Academic journal article Connections : The Quarterly Journal

The Transfer of Power in Central Asia and Threats to Regional Stability

Academic journal article Connections : The Quarterly Journal

The Transfer of Power in Central Asia and Threats to Regional Stability

Article excerpt

It is no secret that authoritarian forms of government are predominant across post-Soviet space, although some are softer than others. In Moscow, Astana, Minsk, Dushanbe, Ashkhabad and so forth across almost the entire region, each country is governed by "strong personalities," some enlightened, others not. Even today's Ukraine, which is a little closer to the West in terms of geography and mentality, continues to hesitantly fluctuate between poles of democracy and authoritarianism. Truth be told, these endless oscillations will ultimately mean the death of the country.

Authoritarianism offers uncontested advantages that help the former Soviet republics to find and maintain stability during transition: authoritarian methods are the shortest path to consensus, and facilitate control and governance. The population, meanwhile, has no objection to "strong personalities," tolerating figures that might be overthrown elsewhere, because they are "saviors of the homeland" - a legend discreetly confirmed by all-pervasive state propaganda. All of history, both recent and more distant, tells us of endless "foreign chicanery," the permanent state of being "surrounded by enemies," as if living in a "besieged fortress," where it is so often necessary to "power through," "resist and rebuff' and so on, and so forth.

Since Ukraine, the reflex to "support our man," to "stand up for our beloved leader" has only become stronger in post-Soviet authoritarian states: the horrors of a civil war initiated from outside the country leave the population no choice. This populace will not hesitate to support its "strong personality" but will not support democracy, because you can only sit back and wait for the fruits of liberal democratic reforms to ripen if you are protected by two oceans (as in the case of the USA) or if 800 years have passed since your first social contract (as in the case of England).

In all post-Soviet countries, authoritarianism is obscured by the fig leaf of constitutional clauses stipulating democratic provisions and institutions which, truth be told, do not function (because it would be foolish to obey the law during a "period of lethal danger") or are selectively deployed at strategic moments for the benefit of world public opinion (for example, the UN General Assembly).

Naturally, the population in post-Soviet countries understand that the quality of governance in authoritarian regimes is fairly low, while the risk of instability, or imbalance between the interests of society and the elite, is high. This is a drawback. A greater downside of authoritarian forms of governance, which has not yet been fully evident in post-Soviet space but which threatens stability across the Eurasian continent, is the lack of institutions for the transfer of power.

The rotation of leaders in such a political system is truly a time of historic vulnerability, as the old and weak president withdraws, as he can no longer exert control over events in the country, and a new leader takes his place, who is equally weak because he is, as yet, unable to control the state machinery. At this point, competitors can take advantage, forcing a redistribution of resources and property, perhaps under the guise of reform. Meanwhile, the forces attempting to choreograph the political transition face the ultimate challenge: correctly balancing the distribution of power in line with existing relationships between clans, tribes, families, etc. - an exceptionally complex task.

Given such vulnerability, the process of transferring power is conducted in a total information blackout, especially as regards the health of heads of state. The modest history of power transfers in post-Soviet space has already given us a memorable example: the figure who first heard about the illness of the president of Turkmenistan (naturally, it was the Minister for Health) inherited that high office.

As they come to power, new forces inevitably begin (as a rule under the label of "reform") the radical redistribution of resources, without which it would be impossible for them to hold on to power. …

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