“A key puzzle in Central Asia is the variation of regime type among the nations of the region,” said Eric McGlinchey, Associate Professor of Government and Politics, George Mason University at a 17 November 2011 lecture. “Whereas those outside the area see a collection of authoritarian regimes, those who live there see variation…The reality is not as simple as a binary between democracy and authoritarianism.” McGlinchey presented three case studies of Central Asian regime types: chaos in Kyrgyzstan, violence in Uzbekistan, and dynasty in Kazakhstan.
Since independence from the Soviet Union, the Central Asian societies McGlinchey examined have developed notably different track records, according to Freedom House’s Freedom Index. Kyrgyzstan’s ratings fluctuated over the years, but the country is generally considered to be the freest of the three. In contrast, Uzbekistan is consistently the least free and most repressive of the Central Asian states. Kazakhstan is regarded as “very stable,” and commonly ranks between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan on the Freedom Index. McGlinchey contended that three elements are necessary for understanding this variation in governance and regime type: history, economic resources, and religion—specifically, the revival of Islam. Each shape how society interacts with the state.
Understanding the history of the late Soviet era’s impact on the political elites of the three countries is the first key variable. All three nations experienced uprisings and riots: Kazakhstan in 1986, Uzbekistan in 1989, and Kyrgyzstan in 1990. Moscow’s degree of intervention in each of the uprisings, the speaker explained, directly impacted the culture among political elites in the three countries today. While Gorbachev forced resolutions in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan’s uprisings, he declined to intervene in Kyrgyzstan. This non-intervention resulted in a fragmented Kyrgyz political elite on the eve of independence from the Soviet Union. There is a structural aspect to elite composition in Kyrgyzstan that provides unique challenges to its political stability. With the country’s smaller population and correspondingly small group of ruling elites, McGlinchey explained, members of the Kyrgyz elite who are out of power have a greater incentive to challenge the existing regime, as they have a greater chance of being in the next government.
The economic resources available to the ruling elites of the three nations also shape political institutions and serve as significant determinants of how political decisions and divisions are made. Kazakhstan, with its rich natural resources and low population density, is far ahead of its neighbors in per capita GDP, which ultimately provides its leadership with a significant economic advantage in funding social services and other state-funded initiatives. Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan have similar levels of per capita GDP. The important difference between the two countries, McGlinchey emphasized, is that because of the relatively higher incentive for Kyrgyz elites to turn against the government, the Kyrgyz state must extend higher payouts—in the form of government posts, contracts, and other forms of rents—to its elite. Therefore, the Kyrgyz state has fewer resources than Uzbekistan to fund social services or, alternatively, to invest in security apparatuses to repress its citizens.
The third element in McGlinchey’s explanation of regime variation, Islamic revivalism, varies greatly across the three nations. McGlinchey noted that in all three nations, the percentage of self-identifying Muslims increased between 1996 and 2008, but this revival manifests itself in different ways. The presence of local Islamic charities and businesses, as well as the percentage of Muslims devoting time or money to Islamic organizations on a frequent basis, are lower in Kazakhstan than in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. This disparity is partly explained by the Kazakh government’s greater ability to provide social and infrastructure spending—indeed, Islamic revival presents little challenge to the regime. By contrast, in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan citizens are forced to turn to social groups for support instead of their governments—which allow local Islamic charities to fill those unmet needs. The result is a feedback cycle that builds community and shared norms around Islamic charities and, increasingly, local businesses.
Where Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan differ, McGlinchey continued, is in state capacity for repression. The Uzbek regime, with lower payouts required to keep its elites satisfied, has far greater resources left over to spend on security forces. When the Uzbek regime feels Islamic groups challenge its authority, it uses violence to crack down on these Islamic elites—ultimately driving them underground.
According to discussant David Abramson, Foreign Affairs Analyst, Bureau of Intelligence and Research, U.S. Department of State, McGlinchey’s analysis captures the political dynamics of the three regimes well. The question then becomes how to use the model to assess potential future outcomes. How durable will these authoritarian regimes prove, especially during times of transition? He noted that while authoritarian regimes can endure a long time, if and when elites take risks for change, change can happen very fast.
Blair Ruble, Director, Kennan Institute