Mixed Messages and Crossed Wires: Human Rights Promotion in Central Asia

Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in Central Asia have long been regarded as a vital part of the democratisation of the region. Central Asian governments have recently introduced a series of laws constricting the space in which local NGOs can operate, but how effective has international support really been?

Since suddenly and unexpectedly coming to independence in 1991, all five of the former Soviet Republics of Central Asia have seen the retrenchment of authoritarian rule. While there is variation – Kyrgyzstan has long been more open and free than most of its neighbours, while Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan rank among the world’s most repressive countries – none of the ‘Stans’ can boast a good human rights record. Despite some initially promising developments, hopes that the end of Cold War would herald a wave of democratisation in Central Asia proved unfounded.

A recent wave of restrictions on ‘civic space’ – the ability to exercise freedom of expression and association – seemed to confirm this pessimism as Central Asian regimes have implemented new laws to curtail NGO action and the ability to protest. In 2014, Tajikistan implemented a new law requiring prior permission for protests, in effect affording veto power to the government. Similar permission is also required in Kazakhstan, while Turkmenistan has long since forced any kind of independent civil society underground. In May this year, the Parliament of Kyrgyzstan surprised many by voting down a bill modelled on Russian legislation that has decimated NGO activity by introducing burdensome legal requirements on organisations that receive foreign funding. However, despite this glimmer of hope, the trend of escalating anti-LGBT violence seen in Russia has also been mirrored in Kyrgyzstan.

Demonstrators in San Francisco protesting the government of Kazakhstan’s response to the 2011 Mangystau riots

This is concerning for human rights reasons, and because civil society has long been seen as a cornerstone of the transition to democracy. After Central Asian independence, international funding to promote human rights and civil society flooded in. In the two decades following independence, the European Union allocated over 2.1 billion euros to Central Asia, most of which went to Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. American investment is also impressive, with organisations such as USAID and the Soros Foundation making considerable donations. For Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – which lack the oil and gas reserves of their neighbours – foreign aid is a significant proportion of state budgets, and in an economically deprived region with a total population of less than 70 million people, this is a huge sum of money. Much of this aid came with the stated aim of aiding rule of law and democratic transition. Why, then, is Central Asia seeing this ‘backslide’ to authoritarianism?

One reason is the mixed aims and half-measures taken by Western governments to human rights abuses by Central Asian governments. The war in Afghanistan relied on air bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan for logistical support, and Central Asian gas is seen by the EU as a potential alternative to reliance on imports from Russia. This led Western governments to human rights abuses for the sake of stability and support for the War on Terror, a phrase that has gone a long way to legitimise repressive policies in Central Asia and Western China. As the years went on after Central Asian independence, military assistance made up more and more of the aid sent from the USA to Central Asia as time went on during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Following the Andijan massacre in Uzbekistan, in which security services fired on protesters killing over 180, European governments did implement sanctions. However, the German government later pushed to have them overturned, in effect choosing its air bases in Uzbekistan over human rights. This partnership not only legitimised Karimov’s government on an the international stage, but also saw huge sums of money go straight to the government. In December 2011 in Kazakhstan, at least 16 people were killed in clashes between striking oil workers and security forces in the oil town of Zhanaozen, when protesters’ demands turned from working conditions to political reform. The workers’ trade union put the death toll at over 50. Support for Central Asian activists can only do so much when EU governments demonstrate repeatedly that there are no real consequences for human rights abuses.

A further reason is the role of international finance in the ability of elites to appropriate their countries’ wealth, facilitated by offshore financial vessels, which are often administered by the same countries that claim to stand for human rights and democracy. Corrupt elites are nothing new, but globalisation has meant that potential destinations for dirty money have proliferated. Removal of legal – as well as illegal – money from the country means that even before taking corruption into account, the funds available for socio-economic development in Central Asia are greatly diminished. Western complicity in this system means that the inflow of aid money is a trickle compared to the flood that leaves Central Asia each year. The Turkmenistan Stabilisation Fund – a sovereign wealth fund worth that props up one of the world’s most tyrannical regimes – is administered by Deutsche Bank with virtually no transparency. Gulnara Karimova, daughter of Uzbekistan’s recently-deceased president Islam Karimov, allegedly received more than $1 billion from a Norwegian telecoms firm in exchange for access to Uzbek markets.

Another reason can be found in the failure of ‘democracy promotion’ efforts themselves to address underlying problems in Central Asian regimes. Aid has too often been short-term and aimed at things that are easily measured but not necessarily important, while the overwhelming presence of large amounts of NGO money in relatively small economies can have a distorting effect that damages the long-term viability of the very causes that the NGOs are trying to promote. Mariya Omelicheva argues that foreign attempts to create ‘civil society’ in Central Asia have failed or been unable to appreciate the cultural changes that democracy in the region requires and the long term nature of these changes. A campaign to improve turnout at an election achieves little in a system engineered not to produce structural change, while legitimising regimes that can point to ‘façade’ elections as signs of progress. Clumsy NGO intervention in Southern Kyrgyzstan to try and ease tensions after ethnic violence broke out in 2010 was reportedly seen by many local Kyrgyz as favouring minority Uzbeks, further exacerbating divisions between communities. Furthermore, ‘democracy’ is not a universal concept. The assumption that democracy is conducive to a successful state is not shared by Russia and China, and emphasis on economic growth and stability finds more resonance with both Central Asian leaders and much of its population.

For the time being, the outlook for human rights looks bleak. Kyrgyzstan’s parliamentary vote in favour of allowing NGOs to operate as they have been shows the leverage that international opinion can have in a country so heavily reliant on international donors. This is much less the case in resource-rich Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, where it is clear that geopolitics trumps human rights in EU and US foreign policies. Even in Tajikistan, where the state budget is heavily dependent on international organisations, President Rakhmonov has been becoming steadily more authoritarian. China’s new foreign policy of huge infrastructure investments in Central Asia could see tens of billions of dollars flowing into the region with far fewer strings attached than EU and US aid. Nevertheless, the West remains home to the world’s largest markets and most important financial institutions, and could still have significant leverage on human rights issues in Central Asia and across the world. Whether it will choose to use it is another question.

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