For centuries, the Central Asian expanse has been characterized by a wide variety of ethnicities, cultures and traditions. Yet despite all their diversity, after the end of the Soviet Union the countries have all produced systems of government that are similar in their autocratic tendencies. Why and what can be expected for the future of these peoples?
Hardly any other region in the world is as diverse as the Central Asian countries of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. The region is characterized by different religions, landscapes, cultures and ethnic groups whose history goes back at least a millennium before Christ. Yet all Central Asian countries are alike in their tendency toward authoritarian regimes. Nevertheless, all five countries are in the vicious circle of authoritarian regimes that intervene in the lives of their citizens through various tools of repression.
Different theories emphasize different factors for the persistence of au-toritarianism in Central Asia. For example, none of the countries has produced democratic traditions in its history, and none has ever bordered democratic states from which to learn. Of the Mongols, Arabs, Persians, and Tsarist Russia, no occupying power ever aspired to change this. Likewise, the Soviets suppressed any democratic aspirations, such as the Kazakh Alash Orda movement, in the bud. None of the countries had ever developed effective institutional systems, such as an independent judicial system or protection of private property, that traditionally underpin democratic development. Likewise, a vibrant middle class to drive democratization has long been lacking. Instead, traditional clans still dominate today, and they still feel connected to the wild life as horsemen in the vast steppe.
In addition, some of the countries are rich in gold, natural gas or oil. The regimes use these riches to bind the population to them by means of free housing, electricity or gas – or huge shopping malls. The regimes of Central Asia show remarkable political longevity. They maintain close relations with other authoritarian regimes such as China and Russia – and all too often succeed in playing them off against each other. But the countries are also heading for turbulent times as their autocrats age and hand over power to a younger generation.