Folks, you know I write a lot about destination: Central Asia if you’ve followed my blog for any length of time. Could it possibly be my favourite part of the world? Well maybe, I hadn’t really though that deeply about it. And you know that this part of the world is known for it’s enigmatic (to say the least) leaders. From Niyazov to Nazarbayev, Karimov to Rahmonn, each country in Central Asia has been blessed or cursed depending on your point of view to have such individuals at the helm since the fall of the Soviet Union and their own independence in 1991. So, let’s see if we can match the President to the country!
*A quick note there was a sort of ‘transitional phase’ as it turned out from 1990 to 1991, where the countries as they were to become were given great autonomy, and most leaders started in this period.
Okay, so, I will start off by saying I don’t know anything about the leaders of Kyrgyzstan, which means I need to have a bit of an online search to see what I can find out about the running of the smallest of the Central Asian countries. It’s quite a different beast, Kyrgyzstan, in the south and towards borders between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan it’s a drier more Middle Eastern kinda place, whereas the north is mountainous looking a lot like Europe, and the capital Bishkek has a very Russian feel. I do know that Kyrgyzstan is the country that most wanted to acknowledge its past as part of the Soviet Union, with Lenin statues not uncommon in Bishkek and it’s National Museum embracing the previous 70 years before independence.
So Kyrgyzstan’s Presidency is the opposite to the other countries. Tajikistan has had ONE President since independence, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan have had but two, and Uzbekistan has had three but that’s only because they had a 6-day caretaker between the main two Presidents since 1991.
In contrast, Kyrgyzstan has been a country that has seen a lot of different ‘dudes’ ushered in and out of office in the same period of time. In fact it was mid-October this year that Kyrgyzstan found itself with its fifth President, Sadyr Japarov. Their first President was their longest surviving, Askar Akayev. He was President from 1990 to 2005, where he was forced to resign even though he said he would, and he ended up fleeing the country. He came from the Communist Party, but was President as an independent. He tried to set up a succession with one of his children which did not happen in the end.
Another interesting Kyrgyz leader was Roza Otunbayeva, she was President from 2010-2011. Although not President for that long, she does remain the only female President in modern Central Asian history.
Emomali Rahmonn has been President of Tajikistan since 1991. He is looking presently for some sort of succession plan to his son I believe, and he has receives very high percentage of votes in elections – 80% plus. What I can tell you about this man is that you see his image plastered all over the country, so one presumes the ego is pretty solid, but also that when I asked people about him and what they thought, it was always an overwhelmingly positive response.
During the 1990s Tajikistan endured basically civil war across the country, but Rahmoon somehow navigated it and even brought people together. Thanks to him the city of Dushanbe has a few modern buildings – such as the Navruz Palace – which rival the buildings of the incredible Ashgabat and Nursultan. Like other Central Asian countries, Tajikistan appears to be rich in minerals and resources, including gold. By opening the country up to investment from its neighbouring country, China, they have been able to have decent roads built and more on the way. Mostly because now China is mining in the country and needs to be able to take the resources back to China I guess. The country now has a much wider electricity grid and places that ten years had never seen electric power to the home now have it connected. Rahmonn has succeeded – principally in partnership with China, in modernising probably the country that was least developed from the region when the Soviet Union collapsed.
Nursultan Nazarbayev was, until recently, the only President of Kazakhstan. He relinquished the position earlier this year in March, meaning he had been President for a little over 27 years. Interestingly enough, there are term limits in Kazakhstan, two terms of five years, so I presume that is a very recent change!
Nazarbayev is the architect of the Kazakhstan you see today. He is the man that saw the vision for a new capital, Astana, in the mid-north of the country. Kazakhstan became rich almost overnight in the 1990s with revenue from oil and gas, and he pumped it into building a city that the citizens would marvel at – a city to put Kazakhstan firmly on the world map. And in many ways he succeeded. Although Astana/Nursultan in no ways reflects the rest of the country, it is unique and visitors go to see it simply because it is.
Nazarbayev has managed to both reject Russia internally, yet maintain a good relationship with it’s northern neighbour. Kazakhstan was the site for nuclear testing under the Soviet Union, near the northern town of Semey. This has now ceased, but remains a bone of contention for the Kazakh people. On the flip side, the Cosmodrome is still in Kazakhstan which Russia uses for many thing especially sending people up to the International Space Station.
Nazarbayev recently retired the Presidency, Kassym-Jomart Takayev is the current President. Nazarbayev now sits on the security council, and they renamed Astana to Nursultan after him.
Islam Karimov became President of Uzbekistan in 1990 during the transitional phase from Soviet Union member to Republic, and remained President until 2016, when he died in office. He found a vision for the country, uniting under the visage of an Uzbek warrior and leader, Timur, who many regard in Uzbekistan as the Uzbek ‘Genghis Khan’.
The idea was to give the country a sense of identity after years of Soviet rule from Moscow. One thing to keep in mind is that Moscow rule for all of these countries had meant a denial of their history and religion, which for the most part was and still is Islam. Instead of local history, Central Asians were taught Russian history. Names like Timur were all but forgotten. By invoking his memory Karimov instilled a sense of pride in the country and it’s past in its people.
Again, Uzbekistan became neuvo-rich thanks to a resources boom in the 1990s, one element that Uzbekistan exports is uranium. What has happened is that high-speed rail now links major cities, and tourism infrastructure has been invested in. The main cities of Samarkand and the capital Tashkent have seen money put in to make them more attractive (rather than money spent on building strange buildings) and in general the quality of life for all Uzbeks is substantially improved.
Karimov decided to court the approval of America rather than Russia. Americans used Uzbekistan as a base whilst fighting in the Middle East after the events of 2001. However, that relationship soured a few years later.
Karimov and Nazarbayev often didn’t see eye to eye, and there was certainly some friction between the two countries. When Karimov died in office, Nigmatilla Yuldashev became caretaker President for a period of six days – September 2016. An election was held and Shavkat Mirziyoyev was elected President with over 88% of the vote. His current party is the Liberal Democratic Party. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the election was not regarded as a fair election.
Finally and most fanatically, we have Turkmenistan, one of the largest countries in the region but the one with the smallest population of around six million. Saparmurat Niyazov emerged as President following the break up of the Soviet Union. He died in office in 2006, but otherwise would no doubt still be President today.
He brought the country together somewhat like Karimov in Uzbekistan, by giving them a history to be proud of. During the Soviet times, almost all the mosques in Turkmenistan were destroyed, practicing religion was forbidden. He built mosques and produced the green book of the history of Turkmenistan, so that the people knew a history when the people of the region used to rule. When they fought the Roman Empire, when they were an empire themselves – in the days of the Parthian Empire.
He diversified the country’s farming, which under the Soviet Union had been greatly restricted. In the USSR Turkmenistan has a specific role in farming, it was decreed that they would grow cotton above all else. This meant that most food had to be brought to Turkmenistan from other parts of the Soviet Union, and when there were shortages Turkmenistan, which was far down on the list of importance, would most likely get none. Today they grow pumpkins, potatoes and many other crops, including melons, which the President is very proud of, both of them. They are often pictured holding melons and looking very proud. I am not making this up!
Gas is the country’s main asset, and the money from that has been pumped into making Ashgabat another suitably weird city with giant buildings mostly made out of marble – imported – Ashgabat has the most marble in a single city in the entire WORLD. And a collection of monuments, the most extravagant mosque, parks, and more. And not a lot of people.
Other cities too have been upgraded, at least in part such as the city of Mary or even Dashaguz in the north. Not to be out done, the current President, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov has his own museum and continues on the vision of his predecessor. The portraits of him are everywhere, often holding a melon or riding a horse. He owns many of the rare Akhal-Teke horses which are unique to Turkmenistan, and is quite a character and personality in his own right. He has won the last two elections with around 97% of the vote, which you know, seems legit, right?
So there you are folks, a summary of the leaders of the Central Asian nations! I hope you found it informative! Thanks for popping by and giving this one a read! Wherever you are, take care, and as always – May the Journey Never End!