Low oil prices could end stability of Eurasian dictatorships, says Freedom House

Low oil prices could end stability of Eurasian dictatorships, says Freedom House
Uzbek President Islam Karimov has been in power for 27 years.
By bne IntelliNews April 12, 2016

Institutional and economic crises threaten the stability of Eurasia’s entrenched dictatorships, and the persistence of low oil prices could bring the region’s “much-vaunted” authoritarian stability to a “dramatic end”, the Washington-based human rights and media freedom watchdog Freedom House says in its Nations in Transit 2016 report, published on April 12.

“Europe and Eurasia ended 2015 mired in institutional and economic crises that threatened both the survival of the European Union and the stability of Eurasia’s entrenched dictatorships,” the report says. “Financial pressures brought about by falling oil prices and worker remittances undermined the economies of Russia and most former Soviet states.”

Freedom House said that “the collapse in global commodity prices, especially oil, drove Russia into recession and triggered similarly desperate currency crises and budget shortfalls in the petrostates of Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan”. Economic difficulties in Eurasian oil-rich nations are also impacting on oil-importing and remittance-dependent countries in the region – Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan – as they depend on Russia for subsidies and labour migration.

“Eurasia’s economic crisis is exacerbated by the fact that vital state institutions have been hollowed out over decades. The lack of transparency, accountability, and checks and balances has left the dictators of the region saddled with bloated, indebted, and deeply corrupt state enterprises built on high commodity prices,” Freedom House said. “Petty corruption and official predation weigh down weak private sectors.” The report notes that as the region’s banking sectors are facing problems with liquidity and nonperforming loans, the IMF has sent delegations to the regional countries on “emergency evaluation missions”. “If oil prices stay low throughout 2016, Eurasia’s much-vaunted authoritarian stability could come to a dramatic end,” the watchdog says.

Freedom House singled out Georgia as a country transiting from authoritarianism to democracy, though it rated it as a country with a “transitional government” or “hybrid regime”. Armenia and Kyrgyzstan were ranked as “semi-consolidated authoritarian regimes”, while all other countries in the region were ranked solidly as “consolidated authoritarian regimes”.

Most Eurasian leaders have responded with harsh measures ensuring that nothing threatens their rule, it noted. “Tajikistan pursued one of the fiercest consolidations of power the region has seen in the last decade, banning the main opposition party and imprisoning its leadership", the report says.

“Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev held early elections to reaffirm his mandate while signing a new law to increase control over civil society,” it says, adding that “Azerbaijan continued a crackdown that began in the summer of 2014, marked in 2015 by the sentencing of the country’s most prominent investigative journalist, Khadija Ismayilova, to seven and a half years in prison”.

In Georgia, Freedom House said, despite the politicisation of high-profile cases, the judiciary “has improved at the day-to-day level” and has shown that “even in a polarised system, structural reform may still have momentum”. “Parliamentary elections in 2016 will be a major test of the durability of this trend,” the report suggests.

Freedom House praised Kyrgyzstan which held a scheduled parliamentary election in October 2015 that “improved modestly on its previous round in 2010”. “Although there is disturbing evidence of consolidation of power around President Almazbek Atambayev, the electoral process was open enough that his party could not secure a majority in the parliament.”

Freedom House noted that authoritarian leaders in the region took steps to consolidate their families’ grip on power in their respective countries. Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev appointed his eldest daughter Dariga Nazarbayeva as first deputy prime minister, while Tajik President Emomali Rahmon appointed his daughter Ozoda her father’s chief of staff in January 2016 and his 28-year-old son, Rustam Emomali, as head of the state anticorruption agency in 2015. “After the eradication of the legal opposition in 2015, citizens are being asked to vote on amendments that will allow President Emomali Rahmon to remain in office for life, or permit his 29-year-old son Rustam to take office in the next presidential election in 2020,” Freedom House said. “The only uncertainty surrounding the tightly controlled balloting is how close the ‘yes’ vote will come to 100%.”

Another dictator in the region, Turkmenistan’s Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow has also been seen with his grandson Kerimguly on state television “several times”, Freedom House noted, but “there is also speculation that the president is grooming his son, Serdar, to succeed him”.