Asia: An eyewitness report from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgizia

In the Central Asia republics, national and local power as remained in the hands of the former party elite, and with the exception of Kyrgizia, the president is the former communist party [former ruling party] first secretary. Once the USSR broke up, these people ditched the idea of socialism very quickly and instead of "proletarian internationalism" turned to "national ideology".

An eyewitness report from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgizia.

Kazakhstan and the other former Soviet republics of Central Asia suffer widespread poverty, economic and social backwardness and the rule of authoritarian reactionary regimes. The working people of this region have to contend with tribal and ethnic divisions and the rule of clan based cliques. The pro-capitalist, highly centralised ruling parties continue many aspects of Stalinist rule, including a hideous ‘cult of the personality’ around the very powerful presidents of the republics.

These unbearable conditions have led, in some areas, to the rise of oppositional political Islamic forces, in the absence of a mass socialist alternative.

Recently, a CWI correspondent from Moscow, Mark, was able to visit Kazakhstan and parts of Central Asia. In Kazakhstan he went to the cities of Uralsk, Tapaz (Zhambul), Almata and Karaganda, where he spoke at meetings of CWI members and supporters, and also to members of the communist party and human rights organisations.

Following this successful tour, Mark made short visits to Tashkent and Samarkand in Uzbekistan, and Bishkek in Kyrgizia.

Below, Mark provides a fascinating report for CWI online, outlining the major political, economic and social aspects of life in these former Central Asian Soviet republics.

CWI, 1 October 2002

Authoritarian presidential rule

In Kazakhstan, for example, this took the form of attempts to exclude Russian speakers from the state structures and a national campaign to train up a so-called "national cadre". It should however be said that in these republics, state nationalism and the anti-Russian campaign did not go as far as in the Baltic states. For example the new law on citizenship is not openly discriminatory (in Latvia, Russia speakers have a different type of passport!). The explosions of ethnic unrest that occurred in the region at the end of the Eighties and beginning of the Nineties were quashed by the state. There has been large emigration of Russians from the region largely because of economic hardship and pessimism about the future. In some of the republics there have been appeals to the Russians to stay and in Kirgizia and Tadzhikistan, Russian is an official language

The multinational character of these states, added to the clan and tribal traditions, the weakness of political parties, poverty and the threat of Islamic fundamentalism all help to determine the political system. Officially they are Presidential Republics, however, the president is not only head of state and of his party but is "Father of the nation". The president is not only the guarantor of the constitution, he writes it and acts as judge-arbiter on its interpretation. He is presented as the highest authority on questions of justice, culture and history. The institution of president, which still leans on forms of local rule used in soviet and pre-soviet times, according to the ruling elite, should be in place of a civilian society of the "western type". Since the end of Perestroika, they have used the slogan "no left or right" to try and control public opinion.

Each of these leaders publishes ‘historical’ and ‘cultural’ works. Kazakhstan’s President Nazarbayev is presented as the foremost theoretician of the idea of "Eurasia" and is still publishing historical research. In Uzbekistan you can see quotes from President Karimov on almost every street corner. The cult of the president has been developed further in Turkmenistan. In this situation, any political activity either by right wing liberals or by the Left is seen as a threat to stability and decisively quashed. The states are trying to fence themselves off from the outside world, and limit freedom of information about the internal situation.

Maybe the most hermetic of these states is Turkmenistan. This is the only country that has a visa regime even for the other CIS states. Uzbekistan is probably next. It has strict passport and customs controls for foreigners, both on the border and within the country. Ironically one of the factors strengthening this isolation is the introduction, a year ago, of the Latin alphabet – now all street signs and posters are in Uzbek with English letters, making them even more difficult to understand.

Nevertheless, it should be said that wherever I went, Russian is still widely used. The older urban population speak Russian freely, the younger generation, even though the number of Russian schools and colleges has sharply declined, are still fairly competent in speaking the language. Not once in my trip of 7500 kilometers did I meet with any discrimination because of language.

As far as the economy is concerned, the Central Asian states rely on the export of raw materials and the exploitation of natural resources, which are abundant. Some, for example, Kazakhstan, have attempted to make themselves attractive to foreign monopolies, others, such as Uzbekistan, have kept these resources in state hands. The national currencies have all suffered severe devaluation in the past ten years, the Uzbek Sum more than others. Corruption at all levels of the state is flourishing throughout the region.

Kazakhstan, it seems, is being used as a test bed for all the measures dreamed up by global neo-liberalism. The pension age has been raised, pension payments ‘reformed’, housing rents cut and a large part of housing services privatised, often to foreign monopolies, The new labour law severely restricts trade union rights. The lack of an organised opposition and the splits between left forces combined with the extreme distances between population centres has allowed the government to push this measures through very quickly.


Kazakhstan is undoubtedly the most important of the states from the geo political point of view and because of its wealth of natural resources. President Nazarbayev presents himself not only as the regional leader but also as a world leader.

The flow of petrodollars from the opening of the new oil and gas fields has to some degree strengthened the position of the ruling elite. The building of the new Kazakh capital in Astana, which Nazarbayev hopes will become one of the biggest cities in Asia (it has some competition to this title!) is part of this illusion.

At the same time, as a result of the wave of privatisations, a new generation of "businessmen" and politicians has appeared. They are well educated, speak several languages and pushy. This is leading to a generation conflict between the older nomenclature elite, headed by the Nazarbayev clan, and this new younger Kazakhstan capitalist class. This has led to the creation of the new liberal opposition, called ‘Kazakhstan’s Democratic Choice’. These ‘young Turks’, as they are called, are no longer satisfied to take second place in the state. They are demanding reform of the political system, and of course, as part of that a redistribution of privatised property. This conflict has led to a political crisis. The court actions against the leaders of the opposition show that Nazarbayev intends to be harsh in this struggle (one of the opposition leaders has been imprisoned for 7 years).

Judging from the press, Nazarbayev has so far not been moved by the criticism of his regime by the human rights organisations or even by warnings by the leaders of some of the Western powers. If he is ever threatened with economic sanctions he thinks he can turn to China.

The appearance of a pro-capitalist opposition has not had a uniform effect across the population. A part of the intelligentsia, including the Kazkah intelligentsia, welcomes the new formation. For example, both within and without Kazakhstan there are websites and discussion clubs promoting the opinions of the young Turks. But what is interesting is that quite often these discussions are devoted to discussing why "the Kazakhstan people is so indifferent to the opposition". I took part in one of these discussions in Almata.

One of Nazarbayev’s priorities is the "resurrection of the national idea". There are many publications of a historical and pseudo-historical nature openly pushing nationalism. One of the more absurd examples of this is an article I read which tried to argued that in earlier times the Kazakhs were an important seafaring nation and that the word "equator" comes from the Kazakh phrase "eki bator" meaning "two giants". I don’t know now whether the author was joking or not.

Nazarbayev proudly comments that in the last few years the number of ethnic Khazaks has reached 50% (this of course is due mainly to Russians leaving the republic). But, of course, this is not a simple picture. Economic difficulties and the imbalances between the regions are increasing and there are tensions appearing between the Kazakh populations in the South, Central and West regions. These tensions often have deep historical roots going back centuries. Added to this is the fact that the main big cities – Almata, Karaganda and Uralsk – will remain Russian speaking. Even in South Kazakhstan, which has the most compact Kazakh population, far from all native Kazakhs have sufficient professional skills or even language skills to replace the better educated Russian speaking population in industry, in the service sector or in the schools.


Uzbekistan has a population of 25 million, 75% of whom are Uzbeks. At present it is viewed as a ‘model’ of political and economic stability. At least this is how it was recently described by one of the best-known Russian liberal democrats, Alexander Yakovlev. He did not seem to notice the authoritarian nature of the regime, in which only pro-presidential political parties are allowed to operate or that there is an official censor for the mass media.

Yakovlev argues that one of the main pluses of the regime is that it refuses to allow a legal communist party to operate and has avoided the conflicts within parliament that have afflicted Russia. In the past few years, a number of commentators have explained this stability as due to the social policy of Karimov, aimed at provided a basic support for ordinary citizens irrespective of their nationality. It is true that there has been no "shock therapy" in Uzbekistan. Heavy industry, in particular, such as the coal sector, remains in state hands. The external debt, in particular to international organisations is relatively low. There is also a low level of foreign ownership. In the first years after independence the regime even attempted to maintain stable subsidised prices on key products, but this attempt eventually collapsed and prices are now on the same level as in Kazakhstan.

But there are of course economic problems in Uzbekistan. Four years ago the government decided not to make the Sum currency convertible. As a result, it is possible to obtain hard currency only at a rate set by the state, much higher than the market rate. Housing costs are spiralling and already consume a large part of weekly incomes. While there I had a discussion with people staying in the same hotel as I was in. They commented, "President Karimov promises a lot but delivers little. Wages for a street trader in Samarkand are 7-8000 sum a month (about 7 to 10 euro!!) which is hardly enough for food, whilst housing and transport costs are spiraling. People have to work on two or three jobs to survive or go and work in Russia." Of course you cannot judge everything by one conversation but these comments are significant; and this discussion took place in the relatively well off Samarkand and not in the Fergana Valley where unemployment is running at more than 50%, or in Karakalpaki, where the ecological situation is catastrophic.

Another problem that has even attracted the attention of the President is the huge and growing corruption of the state bureaucracy. Notwithstanding the limits on privatisation, even by 1993 64% small and 8% medium and large-scale enterprises had been privatised. These figures have undoubtedly grown. In such a situation, it is not surprising there is a currency black market.

From time to time, a particularly blatant case of corruption is uncovered. In his campaign against bureaucracy, Karimov says that he will rely on the younger layer of managers, who are better educated and less tied to the clans and ethnic groups. But, of course, there is no guarantee that once these younger layers get the taste of power they will not be corrupted. It seems to me that this raises the perspective of an Uzbek version of Kazakhstan’s pro-Democratic Choice.


Tadzhikistan has a population of 6.5 million, of which 75% are Tadzhik. According to some analysts Tadzhikistan in the last years has experienced "the reconstruction of feudal society in the industrial epoch". The artificial separation of the Central Asian ethnic groups in the Twenties and Thirties meant that the Tadzhik nation was unable to become fully consolidated. Clan and tribal relations in many ways dominated national consciousness, even up to the last years of the USSR. Thus, the collapse of the USSR and the degeneration of central political power in Dushanbe, combined with the economic crisis, led to a civil war between clans, in which Islamic fundamentalism played a part. It is significant that the communist party in the country now has some influence. In an opinion poll at the time of the last presidential election in 1999, to the question ‘which party best represents your interests’, the replies were 28,5% for the communist party, and 3.5% for the Party of Islamic Resurrection of Tadzhikistan.

To the question, ‘in which type of society would you rather live’, the answers were: 42% for a ‘democratic’ society, 35% said they wanted a ‘communist’ society, 5% for an Islamic society and 2% for a capitalist society.

In 2002, according to official statistics, 450,000 residents of Tadzhikistan left to work in Russia, although unofficially the figure is twice this.


Kirgizia has a population of 5 million (Kirgizis 55%, Uzbeks 13% and Russians 15%).

This was one of the first countries of the ex-USSR in Central Asia to begin the neo-liberal ‘reform’ process, which was undertaken with the full participation and under the control of Western consultants. Now the economy is officially recognised as a "market".

On my visit, I got the impression that all the street traders from the region come to Bishkek to do business with suppliers, as prices are significantly cheaper in Kirgizia. There are a number of joint enterprises with China and Turkey, mainly in light industry. Bishkek, at least to me, seemed a Russian city, going by the advertisements and street signs. A law has been passed recognising Russian as a state language and also preventing the dismantling of Soviet-era statues (in Kazakhstan the question of whether to dismantle Lenin statues provokes big debates). There is a massive statue of Lenin in the centre of Bishkek, near the president’s residency.

The calm in society a visitor first encounters is deceiving. Once out of Bishkek the situation is very different. Despite the attempts of President Akayev local power is still in the hands of the former party bosses. They maintain their control through their clan, tribal and village ties. Many are in direct opposition to the President. At local level, the local authorities, at the very least, are closely entwined with shady businessmen. It is not clear to me how far up that corruption spreads. But, in response, Akayev, following the example of his neighbours, has sharply increased presidential powers, although he met with some opposition from parliament. He used repression against his opponents. In the Aksiiskii region, during an anti-president march, the police shot into the crowd. One opposition leader, Felix Kuliev, has been sentenced to ten years in jail. According to analysts, the existence of devolved local power, the disunity of the opposition, and the lack of an alternative candidate for president has left an apparently miraculous ‘balance and stability’ in society. However this year it appears the opposition may be beginning to consolidate its forces.

Sensing this, Akayev seems to be preparing some compromises. Nevertheless the opposition seems determined to go to the end demanding his resignation. They are planning a march this autumn in Bishkek calling for Akayev’s resignation.

It is, as yet, difficult to say which faction will win in this struggle. What is clear that the opposition press’s dissatisfaction with affairs reflects the unhappiness of Western investors and of the financial barons in the regions. Some commentators are saying that if the president is defeated it will represent the revenge of the old party/clan nomenclature. This political cataclysm is developing against the background of a rise of activities by radical Islamic groups in the south of the country.

As far as Islam in Central Asia is concerned a few words should be said. The ruling elite in these ‘post-communist’ states did not seize power just to then hand it over to the Islamic fundamentalists. That is why the growth in Islamic fundamentalism in the region, due to the deepening economic crisis and lack of a mass socialist opposition, is meeting with sharp opposition from the ruling regimes. In response, the Islamic groups in Kirgizia and Uzbekistan have declared Jihad on the regimes and have attempted to turn words into deeds. In 1999 there were a number of terrorist acts in Tashkent. Later there were incursions by an armed group (from where they came it is not clear) into Kirgizia and heaving fighting took place. Even now there is the threat in the Fergana Valley, and the mountainous regions around it, of the declaration of an ‘independent’ Islamic state. This helps explain why all of the states of the region supported US actions in Afghanistan. The destruction of the Taliban regime produced a clear sigh of relief for the Central Asian regimes. Nevertheless the police and internal troops of the region are instructed to keep a close watch on Islamic activists: they search suspected persons and seize literature, video and audio materials.

Building socialism in Central Asia

The CWI in Kazakhstan has in under a decade earned a wide reputation as a fighting socialist organisation. It has grown to a number of cities and towns across the vast expanse of the country. In May of this year, the CWI made another important step forward with a very successful national Kazakhstan conference

I was privileged to attend that conference, along with another CWI member from Moscow and a visitor representing the CWI.

Conference decided to increase the very successful work with youth. The age of the majority of participants to the conference was no more than 25. Some of the delegates have been working with the CWI for some time and some are new. Some of the youth have been active in the Komsomol and communist party, as part of a rank and file left opposition. Many have experienced real struggle and consequently repression from the regime. Other youth that have joined the CWI in Kazakhstan are former anarchists who have come from the unofficial student groups and even rock music groups. During my tour of Uralsk, Taraz, Almata and Karaganda I met with a large part of these youth activists of the CWI. They are all without doubt energetic and fired with huge enthusiasm to build socialism in very trying circumstances.

From the contacts the CWI has already made with activists in other Central Asian countries there is no reason why we cannot start to build a socialist opposition throughout the region.

If the best of the Left movements and communist movements can work with the new generation of radical youth it will be possible to create new powerful socialist parties in one country after another.

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October 2002