RIPPLES OF CHANGE IN CENTRAL ASIA
At the end of 2022 I travelled to Kazakhstan, as Chairman of Eurasian Creative Guild to report on the early Presidential Elections and constitutional reform called by President Tokaev. It was a showcase, multimedia affair, streamed live on TV, a modern ‘progressive’ event to show the world democracy exists in the ‘Stans’. Almost a year earlier Kyrgyzstan had undergone the same process, with a little less razzamatazz. Both countries cited earlier protests and unrest as reasons for these changes and the need for reform.
I was back in Kazakhstan again during March 2023, for local and parliamentary elections, where ‘listening to the people’ and ‘building a platform for the future’ were two new mantras. And now in April 2023 I am in Uzbekistan, where they too are holding a referendum on constitutional reform.
As I sit in a cafe drinking coffee and people watching, I am surprised that I get a text on my temporary Uzbek Sim card – few people know where I am and even fewer know my number. As I retrieve my phone from the jacket hanging on the back of my chair I realised that other peoples phones had pinged. I opened the message and watched two well dressed women showing each other their phone screens and smiling, a young man pressed delete and unimpressed returned the phone to the table. Even with my limited language skills I could see the number 30 and Aprelya Referenduma. I worked out that below was a web link presumably telling me where the polling stations were. Another example of how technology is rapidly being used in this region steeped in tradition. Whether texts or TV encourages people to vote is debatable but over the next few days I received more texts and saw more electronic billboards and flags.
This ripple effect is described by opponents of those currently in power as a means to build more power and some even see it as a return to a more dictatorial leadership, extending presidential terms and setting up systems that these currently popular leaders vowed to dismantle when they came to power. Many others describe the process as a path to more democracy, stability and accountability. Which way it plays out in each country, and even if other countries in the region follow the ripples, will only be told over time.
Politics is a hot topic and, some twelve or so years since I first visited here, at least people are talking about it. Back in the early days my first taxi rides here were suddenly silent if I asked anything vaguely political but on my last Kazakh visit it was all that people were talking about. In Uzbekistan they are a little more reserved. In some cases it turned out they were not sure what they were voting for in the referendum. With 154 statements to read, understand and agree or disagree with but with only one ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote, who could blame them!
Domestic politics is one thing but it is played out in front of the glare of foreign affairs and international diplomacy and decisions made by leaders are instantly visible. The unexpected decision by Central Asian leaders to attend the May 9th parade in Moscow is one such example – only one high-ranking guest was due to attend: Kyrgyz President, Sadyr Japarov. All of the others either changed plans or laid a trail of false narratives before attending. Either way it shows that Central Asian countries are seen as important players in the current world ‘disorder’. Both for the West and for Russian and China!
Back on the streets of Tashkent, a day after the referendum, the warm spring enables the evening cafe culture to start in earnest and the fountains are being refilled and turned on to cool the air. Even before the flags proclaiming the referendum are removed, an announcement is given that snap presidential elections have been called by President Japarov. Within the next two months another multimedia extravaganza will fill the airways: phones will beep to urge the voters to the polling stations and democracy will move forward again. Or maybe the people will start to tire and voter apathy will take over? It is hard to see the currently popular leaders losing and in the case of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan extending their terms in office by seven and fourteen years respectively should ensure the continuity at least. However, history shows us that when leaders become unpopular or out stay their welcome the stability begins to break down. In any case it seems that the ripples are travelling across the region even further and will continue to do so until calm returns to the bigger pond of Central Asian politics!
by Gareth Stamp