NBCentralAsia observers concur with a new ranking that lists Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan among the world’s least democratic states.
In the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index 2010, published at the end of the year, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan were fourth and third lowest-placed, respectively, with only Chad and North Korea below them on a list of 167 states.
The Democracy Index looks at the electoral process, political pluralism and participation, governance and civil liberties. On paper, both Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have constitutions that guarantee civil and political rights and stipulate the independence of executive, legislature and judiciary.
Commentators in the two Central Asian states say that as the Democracy Index suggests, there are in reality no free media there; opposition members, other activists and independent journalists are persecuted, blacklisted and imprisoned; and the Turkmen and Uzbek presidents enjoy unlimited power. "We have a classical authoritarian regime that abuses its citizens,” a media-watcher in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat said. "People keep their heads down so as to avoid ending up in a terrible place. They are afraid of everything, and everyone denounces one another."
Ronash Dustov, an analyst in the Uzbek capital Tashkent, believes the lack of basic freedoms makes people apathetic, mistrustful of others, and insecure about the future. "Virtually no one feels free in Uzbekistan," he said. "Only one person in Uzbekistan gets to express an opinion, and the rest have to listen and obey. The work of government consists of pursuing the general line set out by the leadership, whatever it takes."
Despite the bleak picture they paint of the current situation, some analysts see faint possibilities for improvement in both countries. In Turkmenistan, one commentator said, "The authorities are unable to ban the internet. They restrict it, but they can’t ban it. It provides us with a window to the democratic world."
Other hints of relaxation in Turkmenistan include the launch of a human rights project sponsored by the European Union, something that seemed hardly possible until it happened.
Tajigul Begmedova, head of the Turkmen Helsinki Fund for Human Rights based in Bulgaria, believes change could be generational. “There’s a generation growing up who’ve been educated abroad and experienced freedom,” she said. “They have a different way of thinking; they cannot accept it when the government behaves in an illogical fashion and they discuss it with their peers."
For Begmedova, there are specific actions the government must take if it is serious about reform. "First, the old regime [of late president Saparmurat Niazov] must be condemned, political prisoners must be rehabilitated, and experts should be recruited to design a plan for rescuing the country from stagnation," she said. "At the same time, experts from the Red Cross, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch should be invited in." In Uzbekistan, Dustov said signs of democratisation would come when President Islam Karimov not only spoke about encouraging civil society groups, political parties and media freedom, as he sometimes does, but actually began putting these things into practice.
This article was produced as part of IWPR’s News Briefing Central Asia output, funded by the National Endowment for Democracy.