Exploring the Turkic world, part three: politics and human rights

It’s only fair (and balanced) to begin wrapping up my posts on the Turkic world with a current overview of the political and human rights situation in the countries and communities that make up this world. Books and music are fine and all, but it would remiss of me not to make some comments on the socio-political realities in these countries.

I’d also like to emphasise that I prefer to use “Turkic” to describe these nationalities, languages and cultures. “Central Asia” is something that Westerners and other non-Turkic people use to classify a (relatively) modern geopolitical region. It neither describes nor reflects accurately the original and authentic milieu of the peoples living in the region.

So, the main point of this post, the last official one of this series.

I’ve only focused on some of the socio-cultural and historical aspects of the Turkic world thus far. Politically, it should matter, and does matter, because everything from the “War on Terror” to future geopolitical developments between this region and important regional powers (for want of a better term) – such as China, Russia, the European Union, and the US – affects, and is affected by this region.

Central Asia - physical map

Bigger pic here

Why it matters

I would normally be hesitant to advocate the involvement of the United States in so-called neo-imperialist adventures (witness Iraq and Afghanistan), but I tend to agree with the reasoning of this post “Why Central Asia Should Matter”, whose author argues that the US should get build up greater rappochment with the countries in this region. This would at least improve friendly relations with non-fundamentalist Muslims, discrediting the idea of a “clash of civilisations”, and to help these countries open up to economic, and eventually political liberalisation.

Endemic political repression and human rights violations
In part two of this series, I focused on entertainment and the music scene across the Turkic-speaking countries. The political and human rights situation is no less important. All of these ex-Soviet republics are non-Soviet in name, but in practice as repressive as their previous incarnation as Soviet republics. Uzbekistan has been characterised as the most repressive (and still is); Turkmenistan under its previous leader Turkmenbashi did not improve under his cult of personality; Kazakhstan is oil-rich (some say the richest of the five Turkic “stans”) but suffers from endemic corruption just like its neighbours; Tajikistan is run by warlords and feudal clans, and is the poorest; Kyrgyzstan is the most economically-free and probably closest to being a liberal democracy, but has problems, including those of a free media.

Also, Registan has a round up of the US State Department’s 2006 human rights reports on the Turkic-speaking countries.

Press freedom
The concept of a free media includes press freedom. See this recent summary of what’s been happening in Kyrgyzstan and a couple of other countries. Uzbekistan’s president Islam Karimov and Kazakhstan’s president Nursultan Nazarbayev are considered two of the world’s “Predators of Press Freedom” by Reporters Without Borders.

Also from Reporters Without Borders, see this article on increasing violence against women journalists, a (sad but) fitting report for International Women’s Day (8 March). An excerpt:

The former Soviet Union was especially tough for women journalists in 2006. Ogulsapar Muradova, Radio Free Europe’s correspondent in Turkmenistan, died in prison in September, probably as a result of blows she had received to the head. She was arrested in June after producing reports critical of the authorities and helping a French journalist to make a TV documentary in Turkmenistan. In neighbouring Uzbekistan, journalist and human rights activist Umida Niyazova has been detained since 22 January. She faces a possible sentence of five to 10 years in prison for circulating the accounts of victims of the 2005 crackdown in Andijan.

Umida Niazova, Uzbek journalist and human rights activist
Umida Niazova, July, 2006. © 2007 Private.

More on Umida Niyazova at Human Rights Watch here.

Societal and political reform?

Historically, Central Asia / the Turkic world has always had authoritarian leaders and feudal societies. This can be used as a touchstone to understand how they may be able to (hopefully) move forward. Tom Bissell’s Chasing the Sea talks about the (broadly) Uzbek feudal culture and its practices. It’s a pity that the spirit and practices of old atrocities have been carried onwards to modern times, as attested in a Human Rights Watch report that Bissell read while he was in Uzbekistan. (The report is from 2000 – “And it was hell all over again…”. An old report, but nevertheless a very harrowing one.)

There is also a recent interview with Bissell him here. He was asked about the contrast between Estonia, where he had just visited, and Central Asia in terms of reform. His answer:

Two words: Extraordinary leadership. I’m afraid it really is that simple. They had leaders that, by and large, put the interests of the people and the future of their nation ahead of their own gain. Obviously, Estonia had memories of relatively recent democratic rule and independence to build off of, which many post-Soviet states simply did not have. But I don’t think it’s out of the question to believe that the rise of one forward-looking, reasonable leader in any number of former-Soviet states could literally change the entire political texture of those countries.

On a lighter note…this article by Howard French on his travels to Kashgar, Xinjiang has subtle undercurrents – intentional or not – that may have political ramifications. For more Xinjiang coverage, The Opposite End of China has a lot more.

References/further reading:
Global Voices – Central Asia & Caucasus page
Human Rights Watch
Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
Reporters Without Borders – Europe and the former USSR
Reporters Without Borders – Worldwide Press Freedom Index 2006
The Opposite End of China – Xinjiang and Northwest China blog


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