Central Asia: Property Rights Are the Toughest Nut to Crack
In going back to the drawing board to work on fresh ways to foster democratization in Central Asia, civil society advocates need to pay more attention to property rights, a leading rights activist contends.
Yevgeniy Zhovtis, a prominent human rights advocate in Kazakhstan, gave the keynote address at the annual Central Eurasian Studies Society conference, held at Columbia University in New York on October 24-26. He painted a bleak picture of the existing social and political landscape in Central Asia. Outside of Kyrgyzstan, Zhovtis noted, authoritarianism has taken deep root in Central Asia, with governments implementing extensive measures to squash basic freedoms.
“Single-party parliaments, … special forces exercising total surveillance, law-enforcement [bodies] protecting the interests of the ruling elite at all times – this is reality in Central Asia,” Zhovtis said.
Hopes for reversing the current trend rest mainly on solving dilemmas relating to property rights in Central Asia, Zhovtis suggested. He noted that 70-plus years of communism in the former Soviet Union completely skewed the way citizens in the region understand the concept of private property, adding that the sanctity of property rights is the fundamental building bloc of any civil society.
“In modern societies, the evolution of economic and legal foundations for private property facilitated ideas of individual rights and freedoms. In post-Soviet countries, this process never took root,” he said.
A “critical point,” Zhovtis emphasized, is that privatization during the 1990s occurred in a haphazard and often illegal manner. The lack of sound legal frameworks, then, leaves ruling elites in Central Asia today unable to feel secure in their property, and thus encourages them to cling doggedly to political power. “The privatization of Soviet state property left behind a minefield that is set to explode in the case of serious power struggles,” Zhovtis said.
Central Asian kleptocrats are currently caught in a vicious cycle: the assets they usurped amid privatization will never be safe in the absence of solid legal frameworks, but fostering the rule of law threatens their ability to control political life in their respective states.
“Since the source of their [ruling elites’] wealth can be legally disputed, they are also very vulnerable to political changes,” Zhovtis asserted. “This vulnerability, coupled with the oppressive nature of political regimes, prevents real political competition and hinders any developments aimed at establishing the rule of law.”
One way to start untangling the knots left behind by the privatization process is to emphasize the concept of social justice, Zhovtis added.
Zhovtis has been one of Kazakhstan’s most prominent human rights advocates since the country gained independence in 1991. In 2009, he received a four-year prison sentence upon conviction for vehicular manslaughter. Observers documented numerous irregularities surrounding his trial, and Zhovtis maintained that his prosecution was politically motivated. He was released after serving over two years.
Justin Burke is Eurasianet's publisher.