Central Asia Security Workshop,
March 5, 2018
Transcripts of the presentations
Marlene Laruelle, The George Washington University
Kazakhstani Perceptions of External Powers. Unexpected Findings of Survey Analysis
What I wanted to present to you today the ongoing research that I’m doing with Eric McGlinchey in the framework of familiar background by the Defense Department. And we are looking at soft power and media influence of Russia, the US, China, in Central Asia, and also looking at nationalist/Islamist media production in the region itself.
And so the research I wanted to present here today is in fact based specifically on some surveys that were commissioned by the State Department in 2005, so we have more than 10 years of proving, which is quite rare, with the kind of same repeating questions in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan. I will be here focusing only on Kazakhstan but happy to answer questions if you have about Kyrgyzstan. (We didn’t receive the Tajik data yet.)
So it’s really a unique database to analyze the evolution of the public opinion towards the main powers. We were especially interested- so we ran some regression to try to identify variables that would help us understanding who think what about which country in the region. And I was especially interested in trying to see if we can identify some social groups that would be oriented toward one of the Big Three countries or not. And I will be presenting that to you very soon.
So first just some general data from these surveys. You can see going from 2005 to 2016 level of favorability toward the USA, toward Russia and China. So favorability toward Russia very high, always between 80 and 90 percent. Favorability towards China, second, going from 60 to 80 percent. Favorability toward the US between 50 and 60 percent, with a big gap after 2014, of course going low around 40 percent of favorable opinion and then now seeming going back around 50 percent.
Of course it’s only data, it means we don’t know what people really understand when they answer the question. We can also imagine that it’s much more challenging in Kazakhstan to say that you disagree, you have unfavorable view of Russia than to say you have unfavorable view of the US. So you can imagine you have also a certain level of self-censorship that needs to be taken into consideration and of course these elements, we don’t see them in the data. So always take some distance with these kind of data.
What is also interesting is to see that the peak of anti-Americanism with this low 40 percent in 2015 kind of is slowing down now. That’s interesting to always remember that these kind of peak of anti-Americanism, they are often temporary. And we see exactly the same in Russia in the polls we have for Russia in that the peak is over now and things are slowly improving a little bit.
Second, sorry, aspect of the survey more in detail. So we divided the opinion- in the survey, divided into very favorable, somewhat favorable, somewhat unfavorable, very unfavorable, and you can see that you have an interesting polarization with very often more people being some very unfavorable or very favorable and the one being somewhat in the middle reducing, which is a good example on how the level of geopolitical so-called polarization has been growing in Kazakhstan and all over the region since 2014.
Very briefly, so you can compare the Kazakhstani opinion of Russia and China, and here also some interesting elements. You can see that the level of people being totally unfavorable to Russia is very low, because probably as I said you have issues of self-censorship or element that are considered not the one you want to tell someone coming at your door for doing the survey.
But what I’m really interested here at presenting to you is in fact the analysis that we have been doing on the data. So we have to work on the data, so you cannot really read the graph and you don’t have to do so, just I will be giving you the kind of reading of that. But that’s how we have been running these regression tables, taking into consideration several variables and trying to see if we can identify the social groups that would be more kind of turned toward the US, Russia, or China. So the first interesting element that we had, or that we noticed, is that in fact, sorry …it’s not working… Oh yeah. So the usual suspects that we would imagine having were either absent or were very weak. And I will give you the main example here.
First, of course, given the literature on the Central Asian society and given the US narrative about its presence in the region, we thought that we would see differences by age. That we would see age cohort being visibly connected to one geopolitical organization or another one. And there was absolutely nothing. Nothing, even not the smallest correlation, meaning that young people are no more pro-US or pro-Europe, pro-Western, than any older generation. So all the narratives about young people, not having faced the Soviet regime, would be more interested by the West than their previous generation doesn’t- is totally absent in all of these surveys.
And globally, in the relationship toward Russia and China, there is just no age visible. We have also other surveys, done not by the State Department but by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, correlating that information by showing on the contrary, so they are even going in the reverse direction. That’s, the younger people are in Kazakhstan the more anti-US they are and the more anti-Western and -democratic value they are. And so that is an interesting finding that have, of course, a lot of policy implications on the way US is running its policy for the region.
So the second element that we noticed that we wanted to look at is the knowledge of English, because here also US cultural diplomacy for the region is based on the notion that if we promote English knowledge in the region, we will be also promoting our values. Well, that also doesn’t work. Which means that people speaking English are no more pro-Western than those not speaking English. What is interesting, and that’s kind of a fascinating element that we were not thinking we would find, is that those who speak English are more open to the world than those who don’t speak, which means that those who speak English are more favorable toward Russia and toward China also. So English is an opening, is a gate to open to the world, but it has nothing linked to the US or to Western values.
Then of course we looked at ethnicity, and here also—contrary to what we could imagine—ethnicity doesn’t play a role, which means that ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan are no more pro-Russian or anti-US than the average population. The only moment where ethnicity seems to be playing a role, and I will come back on that, it’s specifically for ethnic Kazakhs toward China. Very unfavorable correlation for ethnic Kazakhs toward China but toward the US, toward Russia no ethnic specificity visible at all.
Then we looked also, of course, at language and access to the news. Language is also interesting, and it’s kind of correlating what I just said about ethnicity. Accessing the news in Russian, accessing the news in Kazakh, accessing Kazakhstani news in Russian doesn’t have any impact on the way people are more or less favorable toward the US or toward Russia. It has an impact toward China. If you are a Kazakh speaker and you don’t access your news in Russian, you will be very, statistically ,very anti-Chinese, so that the only moment where the only correlation between language and a country work—but nothing about US and Russia.
Access to the news, which is a little bit different from languages, is sometimes offering some elements. So the only moment where we see it is accessing the news through TV, accessing the news through internet. Accessing the news through TV doesn’t give any direction, any predisposition toward any of these countries. Accessing the news through internet is giving kind of like that information: sometimes it’s something that looks like pro-US, and then pro-Russia, and then pro-Chinese, or anti-Russia, anti-US, anti-Chinese, so it’s not very easy to use or it means that just you have fashionable trends going on on the media on the internet that influence people but it’s changing very fast. It’s a kind of very unstable, very irregular element.
And then we looked- we discovered some unexpected findings that we ever imagine would be there. The first one is that people- how people see the state of Kazakhstani economy. So it doesn’t mean the way they are- they think they are wealthy or they are poor. In the way they think the country’s going on economically. The more people think Kazakhstani economy is going well, the more they are favorable to the US but also to Russia and to China. The more they think Kazakhstan economy is going badly, the more they are distrustful to all the three of them: Russia, US and China. So you see the point here too is not the kind of geopolitical opposition, it’s just being open to foreign actors or being against all foreign actors.
The second element that we were also quite surprised, it’s how religion play a role. So the more people are believer and regularly praying, Muslim or Christian, the more they are open to the world. And the more they are pro-US. That was something we were also not interesting, I was- my kind of predisposition was that people who were considering themselves very active Muslim would be quite anti-US with this usual narrative with the US are at war with Islam. Quite the contrary in the survey, which should mean that if we look for some explanation, maybe the feeling of living in countries or in a country where expressing religious practices is still kind of difficult would make the US narrative about religious freedom more interesting or appealing. That’s one of the possible explanation. But that was interesting because it was both for Muslim and Christian so here also no differences between ethnic Kazakhs and ethnic Russian.
And then the last elements were the regions, and that’s kind of puzzling and I will not come with good explanation. Southern region and Almaty very unfavorable to the US, very unfavorable to China. To China, we can understand, we have some information: it’s mostly the agricultural, rural Kazakh speaking region having some tensions in their relationship to China.
Why southern region would be more anti-, less favorable to the US than northern region, I have really no clue. The northern region, so north, center and west very clearly having more favorable view of the US than the average. So here also going totally contrary to our vision of the northern region being the one oriented toward Russia with this Russian-speaking minority, that doesn’t seem to work on the survey. That’s data going all over the decades that we have. So quite a puzzling element.
Another regional aspect that I think make more sense and I think that we can more easily explain is that Astana are the very particular. Astana as a city is generally very disassociated from the rest of the country: largely more anti-Russian than the average, largely more pro-US than the average. So really Astana the bubble with all its federal—I mean, federal, making the parallel with Washington—with its civil servants and its specific political atmosphere representing the new mainstream of Kazakhstani elites being more and more distrustful toward Russia. So that’s, you can see some of these elements are really interesting and some are challenging our conventional wisdom on who thinks what in Kazakhstan.
So some further questions and I will- that will be my conclusion is that of course for the moment, as you can see from my presentation, we didn’t easily isolate any kind of causal mechanism that would make- explain why people have some favorable view of the US or other countries. We’ll be doing focus group and having some experiments in the three countries and we are looking at to try to understand what can make sense.
Of course, one of the big aspect the role of media and that was part of our project I think very generally the media role is often overestimated. We know that by a lot of media studies all over the world that it’s not people getting influenced by media, it’s people selecting the media that is already the one that already share their own perspective, so they are just self reinforcement; media play a role of self reinforcement or of echo chamber. So that’s probably not what is explaining the different geopolitical orientation of citizens.
Then it’s very difficult when you begin to really look in depth about media production and media influence in Kazakhstan, very difficult to disassociate what is Russia produce, what is produced in Russian in Kazakhstan, and what is produced in Kazakh in Kazakhstan. That missing simple, that’s not if you really begin to look by broadcasting each of the program going on Kazakh TV, that’s why challenging sometimes to really understand who is doing what and what does that mean. And what seems interesting is that since 2012, but more clearly since 2014, the Kazakhstani authorities have been really pushing for making less and less political- Russian political show available on the Kazakhstani channel, trying to cut this influence. They are all available for all those who have cable or satellite so if they want to look at Soloviev and all the political Russian political talk show, they can still do that, but it’s no more—or almost no more broadcasting—on the Russian TV. But Russian mini series and films are still hitting the- being on the highest level of followers, so clearly there is a Russian influence. It’s going not really through news, but going more through fiction. I think that’s an important element if we want to realize how much it’s about habit and sensitivities and some cultural element, and not about politics or geopolitics.
Then the notion of influence is also very poorly calibrated. We have information, so that’s also part of our research. Yes, people watch Russian TV (not so much as we would have imagined) and then if they are asked “do you trust Russian TV?” then the level of trust is very low. So what do you do with this kind of information? You can consider, yeah, even if people say they don’t trust, they are still getting some kind of imperceptible, implicit influence, but still, I mean, it’s quite difficult for us to come with these kind of assertive narratives that it’s all about Russia media influence.
And so what seems to be really the critical element, it’s everything related to social habits, family, friends, shared symbol, and something that I already presented last year here at the Security Workshop, the rise of conservative values that are probably explaining a lot why people are kind of oriented toward one or the other countries but that’s clearly not age, not knowledge of English, and not the usual variables you would imagine. That’s something much more complicated and probably much more embedded into the individual life of each citizens.
So, as you understood, one of the conclusion of this first round of research is: you don’t have any clear geopolitical choice. People are either in favor of the three big powers or against the three of them. If one country is getting more critical aspect that can be opposed to the other, it’s China, but the US, Russia geopolitical opposition is not visible in the survey. And I think that’s really something interesting because we tend to kind of geopoliticize too much our analysis of what is going on.
And then very often, and that’s something we are also beginning working on with the focus group, we have kind of unexpected ideological combination depending on the question. If you ask question people during focus groups about conservative values and their relationship to the US, you will almost spontaneously—except for the few liberals, but they are a minority in Kazakhstan—people will side with Russia on this notion that, wait, Russia is fighting for conservative values, then we are sharing with Russia with that narrative. If you ask a question to the same group of people about something related to Kazakh ethnic identity and their vision of the past, then of course, then the relationship with Russia will be kind of broken, and we have more people who would say “I’m siding with Russia against the US in terms of conservative values, I’m not siding with Russia in terms of interpreting the Russian past and the Soviet past.” So the same people can be on every side of the question and the relationship to external power depending on the way the question is framed. And I think all these elements are important to realizing or analysis on how the Central Asian society are evolving very fast now ideologically and also it has a lot of, I think, policy implication for the US on the way we want to frame the US storytelling for Central Asian society.
And I will stop here.
Luca Anceschi, Glasgow University
Rethinking Central Asia’s Energy Security: The view from Astana and Ashgabat
Thanks a lot for having me here. It is always a pleasure to come back to DC. I haven’t got a presentation, I’ve got three graphs for you. But the story I am going to tell today comes from my recent experience as an author and also on the kind of literary work I do for Europe-Asia Studies, especially on papers working on energy.
I realized that when it comes to Central Asia, we have this very clear distinct distinction between studies that only look at the geopolitics of energy in Central Asia—so the grand narratives, or productivity, not, as you mentioned before, this connectivity per se doesn’t exist. Or we have the very local impact—so what happens in the canal system in Uzbekistan if there is a problem with the food-water-energy nexus, or what happens in Kazakhstan’s local areas when there are fuel shortages?
There are virtually no studies that try to connect centralized policymaking at Central Asia level in terms of energy and the impact, and this decision, positive or negative, especially negative, have on the local population. So in general, what I am trying to say is that our interpretation of energy security in the last 10, 15 years in Central Asia has been essentially focused on what the regime want us to believe. We are not looking beyond the energy security on the local population, and this is a mistake, I reckon, because we’re missing the big dichotomy we’re seeing there.
My paper, in general my research, focus on the two hydrocarbon states: Kazakhstan, oil mostly; and Turkmenistan, mostly gas. So…the point that I am trying to make is they are … We’ve seen in the last couple of years especially—in Turkmenistan, it’s ongoing and drastically negative—we have seen the impact on the population of the specific policies of energy policy made by the regime in Astana and Ashgabat.
So what I am trying to say is that we need to look a little bit more precisely at what’s happening on the floor while studying the policies made in order to unveil the impact that the authoritarian logic of energy policymaking is having on the localized issue of energy usage. And to be more specific, I brought you two cases: the cases of the Kazakh production crisis and the case of the Turkmen export crisis.
In this context, though, I need to make a bit of a general, sort of, proposition here, is that when you study the making of energy policy you want to look at the Gulf, first of all. The Gulf states, because they are very significant to Central Asia, in the context in which you have non-democratic regimes ruling over not very big communities or polities, so generally small population, and having a very clear energy social pact in which the kind of exchange between the regime and the population is that the population will always be energy secure. That’s why you never see that kind of energy shortages in Abu Dhabi or Dubai. That’s why they going to Kazakhstan to buy uranium to do nuclear, which seem to be out of commission but it’s not. So, these regimes, which are rentier regimes, or a regime that survived on the export of a single, or one, resource are more defined in their understanding of these resources, adjusting it to the, here, climate change, and the, here, local parties. That’s why there is all sort of higher literature that looks at what they call “late rentierism”.
So the evolution on how petrol states are adjusting to the changing situation. And they’ve got two different theories about it, but in general it’s a stage theory. What I’ve noticed is that Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are left at the very primordial level of this development. They haven’t really adjusted their way of making energy policy to the pressure of climate change, or to the priorities that come with low prices. We’ve seen that especially in the way which they introduce—or manage, if they have it—oil funds, in the way in which they respond to globalization, and in the way in which they respond to the pressure posed by external proposals or cooperation with independent energy actors
So in that sense, we see that Kazakhstan is a little bit more advanced than Turkmenistan because it’s a more open country, you’ve got possibilities for onshore and offshore cooperation when it comes to PSAs and joint ventures, and it’s meant for the oil fund, which is controversial, but there’s oil- or a fund nonetheless. Whereas in the case of Turkmenistan, we are really looking at the classic example of a Gulf state in the 20th century, in which there is export one resource, everything is nationalized, there is virtually no cooperation with foreign actors—because in the case of Turkmenistan it’s allowed only for the offshore fields. So you can have a PSA with the Turkmen state if you want to drill a hole in the Caspian. You can’t have one if you want to have one onshore, of course, except with the CNPC with the Bagtyyarlyk.
So, my point here is that these differences in which these two states are responding to the inevitable alteration that the rentier logic of resource development or exploitation, if you want, is asking them has resulted in very different crises. Different intensity, different in production phase, different in negative impact, but they are still very much crises.
So if you look at the experience of the Gulf, you don’t really see the population be energy-insecure. There is always a constant, affordable, secure flow of energy powering the economies of the Gulf states. In Central Asia, we haven’t got that. We move on the experience of Uzbek teacher being asked to leave the class to get the wood to burn the fire. We’ve been used to the population in Kazakhstan queueing at the pump for oil shortages, and we’ve been used for the case of Turkmenistan losing all the subsidies that they normally have.
So this is the three example right now—not Uzbekistan—to which I do refer. Then we do have a localized population-centered impact of authoritarian choices of energy management. The first example that I have here is Kazakhstan. So, what I’ve got here … Oh, I forgot the microphone … I have- so the thicker red line is the production … The evolution of coal production of Kazakh crude, and I put it in the same system with the last. This is not day-by-day, it’s year-by-year, evolution of prices. And it seemed to me that we can draw a major conclusion from that: that because of the regime obsession with Kashagan, Kazakhstan ended up producing more when the price was lower and less when the price was higher, which is not the best market decision you can make if you are what is essentially an oil-exporting country.
And so you could argue that the Kashagan issue is a defining problem of the late Nazarbayev era. It is to my mind, and in a lot of the politics, especially when it comes to the reaction to the ruble crisis, the devaluation crisis, or the government. Because that was very long six months of indecision between massive spending or austerity. It had to do with the regime obsession with Kashagan. Kashagan brought with it the infrastructural problems that only virtual product have. TAPI brings with it infrastructural problems. Kashagan closed between two months of inauguration- was shut away, which determined, in that sense, the future choices of the Kazakh government, and led to what essentially is a failure in sustaining production, which is a second …
This is from the Economist. And what he shows? He shows that the clear blue line and the red line are inflation in general terms, where the thicker blue line is how the diesel and gasoline prices have actually increased. What we realize, in the last six months of last year, oil prices, diesel prices went much higher up in inflation, which meant the people had less money to buy- to fill the tank. And to me, this is very much connected to the fact that production, it’s not made for inflation, but it’s made for the exports. To sustain what the regime needs in order to achieve a whole series of ends which are more or less transparent. You decide which one you want to believe in. So to my mind … And that, again, encapsulates my point of impact of energy policy onto domestic issues. And to give more of context of that, the crisis happened when the government had to close down one of the three crude refineries in Kazakhstan, and the population had to rely on gas imported from Russia.
So you’ve got the very clear disparity between the totalitarian logic and population energy security, but when it comes to energy failure, there’s no one who can beat Turkmenistan. And this is, for me, the graph that captures info, the export crisis, which I have been writing about for a while and this is taken from my last year article on TAPI pipeline.
So, this is production of- export of gas in BCM between- last decade. It’s very easy when you have so few customers that you can have three colors: essentially the red one is Russia, the green one is China, and the gray one is Iran. And what you notice is that across ten years, you have a parabolic evolution of direction of trade. What was essentially a Russian monopoly when Niyazov died became a China monopoly ten years after Niyazov’s death. And you could say, well, Luca, this is all well, they still export forty BCM, but as Alex Cooley mentioned this morning, they’re not getting the same cash for the same volume, because the pay-for-purchase agreement they had with China is rolling up in the phase in which they sell more gas or even sell just any quality of gas for no money at all, which means that when the economy has not been diversified, and that’s another clear indicator of what this late rentierism really is about. There is a fine economy for post-oil scenario or a post-gas scenario. You realize that the government is no longer able to do what he needs to do and what he says he will do.
Two examples here and then I’m closing down. The first one is that if you look at the very first inauguration speech that Berdymuhammedov gave in February 2007 when he was elected for the first time, you would see that after a couple of paragraphs of praise for his predecessor, he goes straight into pretty much promising that, “Until I will be president, you will always have free gas, free electricity, and free table salt,” which is important, because it shows what his regime was going to be about. It was going to be about, “Don’t worry too much with reforms.” He never mentioned reform. Mirziyoyev did. He never mentioned reform. What he did was just saying, “You’re gonna have this kind of subsidies.” So the energy social pact that Berdymuhammedov promises collapsed when this China agreement [inaudible 00:14:14].
Second example, to show you the entity of this issue, is that what I’ve heard- that the government, in the last month, has asked, after months of ministerial restructuring, which means that you put- who have to pay fewer wages, has asked some employees in some ministries to take a month of holidays off without pay, which means that they do not have the money to pay for the public sector, which is a big no-no if you are a rentier state. Look at Qatar. Qatar does that, that’s how they survived through the Arab Spring, they kept pushing up the public sector pay.
So, I’m going to close down, leaving you with this idea that those of us who think about Central Asian energy, who write about Central Asian energy should start to look at this third criterion when we look at energy points. On the one hand, we have climate change, which is important, because it will play a role. On the other one, we have low prices, because now it’s going to be pretty much [inaudible 00:15:25]. And the third one is authoritarian decay. Unless we start to think about these three criteria when we describe policymaking and energy in Central Asia, we’re going to miss the point and we’ll then have trouble to justify the energy insecurity and the kind of local impact that these choices have made. Thank you.
Sean Roberts, The George Washington University
Prospects and Limits to Reform in Uzbekistan
This isn’t really a central concern of my research, but I went last April and did an assessment for USAID looking at the prospects for reform, and I’ve been following it ever since.
And so I’ve been asked several times to try to discuss it and make sense of it for people in Washington. And I think that, in general, the discussion in Washington about this kind of center on: is this reform real or not? And I think that depends on what you think reform is.
There’s reasons to be optimistic about change in Uzbekistan. The first reason, I think, is that the impetus is coming from the country itself. There’s no doubt that Uzbekistan is not trying to impress the West. I think the West isn’t really watching that much. I don’t think- certainly the United States is not out there pushing for reform in Central Asia right now. So it’s interesting to see that this is really coming from Mirziyoyev’s administration itself. And I think in and of itself, that is good news that suggests that there has to be something serious about this.
It is opening up to its neighbors regionally and, to a certain degree, to the world. I think that’s very good news for the region in general. If you think back to the 1990s, Uzbekistan had a lot of promise, and Uzbekistan really emerged as the most important country regionally. And with Uzbekistan opening up, that may begin to change. It might make things more interesting regionally. It might also help carry the weight for the region a little bit more, having two large states kind of carrying weight for the region.
The currency does seem to be in the process of convertibility. I’m not- I don’t pretend to be an expert on currency conversion, but they have devalued the currency significantly. They’re working closely with the IMF and the World Bank in terms of trying to gradually lose complete state control over currency. And this, of course, is the key issue if they want to get foreign investment. And it seems that they’re taking it very seriously.
And more recently we saw a dismissal of Inoyatov, who was the head of the security forces, and that came as a real surprise. I think a lot of the people, including myself, who were skeptical of some of the changes, saw that Inoyatov could be a serious barrier to changes. And we’ve seen both his removal, but we’ve also seen a lot of other stories about various people within his apparatus being purged, being arrested on corruption charges, and so on.
And I would say that, at this point, things have progressed to the point where it’s difficult to totally go back on these promises of reforms. One of the criticisms of reforms in Uzbekistan has been that, well, you know, when Niyazov died in Turkmenistan, Berdymuhammedov was saying all these things about maybe we can reform, maybe we can change. That didn’t last too long. It never happened.
I think the situation in Uzbekistan is already beyond that. It’s no longer in the realm of just talk. There’s things happening. It’s a much bigger state, there’s people excited. I think it would be very difficult to really reel this back in and just kind of go back to the Karimov state of things.
So that’s the good news, but same time there’s reasons to be pessimistic about change in Uzbekistan. We saw recently, last week, Mirziyoyev gave a special advisory role in the Interior Ministry to Zakirjon Almatov, who was seen as one of the people responsible for the Andijan massacre. It looks like he might be in fact creating his new- his own security apparatus. He’s not just disempowering the security apparatus. We don’t know what to think about this yet. It’s quite early to see how that’s going to evolve, but it’s a somewhat ominous sign.
There’s no significant signs of structural change in terms of democratization yet. There’s lots of talk about it. We see some of the loosening of the reins of state media. We see some releases of political prisoners, but we see others not being released. We see some interaction with human rights groups, but we don’t see a revival of civil society in the country. So there’s no real structural changes yet happening in this area.
And there remain many entrenched interests in the country, which will likely slow progress and reform. And I think it’s important to remember that Inoyatov was not the only entrenched interest from Karimov’s regime. It goes much lower, I think, into society.
And finally some of my colleagues at Radio Free Europe have frequently pointed out that Russia is becoming more influential in Uzbekistan—in particular the relationship between Mirziyoyev and Alisher Usmanov, which is apparently a blood relation or at least by marriage. That may be an ominous sign, but on the other hand I don’t know for sure. And I don’t know what to really think about that yet, because Usmanov himself is Uzbek and he may have some interest in the future of Uzbekistan as well.
So I’m just going to put out there the idea that what Mirziyoyev wants to do is make Uzbekistan the next Kazakhstan. I think what he looks- all of his reforms have been really focused on bringing in foreign investment, getting the economy going. He’s seen what happened in Kazakhstan over the last 25 years and he wants to see that happen to Uzbekistan. And he understands that in the early ‘90s all of the international organizations wanted to first set up their offices in Tashkent and they quickly moved to Almaty because it was very apparent that nothing was really happening in Uzbekistan and things were happening in Kazakhstan. And as a result Kazakhstan has benefited.
But what does that mean, to be more like Kazakhstan? It means liberalizing the economy and kickstarting a more vibrant private sector. And I think that’s something that we’re seeing happening. We’re have a gradual implementation of floating the currency on international markets. There’s a lot of initiatives to promote entrepreneurship in the country. But I think first and foremost, there’s an understanding that they have to bring in money, so it means attracting foreign investment. And I found this statistic the other day, that in the 25 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan attracted 152 billion dollars in foreign investment. Uzbekistan attracted $9.6 billion. That tells you a lot about where they are vis-à-vis Kazakhstan now and maybe where they want to be.
Opening up foreign trade—and they are starting to try to do that. Of course, the currency convertibility is a critical part of that. And opening up the political space enough to encourage economic participation innovation but not enough to challenge the regime. I mean, that’s kind of the model that Kazakhstan has created. And I think that’s the key question that we want to look at further because that’s the difficult part.
So how do you create managed political reform? You need to create a rule of law infrastructure that at least is strong enough to encourage foreign investment and make foreign investors comfortable to coming into the country with their money—that they’re going to make investments that are not just going to disappear into thin air.
You need enough access to free information to ensure that the local economic actors can take informed actions domestically and internationally, so you need access to information about what’s happening in Uzbekistan and what’s happening in the world.
And you need to encourage enough freedom in civil society to encourage risk-taking, experimentation, and innovation. That part I don’t think is really … I think both with the information and civil society, we don’t see that happening yet in Uzbekistan. And all this has to happen while not threatening the regime.
And I think Uzbekistan faces a couple difficulties in trying to create that kind of managed political reform. First, there’s a lack of democratic political culture in the country. There seems to be attempts to reform the justice system, but one thing I’ve learned about rule of law reform over the years is it’s not a technical issue. It’s not about institutions only. It’s about a culture where people… There’s a compact between the citizens and the justice system, of trust, where people believe in the justice system, where the justice system actually responds to the people. And that’s a much trickier thing to create. I don’t think, for example, any of the development agencies I’ve ever worked with really knows how to do that.
Uzbekistan’s political space, in general, was never at the state of Kazakhstan’s. But even the 1990s, it wasn’t to the extent you saw in Kazakhstan, but after 2005 it really just kind of disappeared. When you had some independent media, some independent civil society actors in the 90s, after 2005 they pretty much just disappeared. And so you have to actually create a new sense of civil society in Uzbekistan and a new notion of independent media, and you’d have to do that from scratch. Because the people who worked on that in the ‘90s are not really around anymore.
And we’re not even yet talking about political parties or free elections. That has never happened in Uzbekistan. And in Kazakhstan, we do not have free and fair elections. But in Kazakhstan there are political parties. There are opposition political parties. They are controlled opposition parties, but that’s a difficult thing to create. And I don’t think Uzbekistan is anywhere close to even thinking about how to do that.
The other issue, I think, that Uzbekistan faces is the entrenched interest, as I mentioned before. And this isn’t just the security organs, it goes down to … well first of all on the economic side, I think one thing that have to be discussed is the influence of state-owned enterprises, which when I was there last year, I learned were much more extensive in their control than I had an understanding of previously. Because businesses like Uzbek Airways actually control all kinds of sectors beyond aviation. They’re like huge corporations, and it’s hard to believe that they’re gonna be open to privatization without a fight. And that’s, I think, a major issue in the economic side.
When we talk about the political side even the notion of cultivating independent civil society is going to be difficult, because after 2005 the government created an entire infrastructure of government-organized NGOs, or GONGOs, that have a vested interest in keeping the status quo, because all of the grants flow through them, whether it’s international or domestic. And those people, I can’t see them wanting to give up that situation.
And similarly, I think with the media you’re gonna have- you have an entire infrastructure of state-owned media, and then you also have this GONGO called the National Association of Electronic Media or NAESMI, which controls all of the media activity in the country and all of the assistance to media. And I can’t seen them giving up that.
So I think these barriers bring up a lot of questions about how things will go forward in Uzbekistan, because I don’t see the ability to just do the economic reforms without bringing in some freedom in the political space. And that’s going to be much more difficult, I think, then anybody might think.
And I just wanted to end my talk with some policy recommendations for the U.S. government, ’cause I know there’s often people here from the U.S. government.
And so first of all, I think it’s a no-brainer that the US should encourage—and assist, where appropriate—in promoting the country’s economic reforms. This is- if Uzbekistan’s able to convert their currency and attract foreign investment, I think it’ll be good for the region. I think it’ll be good for the world. It’ll certainly be good for Uzbek citizens. So I think that’s kind of a no-brainer.
But beyond that, I think with the justice system, this is an important area where the US should engage with Uzbekistan, because Mirziyoyev is taking very serious the idea of judicial reform. But as I mentioned before, that is not an easy thing to do. And frankly, it’s unclear whether the structural reforms he’s laid out will really be able to create a rule of law. So I think it’s important in terms of engaging Uzbekistan on judicial reform and reform of the justice system in general that we have to make it known that this is something that needs a change in culture, in addition to structural changes and institutional changes.
Obviously, it’s important to continue—and I feel like I have to say this because right now the US Government’s not really promoting human rights but I feel like we have to say—it’s important to impress upon Uzbekistan that human rights issues matter. And not only just because that’s the right thing to do, but actually that will- that will influence whether they get foreign direct investment. Because the issues of political prisoners and the issues of child labor and cotton picking are going to be things that’s gonna make large international corporations reticent to invest in the country.
And then, finally, I think it’s important that the US does encourage political liberalization, without pushing too hard for immediate democratization. ‘Cause I think that’s unrealistic and would only have the opposite effect.
And one thing I should mention about this is that one thing that has to happen if Uzbekistan is gonna attract either US or European assistance in this area is that the country needs to get rid of its restrictions on foreign assistance, which make it really difficult right now for anybody to start a development program that’s gonna even assist in any way with political liberalization.
It has to be able- Right now, if you want to give money to a local NGO, you have to go through all these hoops with the Ministry of Justice, which make it almost impossible to do anything. So really, that’s the first thing that has to be done. But besides that, I do think they have to think about breaking this GONGO system or mafia in the country. It’s interesting because these GONGOs are actually very involved in the reform process. And they’re not necessarily, you know, they’re not evil. They just have a monopoly on the idea of civil society in the country. And they actually would be great think tanks, state-sponsored think tanks. So maybe they need to be transformed into state-supported think tanks, but they have to be taken out of the realm of civil society. And there should be an opening-up to the idea of organizations—civic organizations—being able to register in the country and operate with less stringent restrictions.
Similarly, they need to open up licensing for independent media outlets, TV, newspapers, radio. I think it’s impossible to open up the information field entirely through the state media. I think that they’re gonna have to, at some point, be ready to open up the media to non-governmental actors.
And they have to open up the internet. The internet in the world today, you can’t really attract foreign investment and become a player in the global economy without opening up the internet. And right now it’s still very closed in Uzbekistan. When I was there last year, they couldn’t access video conferencing on Skype, they couldn’t access a whole variety of webpages, you couldn’t use WhatsApp. So there’s things that you have to begin to do if they want to open up in terms of the political space.
And finally encouraging public political debate and gradually maybe considering the registration of new political parties, but I wouldn’t hold my breath on that ever happening soon.
So anyways, that’s what I wanted to say, just kind of introduce some ideas about what’s happening in Uzbekistan and demonstrate that while things are generally positive, it’s a still a long road for them to even aspire to be as liberal as Kazakhstan.
- Doing Business in Uzbekistan: Formal Institutions and Informal Practices
- New Strategies for An Old Rivalry? China-Russia Relations in Central Asia After the Energy Boom
- Turkmenistan: Domestic Evolution, Economic Development, and Regional Environment
- Factoring Mongolia’s non-Membership In the Shanghai Cooperation Organization
- Call for Papers for The Fifth Annual Doctoral Research Workshop on Central Asia