After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Central Asia experienced the rapid disintegration of production and trade routes that were established during the Soviet era. The early post-Soviet period bore painful political and economic crises that at worst led to civil wars (i.e., Georgia and Tajikistan), nevertheless, the region transformed itself into a shape that we see today. Given that the Soviet political system was highly centralized and totalitarian, the post-Soviet transformation altogether had to correspondingly be more extensive, namely, by establishing market institutions and civil societies (which were essentially non-existent), shifting from one-party state to multi-party state and introducing elections, albeit nominally in most cases in Central Asia.
The outcome of the post-Soviet transformation, however, has taken the shape of hardline klepto-autocracies with a minor exception of Kyrgyzstan. Although Kyrgyzstan’s democratization efforts are far from complete, it is still regarded as the ‘island of democracy in Central Asia. On the economic side, Central Asia has not managed to diversify its economy as it has been dominated by commodity exports and remittances, which as a result made Central Asia especially susceptible to the shockwaves of the COVID-19 pandemic. On the front of regional integration, Central Asia has not integrated much. Throughout the post-Soviet period, regional cooperation has not matured enough to bring the Central Asian countries into a union similar to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) currently includes two Central Asian countries, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and presents itself as a regional integration, whose boundaries go beyond Central Asia. However, it has been unsuccessful at attracting the other Central Asian states into the union and is often regarded as a political project primarily aimed at maintaining Russia’s grip on the region. The Central Asian states rather see more economic prospects in China’s BRI as it would connect the region with the global economy, although the same cannot be always said on the grassroots levels. In light of evolving sociopolitical and geopolitical dynamics in Central Asia, it is thus important to explore and analyze what potential transformation is on the horizon for the region. The recent short-lived political turmoil in Kazakhstan is especially relevant in this case as it raises the issue of poor governance and the place of democracy in the dynamic socio-political and economic landscape of the region.
Early post-Soviet transformation
Considering the fact that the region was structurally integrated into the union and economic activities were totally coordinated through Moscow under a highly centralized mode of decision-making, the collapse of such order proved to be shocking and chaotic for Central Asia. The Soviet totalitarian system entailed an in depth and in breadth social control, where social agencies beyond the state control were not permitted to operate, and it meant there were no market institutions and civil society. Consequently, the post-Soviet transformation or post-collapse period began with the absence of rule of law, market, civil society, and even effective taxation and policing, producing rippling destabilizing effects on the region, and in an extreme case leading to a bloody civil war in Tajikistan.
Major events in CA and their implication on transformation
The lack of so many requisites for building modern functioning state institutions with a market economy was an enormous challenge to overcome in the beginning. While weaker states like Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan still struggle, Kazakhstan has managed to transition into a market economy and develop its financial sector. The region, nevertheless, maintained stability and produced diverse political developments, where most qualify as consolidated autocracies, except for Kyrgyzstan (albeit it too often oscillates between different levels of autocracy). Although Uzbekistan’s government remains authoritarian, the state’s course of action since 2017 has become more promising, especially in the economic dimension. The government under Shavkat Mirziyoyev has been pushing for liberalization of the economy by reducing tariffs, taxes on businesses, and expanding the private sector in the country, which might be especially advantageous for the region and be in line with China’s BRI. However, it is worth noting that the transition into a market economy and structural economic reforms are not necessarily synonymous with good governance as Kazakhstan’s case has shown. The early January events in Kazakhstan remind us that the social contract between citizens and governments does eventually fall apart if the state fails to respond to people’s needs and grievances, and continues to be repressive. By the same token, any major social and economic international initiatives would ultimately call for government accountability, especially if they are not aligned with public interests, which is an important detail for further clarification and scrutiny.
Transformation of Central Asia in the context of the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union and China’s Belt and Road Initiative
EEU and Central Asia
The EAEU was initially established by Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus, and came into force in 2015. The regional organization absorbed Armenia and Kyrgyzstan as fully-fledged members by January and May during the same year. The EAEU was established to boost and raise the competitiveness of national economies by building a common market; removing customs and trade barriers, as stated on the EAEU official website. The reality of economic policies, however, is rather far from the content of the EAEU official statement. For instance, trade within the union has fallen since its formation as most of the EAEU member states, with the exception of Russia and Belarus, have sought trade diversification outside the union instead of pursuing it within the union’s common market. Over 80 percent of exports and imports of the EAEU members are tied to external trade. On top of that, the global financial crisis, the sanctions against Russia, and the change in oil prices have negatively affected both trade and investment flows in the EAEU. Also, the smaller states of the union, such as Armenia and Kyrgyzstan, do not appear to add considerable value to Russia’s economy. Considering the current state of affairs in the union, there are no compelling reasons to assume it would become an auspicious project for the region on par with China’s BRI. Behind façade of economic promises, there seem to be more political and strategic reasons on the part of Russia’s government, which are aimed at counterbalancing China’s growing influence. For this reason, the EAEU can be regarded as an attempt to reintroduce integration into the region resembling that of the Soviet period, needless to say, under a new political and economic format. Although there were talks about the coordination between the EAEU and the BRI under the concept of “Greater Eurasian Partnership”, the Russian government remains aware that China poses a challenge to Russia’s ability to shape the region.
China’s BRI and Central Asia
As part of the BRI, China has poured a lot of money into Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan to fund a good deal of infrastructure projects such as railroads, road links as well as modern telecommunication technology. Such investments would be followed by trade agreements and likely come with the introduction of international legal structures akin to Singapore’s International Commercial Court and the Dubai International Financial center to police the agreements. China is already the largest trading partner in the region and its economic significance is vital for the region. The COVID-19 pandemic has further incentivized China to expand the connectivity of the region, particularly, by railroads linking China to the EU through Central Asia, (mainly Kazakhstan) as the rail transport turned out to be more resilient during the pandemic and cost-efficient compared to other alternatives such as maritime and air transport, which were frequently delayed and immobilized during the pandemic. As a result, manufacturers, distributors, and logistics agents shifted from the eastern maritime routes of China to overland freight routes in western China, thereby further intensifying the trade flow with the EU through Central Asia. Under such conditions, China’s BRI presents some growth opportunities and modernization for the economies of Central Asia. However, whether these opportunities are in line with democratization or autocratization is a question worth exploring.
The increased connectivity that China’s BRI offers for the landlocked countries of Central Asia is essential for the development of the region. Economic development would potentially act as an important factor to the path toward democratization in the long term, nonetheless, it alone cannot be sufficient to institute democratic governance. In the meantime, China’s investments, aids, and loans remain irresistible for the governments of Central Asia, since China’s deals meet their infrastructural needs, and more importantly, are not conditioned upon any political reforms. China’s public diplomacy, humanitarian and infrastructure aid, and budget support in Central Asia has increased since the early 2000s. However, the main democracy indices on accountability and civil liberties up to recent years do not show any major changes in the region according to V-dem Institute, which conducts comprehensive research on democratization. Any minor improvements concerning the level of corruption are completely independent of China’s policy in the region. Furthermore, it has been revealed that there are some underlying issues with China’s projects, particularly, with the risk of falling into debt traps, and lack of public oversight. As the decision-making processes regarding China’s project continue to take place on a state-to-state level, China’s projects would be subject to more public suspicion and distrust in the region. In the long run, the opaque nature of the deals with China would serve as a catalyst for civil society mobilization, therefore potentially producing a democratizing effect on the region.
The principal part of the transformation would be both good governance and economic development. Without the former, it may eventually lead to public discontent and make the region susceptible to instabilities as was seen in the example of Kazakhstan. Central Asia’s geography automatically draws the region to the international organizations and projects presented by Russia (EAEU), and China’s BRI. Thus, the transformation of the region would, naturally, be influenced by the region’s neighboring powers. The EAEU’s prospects are uncertain and appear to be more driven by geopolitical ambitions to maintain Moscow’s influence over the region, in which democracy clearly has no place. The surrounding international context in the region does not promise to be democratizing given that it is dominated by Russia and China. The mere fact that the defense mechanism of CSTO was invoked to preserve the autocracy in Kazakhstan confirms this case. The BRI, on the other hand, does carry the promise of integrating the region with the global economy, but China’s projects and deals with Central Asian governments are not always consistent with public interests, which might eventually mobilize civil societies in the region and spark an unintended democratizing effect on the region to varying degrees.