paranoid and avaricious authorities. “There is torture and repression, and it has the opposite effect, pushing people into the arms of the radicals,” he said.
The dictatorships of central Asia are now at a crossroads. Outwardly, they appear more or less stable. Deaths of dictators, in Turkmenistan a decade ago, and this year in Uzbekistan, have led not to political change but simply to a new autocrat taking over, in what at least to outside eyes were relatively smooth processes.
All the leaders remain adept at playing off major powers for maximum benefit. “Of course, when he’s speaking to me he’ll say everything he knows I want to hear, and if he’s speaking to the Russians he’ll say everything they want to hear,” said a western diplomat about the president of the country in which he is based.
But across the region, growing populations remain in poverty, and the Russian economic crisis of the past two years has put a huge dent in remittances. Standards of healthcare and education show little sign of improving, and the systems are too stubborn and entrenched to allow for real reform.
“Even in the best case scenario, central Asia has very problematic and difficult times ahead. The economics are not working any more,” said Mullojanov, the Dushanbe-based analyst.
Seventy years of Soviet rule followed by a quarter century of autocracy have beaten out the impulse to protest from most central Asians. When revolt has erupted, it has either led to new governments following the status quo, as in Kyrgyzstan, or to violent, ruthless crackdown, as in Uzbekistan’s Andijan in 2005. Even moderate criticism can lead to jail sentences or worse.
In Kara-Suu, Jumabayev chose his words carefully, but said the direction of movement was clear: “If a civilisational form doesn’t carry out its obligations to the people, then other forms of civilisation will inevitably develop. We saw it happen with communism, which was overtaken by democracy. Now, we are seeing the same thing happen to democracy.”