As countries in Central Asia move toward more authoritarian governments and concerns over human rights abuses increase, a new book explores why the West’s efforts to promote democracy in the region have failed.
In “Democracy in Central Asia: Competing Perspectives and Alternative Strategies,” Mariya Omelicheva, associate professor of political science at the University of Kansas, argues that the idea of democracy in Central Asia has been adapted to the local contexts and borrow more from the Russian and Chinese models than the ideals spread through the U.S. and European Union.
“These competing perspectives of democracy, which are often derided and dismissed in the West, should be taken much more seriously because it partly explains why the U.S. and EU are losing ground in this territory and why Russia and China still hold a lot of leverage on these governments,” Omelicheva said.
The book reflects months of field work in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Omelicheva collected data from focus groups of students who had participated in U.S. exchange programs, allowing them to reflect on the similarities and differences in politics and cultures. She also conducted one of the region’s first public opinion surveys on people’s knowledge and perceptions of democracy.
While popular belief holds that democracy is a universal ideal, Omelicheva’s research found more than half of the Central Asians she surveyed would support any political regime capable of maintaining order. And more than 85 percent of the respondents didn’t see a government priority in enacting democratic principles.
“Democracy does not have a universal meaning despite its immense popular appeal and frequent references by politicians and ordinary people,” Omelicheva said. “Democracy and the related concepts of civil society, human rights and the rule of law are cultural creations and products of political and social contexts.”
Respondents spoke of personal freedoms, such as being able to wear what they wanted, but they had trouble articulating the core principles of human rights. For example, many didn’t recognize that job promotions based on age and clan standing, not merit, violated human rights.
“They didn’t believe that was a violation of their rights. They didn’t even voice a possibility of challenging those social practices,” Omelicheva said.
Focus group participants in Kyrgyzstan referred to the concept of democracy as “hot air” and “rubbish.” In Kazakhstan, participants linked democracy to having a strong leader and spoke of the need to draw on the region’s historical roots when building a democratic country.
Citing human rights violations following Sept. 11 and the use of military to enact foreign policy, Central Asians said they were disillusioned by American-style democracy. With off-the-shelf techniques and a condescending approach, the West’s efforts to spread democracy in the region haven’t been well thought out, Omelicheva said.
“That is not going to work in Central Asia,” Omelicheva said. “What has been proposed is not culturally sensitive, consistent or credible in the eyes of the population or government.”
Omelicheva is also the author of “Counterterrorism Policies in Central Asia” and is the principal investigator on a project that will map organized crime and terrorism hotspots in Eurasia.