Rigged Elections in Central Asia: West Exits Stage Left

March 20 (Stratfor)


Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan held the second round of their parliamentary elections on March 12. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) stated that tabulation irregularities, media bias and exclusionary candidate registration practices marred both elections. The result is the beginning of the end of the democratic experiment in Central Asia. This transition to more overtly autocratic regimes gives the West an excuse to scale back its activities in the region and leaves Russia free to digest an increasingly troubled area.


The United States labeled the March 12 Kyrgyz parliamentary elections "a clear setback for the democratic process." And in Tajikistan, the United Nations and OSCE witnessed two rigged elections, which eroded six years of efforts to build an inclusive government. Since U.N. and OSCE involvement in Central Asia centers on these two semi-democratic states, their rationale for engaging the region has evaporated. These political developments will help the West justify its increasingly rapid withdrawal from Central Asia, leaving the region open to a Russian resurgence.

Economically, there are few reasons for the West to remain engaged in Central Asia. The region's only significant oil producer, Kazakstan, exports virtually all of its oil via the Russian pipeline network. Turkmenistan is the region's primary gas producer, but it retains close economic ties with Russia and, increasingly, Iran. Aside from petroleum exports, these states offer little to the international economy. All are inefficient producers of commodities or low quality manufactured goods.

The United States realizes it has no firm strategic interests in the region. The Central Asian regimes are too unstable, too remote and too alien for Washington to form them into an effective hedge against Russian expansion. Consequently, while not yet publicizing any plans for withdrawing its Central Asian diplomatic presence, the United States does not afford Central Asia even a shadow of the attention it grants most other regions. The United States has yet to reopen the embassy in the Tajik capital of Dushanbe that it closed in 1998.

Until the recent Kyrgyz and Tajik elections, the West's sole pretext for engaging Central Asia was to support the fledgling democratic movements in the region. Kazakstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have unapologetically authoritarian political systems. Western efforts, therefore, largely focused on semi-democratic � and even more remote � Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

The OSCE and the United Nations have long touted developments in these two states. Both invested significant resources in first ending the Tajik civil war and then aiding in the recovery. However, the political climate in Tajikistan has become increasingly frigid over the past few years. The international community watched as Tajik President Emomali Rakhmonov manipulated first the November 1999 presidential elections and then the March 2000 parliamentary elections � establishing a level of political control that makes a mockery of OSCE and U.N. efforts.

Kyrgyzstan, emerging from the Soviet breakup with an economy completely dependent upon its neighbors, allowed the International Monetary Fund and World Bank to redesign its economy and financial laws. Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev also spearheaded Kyrgyzstan's interest in the free market and democracy. With this, the country gained substantial economic aid for its troubled economy. An open Kyrgyzstan provided an anchor for Western hopes in the region. However, as the country spiraled deeper into debt, Akayev's commitment to liberalism faltered. Unsurprisingly, the March 12 elections deflated the Kyrgyz democratic balloon.

The OSCE-supported and U.N.-sponsored Tajik peace process was to end with the election of a new government on March 12. The United Nations has already announced plans to close all of its regional Tajik offices. Plans have yet to be released regarding the future of the observer presence in Dushanbe � the de facto Central Asian headquarters for the United Nations and de jure headquarters for the OSCE. Without a mandate or a mission, they will likely either dramatically reduce their operations or eliminate them altogether. Without a veneer of democracy to justify involvement, the West can cut its losses and focus its energies elsewhere.

The Western retreat leaves the geographically remote, economically stagnant and politically corrupt Central Asian states increasingly open to Russian influence. Yet Russia may find the region as distasteful as the West has. As wretched as Russia's own economic situation is � Russian per capita income amounts to $2,300 according to the World Bank � that of the Central Asian states is even worse. Islamic extremism and political instability are on the rise, and Russia may find itself drawn into anti-guerrilla operations across the region in a manner similar to the Afghan war. The recent Commonwealth of Independent States initiative to jointly combat terrorism indicates that Russia is preparing for just that eventuality.

State Kazakstan  Kyrgyzstan  Tajikistan  Turkmenistan  Uzbekistan
President  Nursultan Nazarbayev  Askar Akayev  Emomali Rakhmonov  Saparmurat Niyazov  Islam Karimov
Last Election  April 1995*  December 1995  November 1999  January 1994*+  January 2000
Elected with x% of vote  NA  75  97  99.9  90
GDP per capita (1998)  $1310  $350  $350  $1390 (1992)  $870

* Term extended by referendum

+ President Niyazov became President for life in January 2000

Source: The World Bank

The recent rigged elections in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan removed much of the West's rationale for remaining engaged in Central Asia. This will expedite Western efforts to depart from the region. Russian influence will rise, but it will face the same obstacles that the West did � and Russia lacks the Western option of simply picking up and going home.

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