EurasiaChat: Intrigue in Central Asia's ruling palaces
In the latest edition of EurasiaChat, impressions from Tajikistan, Russian soft power, Turkmen foreign policy, and tales of elite infighting.
In the latest edition of the EurasiaChat podcast, resident co-presenter Alisher Khamidov opened with some questions about a visit that Peter Leonard, Eurasianet’s Central Asia editor, recently paid to Tajikistan.
The standard narrative is that the country is in a perennial economic slump. And there is more than enough data to support that idea. Hundreds of thousands of people have to go abroad for work. The government is mired in debt that it will struggle to pay off. Basic services are often lacking.
But as Peter noted, the capital, Dushanbe, can somewhat, albeit misleadingly, confound these impressions. The city, like capitals all across the region, is seeing a busy and seemingly unbridled construction boom. There are more high-end stores and cafes around than there ever were before.
This sheen of apparent prosperity hides some troubling currents, however. Regular Tajiks continue to struggle to make ends meet, and the government, perhaps cognizant of that, continues to repress its population.
Turning to another subject, Alisher and Peter talked about the changing nature of Russian soft power in Central Asia.
A lot of Moscow’s efforts these days have focused on education. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on building Russian schools places like Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and now Uzbekistan. The schools are often deemed prestigious places to send children, as they are invariably better resourced than local government schools.
In some cases, this has met some resistance. As Alisher explained, some people in Uzbekistan have registered concerns that Russian schools might teach their pupils a distorted version of history that aligns with Kremlin propaganda. As history becomes an area of increasing contestation in Central Asia, the operations of Russian educational establishments are going to come under greater scrutiny.
Moving on to Turkmenistan, Alisher and Peter dwelled on that isolated nation’s evolving foreign policy. While ostensibly neutral, Ashgabat has tended to enjoy its deepest and most complex relationship with Russia. The granularity of this is most evident in the highly regular visits paid by Russian political and business delegations.
Alisher argued that Turkmenistan is now looking to diversify its diplomatic relations away from Russia and to engage more actively with the rest of the world.
How this evolves will depend as much as anything on the personalities of the country’s leaders. Turkmenistan has a president, but it also has a so-called National Leader, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who happens to be the president’s father and the former incumbent head of state.
This episode of EurasiaChat ended with some thoughts about the curious spate of elite infighting that appears to be gripping Central Asia of late. Eurasianet has reported on these developments in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
These parallel trends inevitably raise questions about whether there might be a pattern in all this. Is potentially destabilizing under-the-carpet, elite bickering simply the tax that authoritarian regimes need to pay for their reluctance to allow democracy to flourish unfettered? And what, if any, consequences could such palace intrigue have for the population at large?
This episode was produced and edited by Aigerim Toleukhanova.
Aigerim Toleukhanova is a journalist and researcher from Kazakhstan.
Peter Leonard is Eurasianet’s Central Asia editor.
Alisher Khamidov is a writer based in Bishkek.