For 17 years straight, as measured by Freedom House’s annual Nations in Transit report, the strength of democracy in Europe and Eurasia has been in decline. To say 2020 did democracy no favors in the former Soviet space is an understatement. But for the countries we cover here at Crossroads Asia, it’s hard to remark on declines when there’s little room to sink further.
Since 1995, Freedom House has annually published an assessment of democracy in 29 states stretching from Central and Eastern Europe to Central Asia. The report scores each state on seven categories that serve to represent the “institutional underpinnings of liberal democracy” — national and local democratic governance, electoral process, civil society, independent media, judicial framework and independence, and corruption — and averages those scores to arrive at the country’s “democracy score.” The scores are based on assessments by the authors of individual country reports, a panel of academic advisers, and the input of regional experts. The democracy scores range from 1 (a consolidated authoritarian regime) to 7 (a consolidated democracy). Over the years, the methodology has shafted slightly, but the report remains a consistent barometer of democracy in the wider region. Those watching closely are seldom surprised by the markings.
The states of Central Asia have long filled out the report’s lower rungs, with Kyrgyzstan a lone occasional and only partial exception.
In 2017, Kyrgyzstan slipped for the first time since 2011 into the club of consolidated authoritarian regimes. That year’s report referred to the state of affairs and events in 2016. The reasons for Bishkek’s slide then was a controversial constitutional referendum pushed for by then-President Almazbek Atambayev. The report warned that the constitutional changes of the day would serve to “effectively bolster the position of an oligarchic ruling class with little popularity or legitimacy.”
Skip ahead to 2020: The existing problems of the Kyrgyz parliament, arguably worsened by the 2016 referendum, erupted into a mangled, quickly annulled, election in October, followed by the meteoric rise of Sadyr Japarov. As the 2021 Nations in Transit Kyrgyz country report notes, “the parties accused of fraud and abuse of administrative resources during the elections maintained a majority in the parliament by arbitrarily extending their own mandates.” By the end of 2020, the period covered by the report, Kyrgyzstan was poised to hold a presidential election and a constitutional referendum rather than a rerun of the parliamentary election that triggered the political upheaval. We know, now, how those votes turned out: With Kyrgyzstan electing Japarov president and approving, earlier this month, a new constitution, which will lead the country back to a presidential system.
The trajectory in Kyrgyzstan is not good, and there’s only so much room to decline further. In the 2021 report, Kyrgyzstan had a total score of 14 (out of 100), the highest of any Central Asian state but still a decline from its 2020 score of 16. Kazakhstan came in with a score of 5 in the 2021 report, Uzbekistan a score of 4, and Tajikistan accrued a score of 2. Turkmenistan remained dead last with 0.
Uzbekistan was one of the few countries across the entire cadre of 29 to see its score improve (from a 2 in 2020 to 4 in 2021). It nevertheless remains firmly in the consolidated authoritarian club, with a steep climb ahead to move toward greater democracy.
It’s worth repeating what I wrote in 2017: “The case of Kyrgyzstan is demonstrative of the fact that democratic progress is not necessarily linear nor inevitable. The country has removed two presidents via popular revolt, in 2005 and 2010. Each time, the Kyrgyz people were promised democracy and economic progress by the new leaders and each time reality has fallen short of the promise.”
Kyrgyzstan has now seen three presidents ousted, and a new one with his own big promises. But the institutions necessary to build a more democratic society — in Kyrgyzstan and elsewhere in Central Asia — are weak, with country leaders intent on keeping them that way as a matter of political expediency. These range from predictable, transparent, and contestable election systems to both independent media and judiciaries, plus active and capable civil societies and managing the pervasive problem of corruption.
Assessing the entire region, from Europe to Eurasia, in the 2021 Nations in Transit report’s author Zselyke Csaky writes, “Countries all over the region are turning away from democracy or find themselves trapped in cycle of setbacks and partial recoveries.” Central Asia has been spinning in that cycle for 30 years.