by Matt Tomlin
Heard of the Five Stans? If you read tabloid newspapers, then you may have heard something about one of them in the last week or so. An unnatural, although unthreatening, amount of radioactive material has been reported by French scientists to have drifted over Europe from either Russia or Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan may often be ignored by the average reader, and understandably so, considering outside news and information is almost sparce in comparison to its neighbour, Russia. However, Kazakhstan and the other former Soviet “Stan” countries, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, would have more world potential and significance if they didn’t have so many political, social and economic flaws.
The current position of the ‘Five Stans’ is what many in the West could easily label as uninteresting, as the countries are not focused on social progression or diverse world trade. Kazakhstan’s economy for example relies almost completely on oil exports. The cities of Ashgabat and Astana, capitals of Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan respectively, are ‘elaborate’ to say the least, and the extortionate money spent on massive constructions can be estimated from just looking at photographs of these two cities.
Despite their elaborate facades, The Guardian reported that public activity on the streets was scarce. The autocratic Turkmen leader, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, has put lots of effort into replacing Soviet architecture with modern marble buildings. Many of the marble houses built lack residents, and because the country is highly reluctant to give out visas, his large airport has a consistently low capacity. This is an obvious example of an uneconomic farce which gives the country no form of return and is typical of the region.
Other questionable construction work can be found in Tajikistan, where there is also a major focus on aesthetic projects, with a 165-metre tall flagpole being erected in the centre of the capital, Dushanbe. Authorities have replaced the bulldozed former Soviet architecture with features like this that contribute nothing to the lives of the masses other than the supposed aura of authority. Unlike neighbouring Kazakhstan, this authority lacks the strong ties with the west and the oil industry like to go about such projects securely.
Kyrgyzstan, the only democracy of the Five Stans, is incredibly poor and a sharp contrast from the egotistical city projects of the other Stan countries.
Subsequently, it does a poor job at maintaining a good impression of democracy in comparison to the other four countries. Its capital, Bishek, reflects the plight of its ordinary people as it is suffering from severe underfunding.
Aside from the general incompetence of authoritarian leaders in providing stable societies for their citizens, social equality in the region is highly questionable. Last month, the Tajikistan authorities reportedly drew up a list of all of its known gay and lesbian citizens. Response plans are said to involve compulsory testing of labelled LGBT+ citizens for STIs with the words ‘morality’ and ‘purge’ also circulating among reports of this. In Uzbekistan meanwhile, homosexuality is illegal. The secular state approaches of these primarily Muslim countries also raises questions of social fairness and equality, with open worship seriously discouraged. Some critics have said that apart from this being oppressive, it encourages radicalisation. An Uzbek man has been involved in a recent New York terrorist attack, and many have reportedly been linked with ISIS.
Despite the problems these countries have, there are some signs of progression. Such positive moves aren’t just away from the legacy of the Soviet Union, but are also away from totalitarian oppression and the lack of development for the non-elites. City officials in the former capital of Kazakhstan, Almaty, have been consulting international investors about city development projects which focus on the inspiration of the people rather than just oil funded aesthetics. Bishek is attempting to take this further with more emphasis being placed on two-way feedback from citizens about what future community developments should be like. Economically, there is some promise in the recent energy deal struck between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, although whether or not any gain made from this will go towards ordinary people is unlikely in the short term given the fanciful attitudes of the current leaders toward development.In terms of environmental issues, Kazakhstan President, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has seemed very eager to promote widespread use of green energy. In 2016.
Greenpeace reported that Kazakhstan had backed a nuclear-free world by 2045.
It would appear that minor incremental steps are being taken in the right direction. For the meantime however, the Five Stans are torn between oppression and progression and have a long way to go in building more equal and progressive societies for their people.