Political and human rights contexts


The latest Freedom House data described Kazakhstan as a ‘consolidated authoritarian regime’ (Freedom House, 2017). Since gaining its independence from the Soviet Union, Kazakh politics was single-handedly ruled by President Nazarbayev and its inner family circle and elites.

Political openness, independent media and civil society are present by ‘design’ and remain largely underdeveloped. Since the 2007 reforms, the President can seek re-election as many times as he wishes and stay in office for an unlimited number of terms. Democratic institutions are present, however, they are primarily for ‘window dressing’; the political arena is dominated by the party of the President, the Nur Otan, with very restricted or quasi absent space for the opposition to act (Freedom House, 2017).

Extra-territorial security deployed by the Kazakh government has involved the targeting of former regime insiders and secular opposition activists, demonstrating the political nature of this authoritarian practice (Heathershaw et al. 2016). Among these is France-based fugitive businessman Mukhtar Ablyazov, who founded and leads in exile the opposition party, the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK), deemed an extremist group by the Kazakh government (Economist, 2018). Pro-government outlets dominate the media landscape in Kazakhstan, and nearly all opposition media outlets have been closed or forced into exile (BBCb, 2017).

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In Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan has been considered an ‘island of democracy’ as it’s the only country in the region, that that has had transfers of power via elections. Its relatively competitive politics mirrors a more open society and dynamic power relations between elite factions.

On the 15 October 2017, Kyrgyzstan held presidential elections that marked a milestone for the country. For the first time since independence in 1991, power changed hands in Kyrgyzstan peacefully. President Sooronbai Jeenbekov of the Social Democratic Party (SDPK), became the fifth president of Kyrgyzstan after winning over 54% of the vote in the October 2017 election, to replace the outgoing leader, Almazbek Atambayev (BBC, 2018b). The Organisation for Security and Cooperation (OSCE, 2017) described the election as ‘competitive’ but said that ‘pressure’ on voters and ‘vote-buying’ remain a concern.

Resentment in regard to widespread poverty and ethnic divisions between the North and South, have spilled over into violence, and the country’s first two post-Soviet Presidents, Askar Akayev and Kurmanbek Bakiyev, were forced from power by opposition protests in 2005 and 2010, respectively (BBC, 2018b). The media in Kyrgyzstan is given greater freedom than the other Central Asian states, however journalists are subject to pressure from private media owners and the authorities (BBC, 2017b). Self-censorship occurs when sensitive topics, including inter-ethnic relations, are covered (BBC, 2017b).

Former regime insiders and associates, such as Askar Akayev, and Kurmanbek & Maxim Bakiyev, feature prominently in our CAPE database.

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Tajikistan is currently classified as being the most autocratic countries in the world. The latest Freedom in the World report 2018, which rates nations according to civil liberties and political rights, ranks Tajikistan among the 20 most oppressive regimes in the world[1]. The most recent presidential election took place in 2013 with Rahmon reelected to a fourth term with 83.6 percent of the vote (Freedom House, 2018).

However, it was not always this way. In 1999, the country adopted constitutional reforms which allowed the formation of religion-based political parties and paved the way for the legal operation of the Islamist opposition party, the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan (IRPT). As a part of the peace accords that ended the civil war in 1997, opposition parties were promised 30 percent of senior government seats but this quota has never been reached (Freedom House, 2018). Throughout the years which followed the signing of the 1997 power sharing agreement, the space for public dissent and political debate shrink gradually and became virtually alienated from the political process after the 2015 elections. Tajikistan’s human rights situation further worsened in 2017, with authorities targeting widespread crackdown on free expression and association, peaceful political opposition activity, the independent legal profession, and the independent exercise of religious faith (Human Rights Watch, 2017). According the latest World Press Freedom Index (2017), Tajikistan’s media are rated 149th (out of 180 countries) highlighting that “intimidation and blackmail have become part of the daily fare of independent journalists” (Reporters Without Borders, 2017).

Human Rights Watch Organisation further reports that, over the last past year at least 20 journalists have fled the country, fearing persecution for their profession activities (Human Rights Watch, 2018). The government uses restrictive laws, politicized prosecution, and extralegal intimidation to restrain independent reporting. This has led to independent journalists and activists forced into exile. In recent years, the government blacklisted the two major democratic opposition groups: the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) and Group 24 and labelled them as “terrorist and enemies of the state organisations” (Amnesty International, 2018). The IRPT leader, Muhiddin Kabiri, remained outside of the country from 2015 onwards, as have many other members of the IRPT (Freedom House, 2016). The government has also taken action against other opposition groups such as the Youth for the Revival of Tajikistan and Group 24. In 2015, Russian authorities extradited the Youth for the Revival of Tajikistan leader, Maksud Ibragimov. In the same year, a leader of Group 24, Umarali Kuvatov, was shot down in Istanbul, with many suspecting Tajikistan’s government to have been involved in the killing.

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Turkmenistan is among the world’s most repressive and closed countries in the world. The country has been ruthlessly ruled first by Saparmurat Niyazov (1997–2006) and since 2007 by Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov.

Niyazov’s rule was authoritarian and eccentric. He gave himself the title Turkmenbashi, or the Head of All Turkmen and alienated all forms of opposition and freedom of expression. Niyazov forbade independent news media and opposition parties, jailed rivals or drove them to exile. In 2002, an alleged assassination attempt against Niyazov sparked a severe crackdown, leading to dozens of arrests. A former foreign minister, Boris Shikhmuradov, was named as the man behind the alleged plot and sentenced to life in prison.

In February 2017, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov was re-elected for a third term, receiving 97.7% of the vote (Human Rights Watch, 2018). Turkmenistan continues to be one of the most closed and oppressive governments globally, with next to no media free and absolute presidential control of government. All forms of political and religious oppression are banned with the country. Dozens of people remain forcibly disappeared presumably in Turkmen prisons, the most notorious being the Ovadan Depe (Freedom House, 2017). Further to this, human rights groups are only able to operate in exile. Independent critics and their families, including in exile, face constant threat of government reprisal. Authorities continue to impose informal and arbitrary travel bans on activists and relatives of exiled dissidents, as the case of Geldy Kyarizov (a long-time champion of the preservation of the desert country’s iconic Akhal Teke horse breed) illustrates in our database.

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Since the fall of USSR, Uzbekistan was ruled by the Islam Karimov’s ruthless regime until his death in 2016. New president Shavkat Mirziyoyev has undertook limited reforms since coming to office which have raised hopes that repression at home and abroad will be reduced.

During the years of Karimov’s regime, Uzbekistan became isolated from the international community combined with systematic violations on human rights and freedom of expression. Karimov took a ruthlessly authoritarian approach to all forms of opposition, using the danger of Islamic militancy to justify the absence of civil rights (BBC, 2016). In 2005, Uzbekistan experienced the bloodiest crackdown on a popular revolt in the former Soviet Union. On May 13, 2005, Uzbek President Islam Karimov ordered his troops to open fire on thousands of protesters in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijan who had rallied against his policies and have arrested of 23 local businessmen on charges of Islamist extremism (Mirovalev, 2015). As a result of political oppression, a large number of opposition composed of businessman, civil society and politician were forced to live in exile and exercise politics from abroad. Karimov’s main political opponent Muhammad Solih, who ran against him in the 1991 election, now lives in Turkey (as documented in our database). Internally, Karimov’s regime struggled to reconcile the interests of his daughters Gulnara Karimova and Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva. Gulanara Karimova was once thought as a potential successor, but power and family struggle as well as money-laundering investigations, led Gulnara Karimova’s to be placed under house arrest.

On Friday 2 September 2016, a day after the 25th anniversary of the country’s independence, Karimov death was announced. At the time of his death he was the oldest ruler of any country in the former Soviet space. He was succeeded by his Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev. In early days of his tenure, Mirziyoyev has been portrayed as ‘reformist’. Since replacing his predecessor, Mirziyoyev, has taken a different tack in orienting Uzbekistan within Central Asia and abroad as a good neighbour and reliable international partner which is open to compromise and cooperation. In the political realm, a sign of Uzbekistan’s growing receptiveness to human rights norms is its removal of about 16,000 people, many of them political dissidents, from its security blacklist, and releasing some political prisoners jailed by Karimov. Mirziyoyev also extended a hand to exiled activists, guaranteeing them amnesty upon return. Yet despite these positive steps, the era of Karimov’s regime left a complex legacy, one which will affect the country’s domestic and international politics for years to come, as well as the wider politics of central Asia.

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[1] Tajikistan scores 11/100 on the aggregate score, where 0 = least free, 100 = most free (Freedom House, 2018).


Amnesty International (2018). Tajikistan 2017/2018. Available at: https://www.amnesty.org/en/countries/europe-and-central-asia/tajikistan/report-tajikistan/ [accessed 27 March 2018].

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BBC (2017). Kazakhstan Profile: Media. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-15482614 [accessed 25th May 2018].

BBC (2017b). Kyrgyzstan Country: Media. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-16187183 [accessed 15th May 2018].

BBC (2018a). Tajikistan Country Profile. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-16201032 [accessed 15th May 2018].

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Heathershaw, J., Brown, R., and Bishop, E. (2016). Practices and Patterns of Extraterritorial Security: Introducing he Central Asian Political Exiles (CAPE) Database. Available at: https://fpc.org.uk/practices-patterns-extraterritorial-security-introducing-central-asian-political-exiles-cape-database [accessed 13th March 2018].

Human Rights Watch (2017). Tajikistan: Independent Journalist Detained Politically Motivated Charges for Corruption. Report of 11 December 2017. Available at: https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/12/11/tajikistan-independent-journalist-detained [accessed 13th March 2018].

Human Rights Watch (2017). Turkmenistan Events of 2017. Available at: https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2018/country-chapters/turkmenistan [accessed 27 March 2018].

Human Rights Watch (2018). Tajikistan Events of 2017. Available at: https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2018/country-chapters/tajikistan [accessed 27 March 2018].

Mirovalev, M (2015). Uzbekistan: 10 years after the Andijan massacre. Report of 12 May 2015 on Aljazeera. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2015/05/150511123115026.html [accessed 27 March 2018].

OSCE (2017). Competitive Kyrgyzstan presidential election provides for orderly transfer of power, although cases of misuse of public resources, pressure and vote buying remain a concern, international observers say. Available at: https://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/350016 [accessed 15th May 2018].

Reporters Without Borders (2017). World Press Freedom Index 2017: Tajikistan. Available at: https://rsf.org/en/tajikistan [accessed 5 March 2018].