Central Asia's Crisis of Governance

A Turkmen woman and a man cast their ballots at a polling station in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan on December 5, 2010. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)
A Turkmen woman and a man cast their ballots at a polling station in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan on December 5, 2010. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Since emerging as independent states from the ruins of the Soviet Union 20 years ago, the five Central Asian nations of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan have struggled with the fundamental question of statehood: how to govern their societies fairly and effectively. A new Asia Society report, Central Asia's Crisis of Governance, addresses critical governance and stability challenges in a region marred by staggering amounts of corruption, human rights abuses, conflict, and civil unrest. Written by Bernard Schwartz Fellow Philip Shishkin, with advisement from current and former senior government officials, experts/scholars, and journalists from the United States and Central Asia, the report assesses the pan-regional trends and political risks in Central Asia.

Though distinctly different, what all five countries have in common is the authoritarian model of government embraced by the region immediately upon independence. In the early 1990s, well-placed Communist party bosses grabbed the reins of power across Central Asia. And now, two decades later, three out of five of those bosses remain in power with no clear succession plans in sight. The other two, in Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan, departed the scene — due to death for the former and a revolution for the latter — but both were replaced by new dictators. As evidenced by recent events in the Middle East and Northern Africa — and by Central Asia's own roller coaster of revolutions in Kyrgyzstan — seemingly unassailable dictatorships can crumble quickly, with unpredictable consequences.

Home to some 50 million people and vast natural resources, Central Asia also occupies a strategically important neighborhood: to the east lies China, where the country's growing economic and geopolitical gravity is pulling the region into its orbit; to the north lies Russia and its newly assertive foreign policy, which seeks to reclaim its economic and strategic supremacy in its old Central Asian dominion; and to the south lies Afghanistan, where the West has spent nearly a decade waging war and where the military campaign has thrust the United States, and to a lesser extent Western Europe, deep into Central Asian affairs.

Within this geopolitical context, Shishkin concludes that the “region faces a series of internal and external pressures that will make the region a source of volatility and geopolitical tussles in the years to come. There is potential for protests and civil strife … that is a risk compounded by a general lack of economic development.”