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Democracy in the Stans: a myth or a future prospect?

The Stans is a geographical region of Central Asia consisting of 5 post-Soviet republics, who share a nomadic past and mostly Turkic-based languages. After the demise of communist rule, Central Asian republics became darlings of Western NGOs, funds, and sponsors. However, numerous attempts of outsiders to promote democracy in the region didn’t yield expected results, as by today the Stans remain to be autocratic regimes.

Geographical location of the Stans

After the collapse of the USSR in the 90s the newly formed sovereign countries, many of which were plentiful of natural resources and land, became a desired trouvaille for international powers. Young and economically unstable, most of the Stans are notorious for being the most resistant towards democratization among their post-Soviet counterparts. In Western media the countries are often referred to as a conglomerate rather than distinctive states with unique history and pathways, and as such are seen as a gaggle of poor authoritarian countries squeezed in-between huge players like Russia, China, and the Middle East. However, they followed distinct political and economic pathways. Almost 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union they now have developed different approaches to economic growth, education, political freedom, and diplomatic performance. While the region is estimated as hardline authoritarian by many international indices, there’s one outlier — Kyrgyzstan. The second smallest Stan has been outperforming its neighbors in democratic rankings for decades now, drawing international political and media attention.

In mass media and academic research Kyrgyzstan enjoys the title of the “island of democracy” among former Soviet states. Since it gained independence from the Soviet rule, Kyrgyzstan significantly outperformed its counterparts in democratic rankings, as, for example, it is more than 50 positions higher on the 2016 Bertelsmann Transformation Index than Kazakhstan, the richest of the Stans, and around 70 positions higher than the rest of the region. While all four of the Stans were characterized as hard-line autocracies, Kyrgyzstan was the only one to qualify as defective democracy. Politics of Kyrgyzstan are very turbulent, and its democratic experiments impose stress on its neighbors, as the country, as put in the words of journalist Catherine Putz, “has had as many prime ministers as it had years of independence.”

What makes the case of Kyrgyzstan different from its historical counterparts and geographical neighbors? One of the possible explanations is Kyrgyzstan’s lack of potential to be a rentier economy, compared to resource-rich Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. This means that the government doesn’t possess sufficient financial means to maintain the status quo, and, therefore, is vulnerable to social unrest and political overthrow. Kyrgyzstan, however, is not the only one deprived of natural capital: so is its southern neighbor Tajikistan, which cannot be classified as a rentier state either. Tajikistan heavily relies on state-owned manufacturing and agricultural sectors, which, unlike in Kyrgyzstan, were not privatized after the collapse of the USSR. This brings us to another argument: Kyrgyzstan’s early liberalization and privatization of state enterprises and land have set the ground for future democratization processes. Kyrgyzstan’s first president Askar Akayev didn’t hesitate to lead the country towards democratization from its very independence. This process, which gave a lot of hope to international democracy promoters, did not last long, as Akayev turned onto a slippery slope towards authoritarianism. Nevertheless, he was the only of the first Central Asian rulers to adopt such a modernizing approach, even if it was temporary. The reason Akayev (and his successors) could not consolidate autocracy partly lies in the weak control of government over police and military. Lack of centralized power makes Kyrgyzstan distinct from its neighbors, and social unrest is not atypical for the Kyrgyz population: in less than 30 years of its independence, the country has experienced 3 revolutions and changed 6 presidents. All revolutions have made the previous rulers either flee the country or resign, — a scenario that seems impossible for other Stans, as, for example, the change of political order in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan has only happened due to the previous ruler’s death, rather than elections or political overturn.

Kyrgyzstan, however, can’t be called a role democratic model. It is, rather, more mischievous than others. Its first ruler Akayev attempted to establish personalistic rule and tolerated escalating cronyism in governmental structures. In his pursuit to consolidate power, he was overthrown and had to seek asylum in Russia. Under his successor’s Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s rule, nepotism and corruption have only flourished in the country. The regime was personalistic and corrupted, which led to another revolution. After two consequential forced changes of power the Kyrgyz people vaccinated themselves against authoritarianism: the new Constitution was adopted, which restricted presidential rule to 6 years maximum with no consequential re-election. This reform aimed to prevent the usurpation of power yet was not as successful as intended: in 2020, the country was shaken by protests that gradually outgrew into a revolution against the autocratic rule of the fifth president Sooronbay Jeenbekov and blatantly fraudulent parliamentary elections.

These events have caused the country to fall 11 positions down in the 2021 Freedom House Report — the most dramatic decline in the entire ranking, even though the country is still higher than the rest of the Stans. According to the report, Kyrgyzstan now falls in a “not free” category together with other Stans. The formally elected president Sadyr Japarov (whose jump from prison into the president’s seat is not a beau ideal of democratic order anyway) has drafted a new Constitution which was criticized for moulding another authoritarian regime.

2020, marked by the outraging pandemic, has been a year of democratic struggle, as many countries underperformed in the rankings in the light of economic and health crises. The Stans weren’t an exception, as the pandemic hit their already fragile economies. Nevertheless, in the past year the rest of the Stans have shown some changes towards democratization. President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has been one of the longest non-monarch rulers in the world, has peacefully resigned and passed the office to his successor Tokayev. After the death of Uzbekistan’s first president, the new ruler Shavkat Mirziyoyev has made significant steps towards gender equality and protection of human rights, liberalizing the economy and opening the country to international trade. It is undeniable that the pandemic exacerbated pre-existing inequalities, corruption, violations of human rights, and poverty in Central Asia, as it did in the rest of the world; even the region’s outlier Kyrgyzstan has staggered and joined the ranks of authoritarian states.

Pandemic and economic crisis have caused de-democratization in many countries, and the worldwide decline in political freedom has marked its 15th consecutive year, according to the Freedom House report. Democratic values are deteriorating, and the young governments of the Stans, who just stepped on the path to democratization, have now bounced back into autocratic rules. Some critics claim there is a democratic future for the region as slight changes have been made in the past years, but in the light of the pandemic it remains unclear how long this process will take — if it will happen at all.


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