Political Science Democracy and Dictatorship in Central Asia
Mariya Y. Omelicheva
  • LAST REVIEWED: 02 March 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0060


The fall of communism in Europe and the demise of the Soviet Union were met with jubilation and confidence amid the rapid democratization of the former communist states. A decade later, however, the democratization euphoria was replaced with the growing concerns over the retreat of democracy as several democratizing societies evinced the resurgence of authoritarianism. Central Asia, which encompasses the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, has become a part of this trend. Despite the pledges of their governments to support democratization, these states embraced nondemocratic rule, variously labeled as “personal dictatorships,” “authoritarian presidentialisms,” and “neopatrimonial” and “sultanistic” regimes. The study of democracy and dictatorship in Central Asia falls within the broader scholarship in comparative politics, international relations, and area studies about changes in regime types. Initially, the study of regimes in Central Asia was approached from the standpoint of transitology, portraying democratization as a linear process furthered by civil society actors and political elites. The Central Asian leaders, who perceive democracy as the gravest threat to their personal political survival, have been held responsible for the democratic stalemate in their countries. It has also been argued that these countries’ political cultures and historical legacies, compounded by acute socioeconomic conditions, have served as roadblocks to full democratization. Early-21st-century scholarship has seen a shift away from characterizing these states through the lens of democratization theory, with an emergence of perspectives portraying them as qualitatively new “hybrid” regimes with their own internal logics. These new perspectives aim at explaining the puzzling diversity of authoritarian patterns within the region, despite the broadly similar experiences and structures of Central Asian states, and identifying the sources of authoritarian persistence. In addition, an international dimension has been introduced to the study of regimes in Central Asia, centered on the idea that various international actors—the United States, the European Union, and others—play an active and, at times, decisive role in the success of democratic reforms. A new debate emerged around the methods and approaches to international democratization, particularly whether coercive and incentives-based strategies or methods based on complex learning and persuasion are more effective in promoting democracy abroad. The study of the processes of “autocratization,” which refers to active and passive promotion of nondemocratic governance and resistance to democratization by the powerful players in the region, especially Russia and China, is a recent addition to the literature on Central Asia.

General Overviews

The volume of literature addressing the nature of regimes in Central Asia and prospects for their democratic transformation has grown considerably since the second half of the 1990s. Cummings 2002 and Olcott 2005 stand out for their comprehensive overview of the region’s Soviet past and the post-independence trajectories of individual Central Asian countries. Each provides an accessible and detailed account of the Central Asian politics and experiences with transition. Cummings 2002 contains a thorough analysis of the ways in which political leaders from Central Asian republics were able to rise to power and maintain it. Olcott 2005 also addresses the disappointing outcomes of democratization during the first decade following these states’ independence, but a great part of the book is about these republics’ post-9/11 experiences. Martha Olcott lays blame for the failure of resolving the region’s problems both on the Central Asian leadership and the foreign policies of the United States. Rather than addressing the problem of regimes in general, Burghart and Sabonis-Helf 2005 brings together a collection of essays covering a broad range of problems facing the region, many of which intersect the topic of democracy and dictatorship in Central Asia. Essays on the Soviet legacies, political and economic reform strategies, Islam, and human rights are particularly noteworthy in this regard. Luong 2002, on the other hand, provides country-by-country comparisons along several dimensions of democratization and puts forth a remarkable comparative account of the electoral systems in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, grounded in a theoretical approach that creatively combines structural-historical and agency-related strategic contexts for explaining institutional designs in these states. Freedman and Shafer 2011 focuses on a crucial subset of regimes’ transition; namely, media and the press in Central Asian states. The knowledge of the region, its rich history, and the related issues of nation- and state-building is a prerequisite for grasping the analyses of regimes in Central Asia. Golden 2011 offers an engaging historical and cultural account of the region from prehistory to the present, and it is accessible to novices to the study of Central Asia. Roy 2000 is a more advanced read on the evolution of Central Asian nation-states, which lacked traditional nationalist heritage or history of independent government and had to rely on the Soviet-era practices, identities, and institutions in building their nation-states. Omelicheva 2014 reexamines and debates what individual Central Asian states and nations represent and how nationalism and identity construction in these republics are used for the purpose of legitimization of the ruling administrations’ power politics.

  • Burghart, Dan, and Theresa Sabonis-Helf, eds. In the Tracks of Tamerlane: Central Asia’s Path to the 21st Century. Honolulu, HI: University Press of the Pacific, 2005.

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    A collection of essays that jointly provide the most comprehensive, albeit outdated, survey of a broad range of problems facing Central Asia, many of which relate to political regimes. Chapters are organized around specific topics, rather than countries, which makes for an excellent textbook on Central Asia.

  • Cummings, Sally N., ed. Power and Change in Central Asia. Abingdon, UK, and New York: Routledge, 2002.

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    Although some information presented in the book is dated, its thematic focus on the emergence and consolidation of strong authoritarian presidential regimes is invaluable. Emphasizes the role of process and agency during transition and highlights similarities and differences among the leadership styles of five Central Asian regimes.

  • Freedman, Eric, and Richard Shafer, eds. After the Czars and Commissars: Journalism in Authoritarian Post-Soviet Central Asia. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2011.

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    Combines theoretical insights on the study of the press in Central Asia with an account of the development of a free press in these states. Contains empirical chapters on various aspects of mass media and journalism in the region.

  • Golden, Peter B. Central Asia in World History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

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    Offers a comprehensive and impartial overview of Central Asian history from early human settlement to the present. Contains a geopolitical narrative of the region and a survey of the complex mosaic of its cultures.

  • Luong, Pauline Jones. Institutional Change and Political Continuity in Post-Soviet Central Asia: Power, Perceptions, and Pacts. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511510199Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Provides a detailed and theory-grounded account of the electoral systems in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. Embedded in the scholarship on sources and effects of institutions, the book is a must-read for students of comparative politics.

  • Olcott, Martha Brill. Central Asia’s Second Chance. Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2005.

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    Looks at Central Asia through the prism of US foreign policy. Draws a bleak but accurate picture of the glum prospects of Central Asian states to resolve their multifaceted problems. Stresses the shortcomings of US activities in the region. Appendixes contain a wealth of comparative data on Central Asian states.

  • Omelicheva, Mariya Y., ed. Nationalism and Identity Construction in Central Asia: Dimensions, Dynamics, and Directions. London and Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2014.

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    Represents Central Asian nations as “constructed,” “imagined,” strategic, and tactical formations. What Central Asian nations are is the subject of change and contestation by a variety of internal and external actors.

  • Roy, Olivier. The New Central Asia: The Creation of Nations. London: I. B. Tauris, 2000.

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    Well-researched and insightful, the book may be difficult to peruse for undergraduate students and those unfamiliar with the region because of its writing style (complex sentences are retained in the translation from the French) and the lack of maps or other guides to the region.

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