The power transitions in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have raised a series of unanswered questions regarding their domestic and foreign policy implications. This paper specifically focuses on the challenges and opportunities of a vibrant civil society emergence in post-Nazarbayev Kazakhstan and post-Karimov Uzbekistan.
A vibrant civil society has long been thought to be a crucial instrument for political change in countries in transition and a key component of a democratic society.
Meanwhile, according to widely held beliefs, the Soviet authoritarian legacy combined with local conservative political culture has obstructed the emergence of democratic values and a vibrant civil society in Central Asian countries.
Kazakhstan represents a distinct Central Asian model of civil society, comparable to Russia but qualitatively different from that in Europe, where civil society is more cooperative with the authoritarian system and offers less resistance to state. As for Uzbekistan, while Islam Karimov’s authoritarian governance would put heavy restrictions on civil society organizations, a question arises as to what extent the government change in 2016 has trickled down to civil society. The presidential decree ‘On measures for strengthening civil society institutes’ role in democratization processes’ of April 2018 is seen as a considerable stride towards setting the foundations to build dialogue between civil society and the government while removing the procedures that would restrict NGOs activities.
Civil society in Uzbekistan has been primarily associated with mahallas, which are self-governing bodies responsible for helping members of the community and other social work (conflict resolution, overall community upkeep, etc.).
The question remains as to what the main challenges to the emergence of a youth-driven, issue-specific civil society are.
Essentially, one of the main priorities on the path to a vibrant civil society emergence in Uzbekistan includes developing the capacities of NGOs, particularly secular civil society organizations. Even though there are over 9000 NGOs registered in Uzbekistan, unlike conservative religious organizations, the opportunities for secular civil society organizations to represent societal interests remain limited due to their organizational weakness and lack of financial support. As a result, many of them have long been inactive with little to no potential to represent certain interest groups and influence decision making.
Similarly, the NGOs in Kazakhstan remain weak and unsustainable. The explanations of institutional ineffectiveness lay in disconnect with local traditions, low visibility of NGOs, and unsupportive government. Survey of general population suggests that people in Kazakhstan know little about NGOs and do not appreciate their utility.
Studies show that one of the main dimensions on the path to a vibrant and consolidated civil society is the “change on the inside”, related to the nature of civil society per se: such as the way it is organised and operates. This has a great deal to do with the development of adequate institutional and professional capacity in civil society organisations and networks as a vital tool for influencing policy making. The institutional development at the organisational level includes building organisational capacities for governance, decision-making, and conflict management, as well as clarifying organisational identity, values, and strategy of impact. The latter is of crucial relevance as a lot of CSOs in both countries were established with no predefined mission, strategic plans, and organization structure. That said, they were doomed to failure in terms of addressing the specific needs of their constituencies.
Another formidable challenge to civil society advancement is restrictive environment, compounded by state repression of dissent and pluralism in the two countries.
The freedom of expression remains severely restricted in both countries. The Karimov’s administration would meticulously control media narrative on politically sensitive issues in Uzbekistan, while shuttering or blocking independent outlets. Even though domestic media, including news websites and live television programs, now cautiously discuss social problems and even criticize local officials, it is not uncommon for journalist to avoid self-censorship to avoid harassment by government. As a result, they avoid openly criticizing Mirziyoyev and the government. Not surprisingly, as suggested by Human Rights Watch reports, censorship is still widespread in Uzbekistan, with the authorities consistently restricting the media through the official state bodies that issue registration for media outlets and regulate journalistic activity.
As for Kazakhstan, the new legislation that came into force in January 2018 has further exacerbated the crackdown on freedom of expression. The law requires journalists to verify the accuracy of information prior to publication by consulting with the relevant government bodies or officials, obtaining consent for the publication of personal or otherwise confidential information, and acquiring accreditation as foreign journalists if they work for foreign outlets.
Clearly, the restrictive legislation has taken its toll on Kazakhstan’s NGO landscape. In effect, NGOs operate under the conditions of mounting harassment by the government and are at risk of incurring fines and other punishments for obscurely stated offences, such as ‘interfering with government activities or engaging in work beyond the scope of their charters’. It is not uncommon for civil society activists to face criminal prosecution and imprisonment just for being outspoken and critical.
Along with the restrictive legislation, low trust, and misperceptions of civil society organizations, have significantly obstructed the advancement of a vibrant civil society. It has common for post-Soviet societies to treat civic associations as threat to the power and stability of the state together with the conviction that the state bears the responsibility for the wellbeing of the society.
As a matter of fact, establishing a civil society platform for NGOs, and media organizations to monitor government activity is essential for the emergence of a vibrant civil society. In the past two years, Uzbekistan has introduced several reforms and amended legislation, but there has been no analysis or monitoring of their implementation or potential or real impact on society. Meanwhile, the input from NGOs, think tanks and media can significantly contribute to the implementation of those state programs that are deemed useful by civil society. This, in turn, comes down to the changes in the very nature of civil society relations with the state and its potential and ability to foster reform, or what is often referred to as “change on the outside.”This has a lot to do with increasing their impact on public policy, through intensifying their interaction with public institutions and actors and most importantly, through engaging more with their constituencies.
A major impediment to civil society advancement in both countries is prevailing post-Soviet “informality” in the form of behavioral practices, such as considerable tolerance towards informal governance, the use of informal networks and connections in exchanges of favors, phone justice, corruption, etc. The latter has long condemned both countries to a vicious circle of underdevelopment and bad governance. Even though it would be an oversimplification to contend that graft is a way of life it takes a long time for deep rooted behavioral practices to change.
Moreover, the rise of ‘illiberal civil society’ or movements with a conservative agenda is a common phenomenon across Central Asia, and elsewhere. In Central Asia, Russian-language media, and religious-based outlets, have become instruments to spread illiberal ideas, which use ‘traditional family values’ and ‘national identity’ to condemn progress, often related to the rights of LGBT, the role of women in society or different minorities.
Overall, the core hindrances to the advancement of a vibrant civil society in the two Central Asian countries include severe limits on the freedom of expression, association, as well as the Uzbek and Kazakh governments’ tendency of silencing dissent. Meanwhile, eradicating these malpractices is critical to reassuring and reinforcing post-Nazarbayev and post-Karimov governments’ promises and pledges of significant democratic reforms.