Independence 25 years ago promised to bring freedom and prosperity to central Asia, but kleptocratic regimes have left many yearn for the past

The road out of Kommunizm, a small town in southern Tajikistan, is severely paved and bumpy. Like most things here it was built long ago, when the ruling ideology that gave the settlement its name was still thriving.

Home to just 7,000 inhabitants, Kommunizm was at the very edge of the Russian empire, first tsarist then Soviet; a mere 50 miles from Kunduz in northern Afghanistan.

All around the former collective farm is the once splendid iconography of the Bolshevik order. Busts of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin look on to what used to be the main square, while a trio of heroically poised Soviet archetypes have been cast to one side in a car park.

On the stage at the Palace of Youth, a building with wide white columns and a grand central corridor with gilded chandeliers, a portrait of Lenin has been replaced by the gently smiling face of Emomali Rahmon, chairperson of Tajikistan. But apart for the omnipresent Rahmon, there is not much new in Kommunizm. Things have merely decayed.

Kommunizm in Tajikistan. Photograph: Shaun Walker for the Guardian

Like the rest of Tajikistan and the four other former Soviet Stans Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan Kommunizm is marking 25 years of freedom, thanks to the slow-motion collapse of the Soviet Union in the autumn of 1991. But for all the overblown rhetoric and processions across the region, the celebrations had a bittersweet tinge.

While efforts at nation building in the freshly independent countries have had some success, the collapse of the schemed economy and its replacing with kleptocratic regimes has entailed the standard of living for most people in the region has sharply declined over the past one-quarter of a century.

In Kommunizms Palace of Youth, the paint peels from the walls, and guests have to zigzag to avoid falling through rotten segments of the flooring. It is hard to avoid the weight of the metaphor.

The Stans occupy a chunk of land that has always been at the crossroads of empires: China to the east, Russia to the north, Turkey to the west, Afghanistan and India to the south.

In the 19 th century, London and St Petersburg jostled over the territory in what was known as the Great Game, with the Russian and British empires just a few miles apart at phases in the Pamir mountains. In the the consequences of the 9/11 attacks, the war on terror ensure many people speak of a new great game, as the US moved airbases into the region to support the Afghan war effort.

But even as global powers jostled over central Asia, the region remained little known and chiefly dismissed, except for irony of its totalitarianisms and apparent backwardness Sacha Baron Cohens hapless Kazakh reporter Borat, or the recent British slapstick The Ambassadors, following British envoys in( fictional) Tazbekistan. Last year, a New York Times typo saw the accidental invention of a brand new country: Kyrzbekistan.

Local intellectuals bristle at these caricatures, and point out that the region is home to many great civilisations; the ornate 10 th- and 11 th-century manuscripts on display at Tajikistans national museum are a reminder of the sophisticated societies that previously prospered here.

But it is the legacy of the Soviet Union, the most recent empire to control the lands, which is most in evidence today, from the steppe of northern Kazakhstan to the cotton fields on Tajikistans border with Afghanistan.

Across the region, once-dazzling mosaics depicting happy nomads espousing socialism and strapping athletes bringing glory to the joint motherland are surrounded by decaying infrastructure.

Route map

In Kommunizm, as across the region, the socialist art is less about any real Soviet past, and more about the memory of an imagined happy future , now run forever.

We knew things were difficult then, but the party told us that tomorrow everything would be better. We knew there was a scheme and in five years or 10 years it would all be more appropriate. But now we dont know what will happen tomorrow; weve lost that hope, said Medetkhan Sherimkulov, who was the Kyrgyz Soviet republics head of ideology in the 1980 s and now teaches political science at a Bishkek university.

As a bright young socialist cadre, Sherimkulov earned a doctrine PhD at Moscow State University in the 1970 s, specialising in transitional societies. He planned to set his knowledge to use in the continuing mission to Sovietise central Asia, but he ended up managing a shift in the opposite direction. As speaker of the first Kyrgyz parliament, it is his signature on Kyrgyzstans declaration of freedom, ushering into existence a country he neither wanted nor expected.

We lived for 70 years with the Soviet Union; you cant expect us to transition to a republic overnight. If you try to attain the transition too quickly, chaos ensues, said Sherimkulov over tea and plov ( pilaf) in a Bishkek teahouse.


You are used to your own system, and then it changes overnight. Imagine if in England they turned it into a totalitarianism overnight. You cant transition that speedily. Democracy was hijacked by demagogues. It was spoiled, and got a bad reputation.

In the early 1990 s, Communist party bosses in the region reincarnated themselves as national leader, stepping into the ideological vacuum with new legends and heroes, often with scant attention to historical fact. In Astana and Ashgabat, the Kazakh and Turkmen leaderships constructed gaudy, fantastical cities from scratch, projections of the golden ages to which their nations were purportedly headed. Lenins were replaced by billboards of smiling chairmen, just as omnipresent as the Soviet leaders once were, and equally hagiographic.

In Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, it is nearly impossible to detect a phase in the city from which a portrait of Rahmon is not in the sightline. Here he cradles sheaves of wheat pensively, there he sips a cup of tea or wags a thumb in a meeting. Most often, in the full-body shoots that cover the facades of whole buildings, he strides purposefully, into a glorious Tajik future that is remarkably absent from any reality existing outside the world of the billboards.

The Turkmen president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, ran even further and had a gold statue of himself erected. He has been officially styled as Arkadag, the protector; Rahmon is the founder of peace and national unity, while Kazakhstans Nursultan Nazarbayev is merely Elbasy, leader of the nation. There is talk of renaming the capital, Astana, in his honour.

A monument featuring President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov is presented to the public in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. Photo: Alexander Vershinin/ AP

The laws anointing the men with these titles typically also provide them and their families with immunity from prosecution, and indeed, behind the personality cults and nationalism is something more basic and venal. In all five countries, family members and close associates of the rulers have enriched themselves. Central Asia is one of the worlds most corrupt regions, but foreign businessmen and politicians have had few qualms about coddling the regions autocrats, keen to access resources and use airbases, as foreign adventurers on the silk road once courted emirs for trading rights.

Moral clarity has been in short supply. The then British ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, was fired in 2004 after speaking out against human rights abuses in the country, perhaps the most repressive dictatorship of them all.

A decade subsequently, and Karimov was still being courted by western legislators. Uzbekistan is an important partner in bringing peace, prosperity to central Asia. Good discussion w/ President Karimov, secretary of state John Kerry wrote on Twitter in 2015 about a human who was accused of simmering his opponents alive. Kerry accompanied the tweet with a photograph of the two men shaking hands and smiling.

Karimov, who was the first secretary of the Uzbek Soviet republic and then Uzbekistans first chairwoman, succumbed a few days short of his countrys 25 th birthday. He left a legacy of poverty, forced the trade unions and strict censorship. His death, rather than ushering in a period of openness, has simply ensure one of his associates take over the reins.

Of the five countries, only in Kyrgyzstan has there been an enforced change of leadership; revolutions twice rising up to wash away corrupted rulers, one of whom fled to Moscow and another, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, to Belarus. His son Maxim made a dash to London in his private airplane, with what Kyrgyz authorities allege is millions of dollars of pilfered public money.

I pleaded with the Americans to go after him. Putting him in an orange suit would be the best thing imaginable to happen to US-Kyrgyz relations, told Edil Baisalov, briefly chief of staff to the interim president after the Bakiyev family was deposed in a 2010 revolution. Instead, the Americans dropped the example against him, and Bakiyev Jr is rumoured to be living comfortably in Surrey.

An abandoned bust of Lenin. Photograph: Eric Lusito/ Anzenberger/ eyevine

Kyrgyzstans current president, Almazbek Atambayev, has gained a reputation as an impulsive and erratic leader, and International Crisis Groups Deirdre Tynan described the countrys politics as perpetual low-grade chaos. The revolution that deposed the Bakiyev clan was followed by terrible ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan, where there is a large ethnic Uzbek population. More than 400 people were killed.

The countrys violent recent past has led many to wonder whether a stable dictatorship might be better than a comparatively liberal country with revolutionary energy and freedom of speech.

But while applying western standards of republic to central Asia may be naive, there is no doubt that the tyrannies have not, on the whole, brought Singapore-style prosperity. For the vast majority of citizens in the five countries, everyday life is hard work, and most are significantly worse off than during the course of its Soviet period. The societies are still recovering from what they lost in the Soviet collapse.

In any central Asian country, if there was a referendum on some kind of integrating project that would basically be a new Soviet Union, at the least two-thirds of people would vote for it, said Parviz Mullojanov, a political analyst in Dushanbe.

In the 1970 s, the city of Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan was around 50% Russian. Arsen Ambaryan, an ethnic Armenian lawyer who has lived in Osh most of his life, recalled that of the 30 children in his 1977 high-school class, about 20 were Russians. Merely one of them still lives in Osh.


The rest all left during the early post-Soviet period. The Russians have generally been professionals: doctors, teachers, engineers, and their deviation took a huge toll on the societies they left behind. Many professional Uzbeks, Kyrgyz and Tajiks also left for Russia, taking advantage of easy citizenship programs in the 1990 s. They left behind societies with poor healthcare and violated education systems. Grandparents tend to be better educated than their grandchildren across much of the region.

As well as lost intellectual capital, much of the industrial infrastructure also fell into disintegration in the years after the Soviet collapse, as it did elsewhere in the former Soviet lands, from Siberia to east Ukraine, leaving social desolation in its wake.

Our mills were well developed and were high class by[ Soviet] Union standards, but of course they couldnt compete with European and Chinese mills. So as soon as the union collapsed, and we lost that integration and that schemed economy marketplace, everything was in trouble, said Sherimkulov, the former party boss.

With jobs in central Asia in short supply, young men have had to migrate, usually to Russia, to do unskilled labour to send fund home to sustain their families. Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have natural resources that swell the nation coffers, but in the other three countries, remittances from migrant workers are what keeps the economies afloat. In Tajikistan, they account for around half of GDP.

In Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, it is hard to find a human in his 20 s or 30 s who has not been to Russia to work. Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, is plastered with advertisings for bus making the gruelling three-day journey across the steppe to the Russian capital. Across the region, thousands of men depart each day to Moscow and other cities across Russia, where they work in grim conditions with few labour rights, for poor wages that are nevertheless much better than they could expect at home.

National perimeters gale their way through communities, often with no apparent logic. They are another difficult legacy from the Soviet period, designed to mark not international boundaries but internal administrative jurisdictions.

In such cases where the new nations are generating new patriotisms, minority populations excluded from national myth-making enhance the potential for unrest. In northern Kazakhstan, big communities of ethnic Russians induce Kazakh authorities nervous about a potential Crimea scenario.

Further south, in the densely populated Fergana Valley, the wavy, overlapping perimeters of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are hangovers from the Soviet perimeters, and often appear as if depicted at random by a drunkard holding a pencil.

Particularly tricky is the presence of several exclaves townships are subordinate to one country placed well inside the borders of another. The township of Sokh, for example, is part of Uzbekistan, but fully surrounded by Kyrgyzstan, and its 20,000 population are almost entirely ethnic Tajiks. Shepherds are frequently shot by border guards, while people trying to go to the next village for shopping or visiting relatives are subject to border checks and corrupt officials trying to extort bribes to allow them to cross.

But the most alarming danger lurking at the door is revolutionary Islam. Over the centuries, central Asian societies were traditionally Islamic, though religion was repressed in the Soviet period. In the newly independent states, Islam is back, but the paranoid regimes frown upon any kind of conservative Islam, even non-radical forms.

In Turkmenistan, beards have been banned and attendance at mosques discouraged; while in Tajikistan, police maintain a watchlist of veiled women and men with long beards. Even in comparatively liberal Kyrgyzstan, giant billboards have appeared in recent months across the country, presenting women in traditional Kyrgyz dress on one side, and wearing black veils on the other, with the issues to posed, Where are we headed?

With non-violent conservative Islam frowned upon of the states of the region, a trickle of people are moving across to violent extremism.

An Islamic State video released in 2015 purported to depict dozens of young Kazakh boys receiving training and instruction at a terrorist training camp, presumably in Syria. Kazakhstan has considered two purported Isis inspired assaults this summer, including a July incident in which four police officers and one civilian were killed by gunfire in the financial capital, Almaty.

Horses graze in a wintry steppe in south-east Kazakhstan. Photograph: Shamil Zhumatov/ Reuters

Most dramatically, the head of Tajikistans Omon riot police Gulmurod Khalimov, rumoured to be a hot-shot sniper and favourite of the chairman, vanished last year and resurfaced in an Isis propaganda video promising to hunt down and kill Americans.

While it is clear that there is a radicalism problem, rights activists say the governments have employed the fight against extremism to go after moderates and objectors. In Tajikistan, the Islamic Renaissance party, a moderate Islamic force calling for a secular nation with religious liberties, has been hounded into exile. Hundreds of its supporters have been rounded down and jailed.

Shabnam Khudodoydova, a Tajik woman living in Russia, also reported persecution under the guise of a crackdown on extremism. After she began to post in opposition political forums and writing that the Rahmon regime had induced slaves and sheep out of the Tajik people, she noticed she was being followed in St Petersburg, and fled to Belarus. There she was arrested, beaten up in custody by humen she believes were Tajik security agents, and held in jail for several months, before being released and fleeing to Poland.

She afterward detected she had been put on the Interpol watchlist, accused of being a recruiter for Isis. I am not a terrorist, Im not an Islamist, Im actually an atheist. Ive never even believed in God, she said by Skype from Poland.

There is now a chicken and egg situation: the governments of the region claim their repressive policies are a response to the very real threat posed by Isis and other Islamist movements.

Cynics suggest that the suffocating stranglehold on political and religious life leaves no middle ground: for those who want an escape from the confines of the regime, extremism can be the only alternative. When you push out the moderate Islamic alternatives you leave more potential for people to get radicalised, said one western envoy based in the region.

In Kara-Suu, a town not far from Osh on the border with Uzbekistan, the imam of the local mosque, Rashot Kamalov, has been to imprisonment for calling for an Islamic caliphate.

In a grimy teahouse not far from the towns teeming market, Dilyar Jumabayev, a supporter of Kamalov, said the imam had not called for people to go to Syria, but simply preached about current injustices. The region, chiefly made up of ethnic Uzbeks, is poor; on the road from Osh the carcasses of Soviet industrial plants lie derelict and abandoned.

Police keep a close eye on Jumabayev, and during one search of his house, he was beaten and had his front teeth kicked out. He was later sentenced to 10 months in prison for resisting apprehend. What has republic brought us in 25 years? I was never a fan of the Soviet Union but at the least people worked then. Now there is no work, the factories have closed. I am selling everything in my house including the refrigerator so that I can afford medication, he said.

In Osh, lawyer Khusanbay Saliyev is dealing with hundreds of cases for possession of extremist literature, and said he believed about 90% of them to be fabricated by paranoid and avaricious authorities. There is torture and repression, and it has the opposite effect, pushing people into the arms of the radicals, he said.

The totalitarianisms of central Asia are now at a crossroads. Outwardly, they seem more or less stable. Demises of dictators, in Turkmenistan a decade ago, and this year in Uzbekistan, have led not to political change but simply to a new tyrant taking over, in what at least to outside eyes is somewhat smooth procedures.

All the leaders remain adept at playing off major powers for maximum benefit. Of course, when hes speaking to me hell say everything he knows I want to hear, and if hes speaking to the Russians hell tell everything they want to hear, said a western envoy about the president of the country in which he is based.

But across the region, growing populations remain in poverty, and the Russian economic crisis of the past two years has put a huge dent in remittances. Criteria of healthcare and education show little sign of improving, and the systems are too stubborn and entrenched to allow for real reform.

Mausoleums in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Photo: Image Broker/ Rex Features

Even in the best instance scenario, central Asia has very problematic and difficult times ahead. The economics are not working any more, told Mullojanov, the Dushanbe-based analyst.

Seventy years of Soviet rule followed by a one-quarter century of dictatorship have beaten out the impulse to protest from most central Asians. When revolt has erupted, it has either led to new governments in accordance with the status quo, as in Kyrgyzstan, or to violent, ruthless crackdown, as in Uzbekistans Andijan in 2005. Even moderate criticism can lead to jail sentences or worse.

In Kara-Suu, Jumabayev preferred his words carefully, but said the direction of movement was clear: If a civilisational kind doesnt to be implemented by its obligations to the people, then other forms of civilisation will unavoidably develop. We watched it happen with communism, which was overtaken by republic. Now, we are seeing the same thing happen to democracy.

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