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Rights, Freedoms Are Victims Of Central Asian Economic Crisis

Central Asian leaders
Central Asian leaders

Freedom House just released its annual Nations In Transit (NIT) report, an indispensable look at the human rights situation in 29 countries, including all five Central Asian states.

The annual survey has a ranking system to help track governments’ progress, or regress, in respecting basic rights and freedoms.

While two Central Asian countries -- Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan -- have regularly been ranked at the bottom of the list, this year’s NIT report saw Kazakhstan, and particularly Tajikistan, drop in the rankings.

To find out more about the report and how Freedom House reached this year’s ratings for the Central Asian states, RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service (known locally as Azatlyk), assembled a Majlis, or panel, to discuss the findings in this latest NIT.

The Majlis

Moderating the discussion was Azatlyk Director Muhammad Tahir. Nate Schenkkan, the project director for NIT, joined from Washington. Edward Lemon of Exeter University, and also the author of this year’s report on Tajikistan, participated from London. And since I’ve written a few of these reports myself, I chipped in with a few comments.

Schenkkan started the discussion by saying, “A lot of observers of Central Asia have been saying since the oil price started dropping and since the sanctions got really serious on Russia that there would be really dire consequences in Central Asia and increasingly in 2015 and now in 2016 I think that's what we're seeing.”

Lemon explained what happened in Tajikistan that caused that country to have one of the steepest declines in the NIT ratings in 2016 compared to 2015. “On the one hand you've got this crackdown on political parties, you've got the arrest of various lawyers, including the most prominent human rights lawyers who've been defending people, representatives of the [opposition] IRPT (Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan), representatives of Group 24, another leading opposition movement whose leader was assassinated in Istanbul in March [2015].”

Lemon continued that this has been accompanied by “the strengthening of [Tajik President Emomali] Rahmon's own position, including Rahmon becoming this 'leader of the nation' and 'originator of peace,' this new national holiday, this real cult of personality emerging around Rahmon.” “You've really seen quite a dramatic shift in the human rights situation in the country last year," Lemon said.

Drastically reduced revenues from hydrocarbon exports have hit Kazakhstan hard. The national currency -- the tenge -- lost half its value between July 2015 and January 2016.

Unfair Elections

Schenkkan noted: “In Kazakhstan you had in 2015 and have had in 2016 again, the staging of these facade elections that are more about revalidating the existing government than they are about any kind of actual accountability or input from the citizenry into policy process.”

Kazakhstan’s early presidential election in April 2015 and early parliamentary elections in March 2016 saw overwhelming victories for President Nursultan Nazarbaev and his ruling Nur-Otan party. Many observers felt Nazarbaev wanted the elections over before the full impact of the economic crisis hit the country and potentially the popularity of the president and his party.

The few remaining independent media in Kazakhstan were also targeted and even bloggers were brought to trial, in some case on charges of inciting “social, national, tribal, racial, class, or religious hatred.”

The countries that receive large remittances from their migrant laborers in Russia -- Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan -- are also facing severe economic downturns as relatives back home in those countries now find themselves with significantly less money to spend.

In Tajikistan and Uzbekistan as well as in gas exporter Turkmenistan, that fact has led authorities to clamp down on anyone suggesting the state of the country is anything less than the bright picture authorities are painting.

The fault naturally lies with the governments.

As Schenkkan said, “There's no buffer built in for these countries in the way that their governments had managed their economies and built up ways of responding to changes like this.”

Measures the governments have been taking in most of the Central Asian countries seem more focused on silencing criticism and eliminating opposition rather than addressing economic problems, which, to be fair, are to some extent outside their control.

Trading Partner Woes

The Central Asian governments cannot do anything about the economic situations in Russia and China, two of the region’s leading trade partners, nor can those countries with oil and natural gas do anything about the price for those energy resources on world markets. All five are going to need large amounts of outside money to help get through this crisis.

This led our Majlis into a discussion of the wisdom of Western financial aid for Central Asia. There are many well-meaning international organizations and Western governments who could and would help. But Central Asian governments are characterized by high levels of corruption and, in the end, even the financial help that does reach the people also serves to prop up the undemocratic regimes that pay little attention to the rights of their people.

As Lemon pointed out, since the start of the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan, the direction of Western aid to Central Asia has changed and so has the message. “They're (Western governments and international financial organizations) not sending out the right message; they're putting security above political reform, human rights, and they're giving the message to all of the governments of the region that they can continue following this downward trajectory and they'll still continue to get military aid and continue to get development money and other sources of rent.”

And the result, as Schenkkan said, is “We're really seeing a clustering at the bottom of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, still a step beyond, but really Kazakhstan not being that far off now and Tajikistan pretty rapidly approaching.”

Kyrgyzstan actually received a slightly better score in NIT for 2016 than it got in the 2015 report, due to the country’s parliamentary elections in October 2015, which probably were the best elections ever held in Central Asia. But there was talk about some of the problems with rights in Kyrgyzstan.

And there was much more detailed discussion of the topics mentioned in the text and other matters concerning this year’s NIT report on the rights situation in Central Asia.

A link to an audio recording of this conversation will be available soon.

NOTE: The Majlis will be in recess for a few weeks. Look for our next session in early May.