Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

After Decades of Disappointments in Central Asian and Caucasus States, Post Mortem Begins

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

After Decades of Disappointments in Central Asian and Caucasus States, Post Mortem Begins

Article excerpt

After Decades of Disappointments in Central Asian and Caucasus States, Post Mortem Begins

In a recent study on Western engagement in the Caucasus and Central Asia, Oxford professor Neil MacFarlane says initial confidence that the region would swiftly embrace democracy and market reforms was misplaced. In hindsight, it seems to reflect Western arrogance and a failure to understand the region's cultural traditions and Soviet legacy.

The three Caucasus countries -- Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia -- and five Central Asian nations -- Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan -- have been bombarded by advice from Western governments, agencies anti commercial interests.

The Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is just one of many agencies seeking to help the transition to free markets and democracy, says spokeswoman Melissa Fleming. "We do try to steer these countries on the course of democratic development. But that's very general. We also tailor each of our missions or offices specifically to the needs of the country." However, the study by MacFarlane, a professor of international relations, finds the results of all the efforts -- from a Western perspective -- have been disappointing.

He says it "has become clear that there is significant resistance to many aspects of the Western agenda" and that the politics of the region "remain far short of consolidated democracy." Political parties and legislatures remain weak. Structures of power tend to be personalistic. Judicial structures remain arbitrary and often are used for political purposes. Human rights are frequently violated.

The situation varies from country to country. At the low end is Turkmenistan, where there have been no elections judged free and fair by observers. At the other end is Georgia, which has had two sets of free elections, and where there is a diverse party structure.

Still, most of the region has failed to adopt Western-style modes of governance and economic management, and is trailing far behind the Central European countries in adopting effective reforms.

Why is this? MacFarlane says the political and cultural habits of the Central Asian and Caucasus countries have proved resistent to the Western liberalizing challenge. He also says Western hopes of a rapid implementation of political and economic changes have proved to be too optimistic in what he calls "weak and poorly consolidated states." He notes that the region is "not particularly fertile ground for the liberal agenda."

The region's capacity to respond to the Western political and economic agenda is constrained by an absence of any historically rooted tradition of civil society and democratic governance. This has been reinforced by the Soviet legacy, which was one of hostility to independent associations with political and social agendas.

The Soviet era also produced a profound indifference to -- if not cynicism about -- the state and political engagement. Politics was not something you did; it was something other people did to you.

The region's population has not been engaged in politics and, consequently, evinces little, if any, sense of political obligation.

When coupled with the disillusionment and chaos that have characterized the post-Soviet era in much of the region, these attitudes have contributed to a widespread popular deference to strong leadership. To the extent a leader and his circle provide a modicum of order, the population has tended to support them.

This phenomenon appears to be particularly strong in those Caucasian societies that have experienced civil conflict -- in Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia or south Ossetia. …

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