Freedom House declares Kyrgyzstan the only “partly free” nation in Central Asia

Image from the Freedom House website

In its annual democracy rankings, the human rights organisation Freedom House has awarded its “Partly Free” rating to only Kyrgyzstan out of all the countries of Central Asia. The new rankings, based on Freedom House’s report Freedom in the World 2020, are available on the organisation’s website.

Freedom House’s list rates countries according to a score of 0 to 4 across 25 political rights and civil liberties indicators. Out of a possible total of 100, Kyrgyzstan was awarded 39 points, allowing the country to make it into the category “Partly Free”. All the remaining countries in the region (as well as all other CIS countries) received the status “Not Free”. The situation in Kazakhstan was rated at 23 points, in Uzbekistan at 10 points, in Tajikistan 9 points, and Turkmenistan just 2 points. Last year, Kyrgyzstan’s score was 38, Kazakhstan’s 22, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan both scored 9, and Turkmenistan 2.

For comparison, Russia’s rating this year was 20 points, China’s was 10 and Turkey’s 32. The USA was rated at 86 points, Germany at 94, and France 90.

Tajikistan (10th worst) and Turkmenistan (4th worst) thus have the dubious honour of featuring in the NGO’s “Worst of the Worst” list, which singles out the ten countries with the lowest aggregate scores for political rights and civil liberties. Tajikistan also came in 11th in the list of nations where declines in freedom have been the steepest in the last ten years, after countries such as Turkey (2nd), Hungary and Azerbaijan.

Central Asian countries also feature in Freedom House’s new regional report for Central and Eastern Europe, Nations in Transit 2020: Dropping the Democratic Facade. While the report focuses on significant erosions of democracy in Poland, Hungary, Serbia and Montenegro, the scores (based on a slightly different, 1 to 7 rating average across seven categories such as democratic governance, elections, media, the judiciary and corruption) for Central Asian nations were relatively stable, albeit at a low level. All five of the region’s countries were ranked in the lowest category (1.00 to 2.00) as “Consolidated Authoritarian Regimes”, though there was a significant difference between Kyrgyzstan’s score of 1.96 and Turkmenistan’s 1.00.

The report discussed Central Asia above all in the context of attempts to safeguard the transition of authoritarian power. The presidents of Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, the report’s authors note, have been busy preparing the ground for a dynastic transition by elevating their own sons (Rustam Emomali and Serdar Berdymukhamedov respectively) to positions of power and responsibility. The example of Kyrgyzstan, where former president Almazbek Atambaev was arrested after leaving the presidency, is cited as a warning example for the region’s authoritarian leaders. Atambaev’s failed attempt to “circumvent term limits by shifting the nucleus of power from the presidency to the parliament” is said to have served as a demonstration that attempts to create strongholds outside of the presidency are not enough.

In this context, the example of Kazakhstan’s transition of power last year is raised as an interesting case. With reports of a strained relationship between Nazarbaev (who remains leader of the ruling party and lifetime chairman of the Security Council) and his chosen successor Toqaev, Freedom House writes that “it appears that Nazarbaev [...] might be reconsidering his decision”. “While [Toqaev] retains the presidency for the moment, a pivot to dynastic succession could be in the offing”. It remains unclear how far Toqaev’s recent removal of Dariga Nazarbaeva as senate speaker, which occurred after Freedom House’s report was written, changes this.

As for Uzbekistan, despite the widely-praised reforms introduced by Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the country is discussed above all as an example of the “slim” likelihood of “substantial change in governance or the observance of fundamental freedoms” in the entrenched dictatorships of the region. This is evidenced by “the lack of genuine democratic reforms in Uzbekistan three years after Shavkat Mirziyoyev succeeded the late president Islam Karimov”. Freedom House’s World Report had already criticised Uzbek elections for “shut[ting] out any genuine opposition, leaving legislatures entirely in the hands of pro-government groups”. As the regional report notes, the only new party permitted to compete in the country’s 2019 parliamentary elections was the pro-government Ecological Movement.