Two Central Asian countries are listed among the world's weakest states despite their natural gas wealth, in a new study by a United States think-tank. Regional analysts say the low scores given to Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan stem from their authoritarian systems and poor governance.
In early April, the Washington-based Brookings Institution based in USA published its Index of State Weakness in the Developing World, which placed Turkmenistan 35th and Uzbekistan and 36th from the top on a list of 141 developing nations. The list was headed by the worst cases "? Somalia first and Afghanistan second.
The other Central Asian states performed better – Tajikistan in 42nd place, Kyrgyzstan 73rd and Kazakstan 89th.
The index is compiled from a rating of social and economic data, the political climate, and the effectiveness, transparency and accountability of state governance.
Central Asian commentators interviewed by NBCentralAsia agreed with the Brookings Institution's assessment, noting the low standard of living in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, the lack of political freedoms and the high level of official corruption.
Despite this, commentators note that Turkmen and Uzbek leaders have built up such rigid hierarchical systems that the perception – among their own citizens at least – is of strong and stable states.
"[Uzbek president Islam] Karimov's authoritarian grip on power is among the most stable in the former Soviet Union," said a media-watcher in Uzbekistan. "Despite having a weak market economy unattuned to the market, and periodical outbursts of public discontent, the regime displays political stability. One example of this is the president's re-election [in December] after 17 years in power."
One characteristic of the way the Turkmen and Uzbek states are run is the constant rotation and dismissal of top officials.
In the last three-and-a-half months, for instance, President Karimov has replaced the governors of four regions – Fergana, Khorezm, Surkhandarya and Samarkand. When such officials are sacked, they face accusations of inadequate performance, failure to deliver social programmes, misfired reforms, and corruption.
The same thing happens to regional chiefs and the officials in charge of various economic sectors in Turkmenistan. Each new appointee is given a probationary period of six months, but will often leave even earlier than that when President Gurbanguly Berdynmuhammedov identifies some shortcoming in his or her work.
As one commentator in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat explained, "Public castigation demonstrates to the public that the head of state is concerned about justice and rule of law. Yet it does not result in governance reforms, nor does it change a system in which the executive is unaccountable to parliament."
Public resentment at economic hardship and unemployment is covered up at least in part by much-advertised populist programmes such as help for the poor and increases in pensions and benefits.
"The export revenues from hydrocarbons, gold mining and cotton are controlled by the [Uzbek and Turkmen] presidents themselves," said a commentator in Tashkent. "This income sates the appetites of the elite and provides national budgets with the funds to support the huge repressive mechanisms needed to maintain a strong hold on power."
Analysts say systemic reforms are the only way of changing the way things are in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Such reforms are unlikely to happen, they say, because the political will that would be needed is not there.
Meanwhile, NBCentralAsia experts are pessimistic that either government will pay much heed to criticism from abroad, even when it comes from are influential institutions.
As one observer said, "The so-called multi-vector foreign policy which entails constant manoeuvring between the regional geopolitical interests of Russia, the West, China and increasingly also Arab countries, helps these regimes feel sure of themselves and avoid threats of various kinds."
(NBCentralAsia is an IWPR-funded project to create a multilingual news analysis and comment service for Central Asia, drawing on the expertise of a broad range of political observers across the region. The project ran from August 2006 to September 2007, covering all five regional states. With new funding, the service is resuming, covering only Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan for the moment).