Central Asian Republics

A Balancing Act between Democracy and Islam

What role does Islam play in the Central Asian republics? What progress has been made in the democratization process and how does the EU fit into the picture? An interview with Reinhard Krumm, director of the Central Asian Office of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation

What role does Islam play in the Central Asian republics? What progress has been made in the democratization process and how does the EU fit into the picture? An interview with Reinhard Krumm, director of the Central Asian Office of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung

photo: AP
Protestors in Kyrgyzstan: in Central Asia, political and Islamic radicalism is a reaction to repression from the political class, Reinhard Krumm argeus

​​Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan – does the Tulip Revolution of Bishkek really fit in this list?

Reinhard Krumm: One of the few things the Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan have in common is the fact that the overthrow of the regime was triggered by elections. Even for Kyrgyzstan's not particularly politically engaged population, President Askar Akayev's exclusion of rival candidates and promotion of his own protégés was an all too crude maneuver. The docile parliament would simply allow the president to remain in office for a third term, despite constitutional provisions to the contrary – or at least so he thought.

But this explanation does not really get to the bottom of the situation, because it only looks at the political aspect. This quickly became apparent after the revolution. With few exceptions, the opposition parties are not yet equipped with a true political platform or economic program. They themselves were caught by surprise at the turn of events.

What are the deeper causes behind the overthrow then?

Krumm: Economic and social conditions in the country play a prominent role. The country has been experiencing a downslide for years now. Especially the South is suffering privation. Resentment has been growing and it is thus no surprise that the unrest began in the southern provinces.

There are also two further factors that do not necessarily follow the Ukrainian handbook for democratic change: for one thing, the politicians from the South supposedly have close contacts with organized crime. The gangsters had a strong interest in gaining more influence in parliament in order to legalize their cash flow.

Furthermore, there appears to be concrete evidence that the militant Islamic organization Hisb al-Tahrir had a hand in the uprisings. Hisb al-Tahrir is active primarily in Uzbekistan, but since up to 15 percent of the population in southern Kyrgyzstan is Uzbek, the organization has plenty of sympathizers there.

And finally, the regime was already weakened. Two years ago, the police opened fire on demonstrators in the South. For the leaders of the security forces, it was clear that this must not be allowed to happen again – and so the police stood by passively when provincial mayors' offices were stormed, and even when the parliament was taken over.

What role does Islam play in the region?

Krumm: Islam did play a role in the events in Kyrgyzstan, but one should be careful not to overestimate the influence of Hisb al-Tahrir. The true Islamic countries in Central Asia are Uzbekistan und Tajikistan.

In Uzbekistan, Islam is prominent everywhere in public life, even though the country has adopted a secular constitution. In spite of this, the state continues to promote Islam, building mosques and madrasas and providing religious instruction. This all takes place under the strict control of the state. Discussion of the role of Islam in society is just starting to get underway. It's still the case that whoever does not bow to state control runs the risk of being branded an outlaw.

What are the consequences of these policies?

Krumm: The number of radical Islamists is growing. It's hard to say exactly how many people are members of Hisb al-Tahrir – but this much is clear: their ranks are swelling. Human Rights Watch recently published a book titled "Creating Your Own Enemy." The Uzbek government supports Islam but at the same time takes action against Islamists. It has no idea how to master this balancing act. The state is clearly at a loss here and reacts according to the old Soviet pattern: when in doubt, arrest. This policy only succeeds in pouring oil on the flames of the sympathizers.

Nevertheless, the rulers have understandable reasons for taking action against radical Islam. For example, there really seem to have been contacts between radical Uzbeks and international organizers who were responsible for the 2004 bombings in Tashkent.

Are there similar developments in Tajikistan?

Krumm: In Tajikistan, a bloody civil war ended as recently as 1997. Islam played a role in the war, but it was more a conflict between the rebellious North and the old post-Soviet elites in the South. Tajikistan has the only legal Islamic party in Central Asia: the Islamic Renaissance Party.

However, its wings were clipped at the last elections. Three weeks before election day, the party leaders were made to understand that they would get two seats in parliament - and that would have to be enough, so they might as well stop campaigning. And that's exactly what happened. This kind of stratagem can lead to the party splitting into a legal parliamentary wing and an illegal faction that is willing to resort to violence.

Which of the countries in Central Asia is in the best position to start off down the road to democracy?

Krumm: Kyrgyzstan is of course going through a phase in which some democratic adjustments could be made. But it remains to be seen if this will actually happen, because many of the politicians in the new cabinet have already been in power at some point. This is one of the problems in all of Central Asia: the pool of potential political players is very limited.

There are perhaps a few politicians here and there who have studied abroad, but the old cadre still very much prevails. A representative of OSCE spoke in Kyrgyzstan of the old guard's "last stand." It looks like either the former governor Kurmanbek Bakiyev from the South or the former intelligence chief Felix Kulov from the North will be the new president. And one can only hope that the face-off of these geographical fronts does not lead to a conflict.

What is the situation like in Kazakhstan?

Krumm: Kazakhstan has a good chance of navigating a successful democratization process. The country is experiencing an incredible economic boom. The Minister for Education just announced that her staff's salaries are set to increase by 60 percent over the next two years. The success of the economy in part reinforces civil society and this feeds into the political processes.

Like all other countries in Central Asia, however, Kazakhstan also faces the problem that a changing of the guard would wash away the erstwhile elites. This would not affect the presidents and their families to any extent, but the self-named, non-democratically legitimated hangers-on will do everything in their power to prevent change.

What influence does the European Union exercise in Central Asia?

Krumm: Central Asia is a special case in Asia; it has been molded by Russian and the Soviet Union – in other words by a European power. With the exception of Turkmenistan, all of the Central Asian states have signed a partnership treaty with the EU. The EU Commission has its regional headquarters in Almaty and is primarily in charge of implementing infrastructure projects.

In contrast to the Americans, who are reviled as missionaries, Europe, as a community sharing common values, is highly regarded. But the EU does not have substantial political pull because it has yet to espouse a clear position.

Germany certainly plays a special role here as the only EU member state to have diplomatic representation in every country. The key player in the region, though, is still Russia. And its influence is once again on the rise. Even the new government in Kyrgyzstan has already declared that it will work together closely with the Russians.

Interview: Tobias Asmuth

Translation from German: Jennifery Taylor-Gaida

© Qantara.de 2005

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