Authoritarian learning in Central Asia: Russia’s nefarious influence
Illustration: Rachel Cottrell

Background

Authoritarian learning has been defined as “a process in which authoritarian regimes adopt survival strategies based upon the prior successes and failures of other governments” (Hall & Ambrosio, 2017); it involves the proliferation of the “worst practices” of authoritarianism from one country to another. 

The process thus counteracts the Western-led democratisation efforts seen throughout the Former Soviet Union (FSU) and Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) after the collapse of communism. Russia today provides an alternative model to Western liberal democracy.

Authoritarian learning involves the proliferation of the “worst practices” of authoritarianism from one country to another. 

The concept’s detrimental implications for democracy are clear: if authoritarian leaders become ‘better’ at being authoritarian, and help others do the same, prospects for democratisation processes in Central Asia are vastly weakened. Worryingly, Central Asian leaders have proven highly receptive to the spread of such iniquitous ideas. 

The region is already one which displays a multitude of anti-democratic features. Freedom House ratings for the five republics range from a high of 38/100 in Kyrgyzstan (“partly free”) to just 2/100 in Turkmenistan (“not free”), which scored 0/40 for political rights. The latter ranked 179/180 for press freedom this year – pipped to the ‘top’ spot only by North Korea. 

The links between Russia and the five Central Asian republics are more deep-rooted than a shared taste for autocracy: until just 1991, the five had never been independent states – instead, they had been subsumed into the Soviet Union (USSR). That long relationship left a region with a mix of ethnicities and religions and Russia diaspora everywhere when the USSR collapsed. 

Factors

Jackson (2010) has detailed the key external factors through which Russia has strengthened, and continues to strengthen, Central Asia’s authoritarian rulers: the diffusion of ideas and norms; the growing use of economic and cultural power; the minimal but strategic use of hard power; and the development of regional organisations. It must also be noted that this process is symbiotic: authoritarian learning in the region has also strengthened Russia’s autocratic system. 

Diffusion

While the diffusion of ideas and norms is, by its very nature, difficult to track, there are clear examples of this process, and of the deleterious effects it can foster. This is particularly stark when one considers the ‘Colour Revolutions’ that swept through Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan from 2003-05 and brought relatively more pro-Western regimes to power than was to Putin’s taste. 

The Turkmen Internal Troops welcome then Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in October 2015. Image: President of Ukraine via Wikimedia and Creative Commons

Chief among the fingered culprits for said revolutions, at least according to the Kremlin’s narrative, were Western-led and financed non-governmental organisations (NGOs) which, it was claimed, financed the opposition and sought to subvert the incumbent regimes. Russia responded with a 2006 law that increased state supervision of foreign NGOs: such organisations would now be required to inform the government in advance about every project they intended to conduct. 

Central Asian leaders followed suit. Islam Karimov, then President of Uzbekistan, began to shutter Western democracy programmes and domestic bodies which focused on democracy issues. In 2005, more than 60% of NGOs active in the state were put out of business. 

Analysts have linked Russia’s 2013 law outlawing “homosexual propaganda” to a similar Kyrgyz bill the next year which outlawed “the formation of a positive attitude towards non-traditional sexual relations”.

Today, according to Freedom House, the Russian government continues to harass NGOs. In Uzbekistan, just last year, the Centre for the Development of Civil Society was established to “oversee” the activities of NGOs – a likely euphemistic remit. The American Councils for International Education continued to be denied accreditation. In Turkmenistan, independent NGOs are still prevented from operating legally or receiving foreign funding. Kazakhstan, meanwhile, has placed extensive restrictions on the formation and operation of NGOs.

Putin is a clear trendsetter in Central Asia – even reinforcing such through organised visits and media opportunities with the Central Asian Presidents. Image: Vladislav Brusarski

There is further evidence of Russia’s role as a ‘legislative trend-setter’. Analysts have linked Russia’s 2013 law outlawing “homosexual propaganda” to a similar Kyrgyz bill the next year which outlawed “the formation of a positive attitude towards non-traditional sexual relations”.

Leaders in the region have also been encouraged to flout international norms. In 2007, President Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan changed the constitution to remove limits on his term; he stepped down just last year, having ruled for three decades. This move can be seen as a precursor to the referendum in Russia scheduled for 1st July which, if/when approved, would allow President Putin to rule until 2036 (he became Prime Minister and then acting President in 1999). 

Central Asian leaders have also been encouraged to flout international norms by Russia

Regional leaders also regularly congratulate one another on brazenly rigged elections. President Berdimuhamedow of Turkmenistan won 97.69% of the vote in 2017; turnout was over 97%. He was congratulated by Putin, who wished him “further successful work at the highest state post”. A year prior, when President Mirziyoyev of Uzbekistan won 88.6% of the vote, Putin had cast the former’s “convincing victory” as a reflection of his “great authority” among his compatriots. 

Economic & cultural power

Moscow’s economic and cultural power further entrenches authoritarianism in the region, again in a symbiotic fashion.  Trade relations are clearly associated with ‘authoritarian learning’. Four months after taking office in December 2016, for instance, Mirziyoyev visited Moscow, where Russia and Uzbekistan signed agreements to implement $3.8bn of trade contracts and $12bn of investment projects. It has been shown that the lowest democracy scores in Russia’s regions were found in those with the highest levels of trade with the FSU and the lowest EU assistance levels. 

Russian remains the lingua franca in all five nations.

Particularly pertinent on the cultural front is the number of Central Asian citizens who travel to Russia for work: such workers provided $2bn in remittances to Kyrgyzstan in 2016, equivalent to 30% of GDP, and contributed 37% of Tajikistan’s GDP in 2015. Modest Kolerov, Head of Department of Interregional and Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries and the CIS: ‘culture is a weapon that Russia is using to gain respect in the FSU’. Indeed, Russian remains the lingua franca in all five nations. Though fiendishly difficult to prove, it is likely that the reliance on such remittances and fears of Russia’s ‘protection’ of its diasporas (likely fostered by events in Crimea) make Central Asian nations more pliant and forthcoming to Russian demands. 

Hard power

As Jackson has argued, Russia’s minimal but strategic use of hard power has further strengthened Central Asia’s authoritarian rule. Russia’s 201st Motor Rifle Division has a permanent base in Tajikistan. It provides support to the Tajik army to protect the security of the state – contributing to the survival of the regime there. A Russian air base in Kyrgyzstan was also renegotiated in 2008. Relatedly, Russia also induced and cajoled the Kyrgyz government into closing the U.S. air base at Manas in 2014 – Russian influence has been fingered as the ‘key factor’ in the departure. Both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, under their Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) obligations, require full consent among all members prior to agreeing to host a new military base: this gives Moscow a de facto veto on either opening a US military facility in the country. 

Regional organisations

Putin arrives in Bishkek alongside Kyrgyzstani President Jeenbekov on June 13, 2019, for the SCO Heads of State Council meeting. Image: Kremlin.ru via Creative Commons.

The above point segues nicely into a discussion of regional organisations and their contribution to ‘authoritarian learning’. While the CSTO is important in this regard, this article will focus on the more significant and worrying Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). Inaugurated as a formal organisation in 2001, the SCO includes Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, India, and Pakistan as full members. 

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation provides a forum through which authoritarian leaders are reinforced by their counterparts

Its remit centres on combatting the three ‘evils’: terrorism, secessionism, and extremism. The members of the grouping come together to protect one another against trends toward democratisation, making them bolder in their rejection of democratic norms. Two of the key values embodied in the SCO are state ‘sovereignty’ and ‘non-interference’. It is clear that these are harmful for democracy: the former emboldens leaders to act as they please, delegitimising any external criticism; the latter advances the illegitimacy of such events as occurred during the ‘Colour Revolutions’. 

The SCO declaration of 2005 – after the Andijan massacre in Uzbekistan – openly supported its members’ ‘efforts … aimed at providing peace, security and stability in their territory and in the whole region’. The Organisation condoned the Uzbek government’s murder of more than 700 citizens since it contributed to ‘stability’. 

The SCO thus provides a forum through which authoritarian leaders in Central Asia are reinforced by their regional counterparts and protected against ‘external’ democratisation efforts. It also serves as an alternative to the EU or NATO, which many of the former Eastern Bloc countries have joined. 

Prospects

‘Authoritarian learning’ appears to have counteracted any democratisation efforts in Central Asia

Clearly, the governments of Russia and Central Asia contribute to one another’s survival: they legitimise blatantly rigged elections; take inspiration from one another’s most nefarious policies; and, most disturbingly, support one another’s violent repression of citizens. 

Unfortunately, ‘authoritarian learning’ appears to have counteracted any democratisation efforts in the region – at least since the ‘Tulip Revolution’ in Kyrgyzstan in 2005. As their governments exploit COVID-19 to further power-grabs and Putin becomes more brazen in his violation of international norms and expectations, the prospects for democracy in Central Asia and the FSU look, unfortunately, bleak.

Cover Illustration: Rachel Cottrell