Kyrgyzstan struggles to protect medics: Deputy PM Kubatbek Boronov. (Photo: Government website)

Kyrgyzstan struggles to protect medics: Deputy PM Kubatbek Boronov. (Photo: Government website)

Okategoriserade Covid-19 and the Politics of Authoritarianism in Central Asia

In this article, we compare the differing responses of the five Central Asian republics to Covid-19. We pay particular attention to how the virus presents opportunities to strengthen authoritarian rule within the region: for authoritarian regimes, the virus offers an opportunity to suppress dissent and strengthen authoritarian norms. While authoritarian states have recognised the spread of the virus in order to receive international humanitarian assistance, they have hidden the true number of infected and victims of the disease, as well as forbidding doctors to talk about the dangerous working conditions in hospitals, and imprisoning citizens for spreading false information.

Published on on June 21, 2020

No Comments on Covid-19 and the Politics of Authoritarianism in Central Asia Share
  • Facebook
  • Pusha
  • TwitThis
  • Google
  • LinkedIn
  • Digg
  • Maila artikeln!
  • Skriv ut artikeln!

As of June 20, there were 31.278 officially registered cases of Covid-19 in post-Soviet Central Asia, although this is likely an underestimate due to the lack of widespread testing. The Central Asian governments have reacted differently to the virus. Kazakhstan, the first country to confirm a case on March 13, quickly declared a state of emergency, enforcing a strict quarantine in the largest cities. Within a week, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan had registered their first cases, also enforcing lockdowns. Tajikistan closed its borders at the end of March, but continued business as usual, with the mass events organised for the Navruz holidays. After it registered its first case on April 30, cases immediately spiked and the outbreak quickly became the deadliest in the region, although there has been no lockdown in the country and officially deaths have slowed. Meanwhile Turkmenistan remains the second most populous country with no official cases after North Korea with life remaining largely unchanged. “If there was a single confirmed coronavirus case we would have immediately informed the World Healthcare Organisation in line with our obligations,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs Rashid Meredov told the media.

Figure 1: Official Covid-19 Cases (correct as of June 20, 2020)

Country Official Cases Official Deaths
Kazakhstan 16779 113
Kyrgyzstan 2981 35
Tajikistan 5399 51
Turkmenistan 0 0
Uzbekistan 6119 19


In this article, we compare the differing responses of the five Central Asian republics to Covid-19. We pay particular attention to how the virus presents opportunities to strengthen authoritarian rule within the region. For democratic states, the disruptions to freedom of movement imposed as a result of the pandemic are temporary and governments emphasized that it is imperative to return to normal life. But for authoritarian regimes, the virus offers an opportunity to suppress dissent and strengthen authoritarian norms. While authoritarian states have recognised the spread of the virus in order to receive international humanitarian assistance, they have hidden the true number of infected and victims of the disease, as well as forbidding doctors to talk about the dangerous working conditions in hospitals, and imprisoning citizens for spreading false information. Representatives from the so-called “power ministries,” police, security services and the military, with limited experience with public health, have been the bodies responsible for crisis management, leading to a securitised approach which prioritises order and stability over public health.

We focus on four areas. First, we explore how Central Asian governments have attempted to restrict the dissemination of information about the virus, blocking websites, threatening doctors and only permitting state media to break curfew to cover the crisis. Second, we examine how the situation has presented opportunities to curtail freedom of assembly. Third, we document the ways in which crisis presents an opportunity to test surveillance technologies, such as “smart cities” to monitor their citizens. Lastly, we explore how Covid-19 allows governments to promote themselves as effective leaders.

Differing Approaches

The five Central Asian states have adopted differing approaches to Covid-19 from aggressive lockdowns to denial. The first case of Covid-19 was registered in the region’s largest country Kazakhstan.  Two days after the first official case was registered, on March 15 Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev, the President of Kazakhstan, signed Decree No. 285, introducing a state of emergency in the country. A “State Commission on Ensuring the State of Emergency under the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan” was created, which was endowed with unlimited powers during the state of emergency. The Commission quickly closed the country’s borders and prohibited mass gatherings. The president’s decree gave law enforcement strict instructions to strengthen control over persons who “evade medical examination and treatment, do not comply with the quarantine regime, hided data that are important for determining the epidemiological situation.” On March 26, quarantine was introduced in Nur-Sultan, Almaty and Shymkent. By April 3, 2020, similar restrictions were introduced in all regions of Kazakhstan and large cities were quarantined. The state of emergency in Kazakhstan ended on May 11 and restrictions are gradually being lifted.

Two days after Kazakhstan’s first case, on March 15 Uzbekistan announced its first case, a citizen who had recently returned from France. Uzbekistan had already established a Special Republican Commission on Covid-19 on January 29. Headed by the Prime Minister, the body includes ministers, presidential advisors, public health officials and state committee heads. However, the authorities of Uzbekistan did not introduce a state of emergency, as in Kazakhstan. Instead, the Cabinet of Ministers decreed on March 23 introducing an enhanced quarantine regime against the spread of coronavirus infection. In order to preserve the effectiveness of the measures, the Special Republican Commission decided to extend the restrictive measures to counteract the spread of coronavirus infection until June 30.

Like the other two countries, the government of Kyrgyzstan created a body to manage the reponse to the crisis. Kyrgyz authorities under the Ministry of Health created an operational headquarters to monitor the situation with coronavirus in China on January 24. On March 18, the Ministry of Health officially announced the first cases of coronavirus, three citizens who arrived in the country on March 12 after performing the minor Hajj in Saudi Arabia. Four days later a state of emergency was introduced for one month. This was lifted on May 11, although some restrictions still apply.

Tajikistan’s government was long in denial about Covid-19. From February onwards, the government actively hid evidence that the virus had arrived in the country with “pneumonia” cases spiking in January. Arguably the government did not want to sow panic and wanted the March 1 parliamentary elections to run smoothly. Parliamentary elections were held and according to the Central Election Commission of Tajikistan, the PDPT party won 50.4 percent of the vote, gaining 47 seats in the 63-seat Majlisi Namoyandagon, in the lower house parliament. Even after the election, the government refused to introduce any measures to curtail the spread of the virus. Asia Plus quoted a Tajik doctor as saying “A patient who didn’t have a fever, had no strong symptoms, but he stopped smelling and tasting, and then the doctor contacted the hospital’s management, who told him and his other colleagues were told that we need to treat him and do everything to make him recover, but at the same time not to open his mouth. We had to remain silent before a series of political events took place.” Despite emerging reports the government continued as though everything was normal; the football season began and Navruz, the Persian new year, was celebrated by tens of thousands in the northern city of Khujand.

Beyond not wanting to generate panic and wanting to have time to prepare for mass hospitalisations, the country’s government did not want to incur the economic losses associated with a mass shutdown. As a result, the Tajik authorities were only forced to confirm the first case of Covid-19 on April 30, on the eve of the visit of a delegation from the World Health Organisation. Despite the official recognition of cases, the government did not order a mass lockdown. Instead, president Rahmon dismissed Minister of Health Nasim Olimzod for mishandling the situation and appointed Jamoliddin Abdullozoda, head of one of the largest medical institutions in Dushanbe and a native of the same district as the president, as the new minister. As of June 19, there were 51 official deaths, although crowdsourced figures of suspicious deaths placed the toll at 437.

Turkmenistan is the second most populous country with no official Covid-19 cases after North Korea. The closed authoritarian state has continued to hold mass gatherings and enforced no stringent measures until May. On May 15, President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow approved the government’s plan on “Turkmenistan’s preparedness to stand against the pandemic and ways to rapidly react to it,” including restrictions on mass gatherings. Yet, by late June there were still no official cases in the country, although this may change with reports on June 15 that staff at the Infection Hospital had been locked in and their phones confiscated.

Curbing the Flow of Information

Questions and inconsistencies emerged from the official narrative about Covid-19 in each country. A cemetery outside of Almaty created solely for Covid-19 victims had more graves than reported deaths in city. In Tajikistan, despite the fact that there were no official Covid-19 cases, in April bodies were being taken away by men in hazmat suits to be buried. Although, officially at least, the reported cases of coronavirus in Central Asia are not significant when compared to other parts of the world, the pandemic has become a catalyst for governments in the region to strengthen their control over public information. Authorities argue that allegedly false and incorrect disseminated information through independent media and social networks poses a threat to public health. Following changes to the legislation in each country over the past few years, the Central Asian governments were well positioned to control the information sphere in response to Covid-19.

Two days after the first case was made public, the Ministry of Information in Kazakhstan made a statement arguing that recently the country had witnessed an increase in the dissemination of false information and warned citizens they needed to strictly observe the law to maintain the stability of the country. Article 274 of the Criminal Code stipulates that under a state of emergency “disseminating knowingly false information” is punishable by 3 to 7 years in prison. By April 3, 41 cases had been opened against those accused of spreading false information. Kyrgyzstan’s Republican Coronavirus Headquarters emphasized that distribution of false information was also criminalized. Human Rights Watch reported that the State Committee on National Security (GKNB) distributed information about at least 27 people it accused of “spreading knowingly false information” about the virus.

Uzbekistan has adopted similar measures. In addition, the government made amendments and additions to the Criminal Code and the Code of Administrative Responsibility on March 26, 2020. According to these amendments, violation of the quarantine regime or “spreading untrue information on the spread of the infection” is punishable by fines or imprisonment up to ten years. The March 23 decree by the Cabinet of Ministers noted that “mobile phones, audio and video equipment, bank cards and other storage media belonging to persons infected or quarantined on suspicion of being infected with coronavirus will be temporarily confiscated” a way of preventing patients filming in hospitals. When adopting these amendments, senators noted that “laws are being introduced to prevent unjustified panic among the population, ensure public safety and create conditions for the normal functioning of state structures.” New legal amendments allowed the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the National Guard to detain people violating quarantine for up to 24 hours. The government argued that these measures were in keeping with the Constitution, in particularly Article 24, the right to life.

In response to the independent media and civil society contradicting its narrative, the government of Tajikistan took steps to curtail the flow of information and punish those reporting the gravity of the situation. In April, Tajikistan’s government formally blocked independent media outlet Akhbor, which had posted information contradicting the government’s narrative on Covid. A few weeks later it restricted access to, a crowdsourced site posting reported deaths from suspected Covid-19 infections. The site reported almost ten times more deaths than the official statistics. On May 11, two masked men attacked Asia Plus journalist who had reported on Covid-19 Abdulloh Ghurbati near his house in Dushanbe. On June 10, 2020, the government amended the Criminal Code and the Administrative Code. According to amendments, penalties are provided for disseminating inaccurate and inaccurate information through the media about a pandemic of 580 somoni (€50) for individuals, and up to 11,600 somoni (€1000) for legal entities.

In closed Turkmenistan, the government has taken steps to curtail any reports about Covid-19 in the country, discouraging the very use of the word. For example, pro-government Gundogar News published an  article on March 28 accused Radio Free Europe of publishing “fake news” about cases of COVID-19 infections in Turkmenistan with the aim of “creating panic.” In April, a doctor working in the quarantine zone in Turkmenabat was detained after being found with a mobile phone.

Curtailing Freedom of Assembly and Movement

Under the cover of state of emergency legislation, the governments of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have cracked down on citizens’ freedom of assembly and movement.  As part of the fight against coronavirus, the Kyrgyz government, in addition to introducing a state of emergency on the territory of the country, resorted to unprecedented legislative restrictions and prohibitions that relate to issues of restricting the free movement of citizens. On April 3, the government changed the Article 280 of the Criminal Code to punish “intentional or reckless violation of the sanitary-epidemiological rules” with a prison term of up to two years. It also amended the Code on Misconduct and Code on Violations to increase the fines for violating the emergency regime. While the lockdown did form an attempt to curtail the spread of the virus, it was used to curtail the flow of information about the virus. Only the state media were given permits to move freely around the cities where lockdown was fully enforced, including the capital city Bishkek.

On May 25, president Tokayev signed a new Law on Peaceful Assembly. The new law, hailed by the government as a “paradigm shift” and rushed through parliament during the Covid-19 state of emergency which was lifted on May 11, has been criticised by human rights groups. New restrictions include a ban on groups not registered in the country organising protests and grants the government the right to dictate the sites where protests can take place. Most importantly, the organiser cannot have already been convicted for previous misdemeanors related to peaceful assembly laws, ruling out most activists in the country from organising protests, On June 6, over 100 were detained in the first protests since lockdown was lifted.  Protesters in Nur-Sultan on June 10 were taken into buses by police wearing hazmat suits.

Policing Restrictions through Surveillance

Central Asia’s governments have been developing their surveillance capacity for a number of years. As the virus spread, some city administrations are retooling smart city technologies to help enforce quarantine measures. Even before the introduction of a state of emergency, Kazakhstan became the first post-Soviet state to use surveillance technology, introducing thermal imaging cameras to monitor border crossings from China. Almaty has the largest number of smart cameras in Kazakhstan, with over 119,000. The government has used this video camera system, called Sergek which means “sharp eye” in Kazakh, to catch and fine citizens who violate quarantine. In Almaty alone, by early May 2,300 had been prosecuted for violating quarantine, with 605 being briefly imprisoned. Like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan has been installing Chinese-built surveillance equipment throughout its major urban centres and in April last year, Huawei completed a $1 billion deal with Uzbekistan to build a traffic-monitoring system involving some 883 cameras. There are concerns over the security of peoples’ data. Vega, which won a $34 million contract to develop a smart city in Bishkek in 2018, collects data into its Prisma Cloud that is operated from Russia.

Beyond smart cities, governments in the region have used apps to track the movement of citizens. Local police have launched two apps (E-Polisia KZ in Almaty, the largest city, and Smart Astana in the capital, Nur-Sultan) to monitor the movement of the country’s most at-risk citizens to ensure compliance with self-isolation. The apps work by tracking individuals through their geolocation settings and determining whether they have travelled more than 30 meters from their home. Should they breach quarantine, a message from the Ministry of Health will be sent to the user demanding to know why they are doing so. Kyrgyzstan’s authorities have launched a similar platform, requiring citizens to regularly update their health status so that doctors can remotely monitor their patients. Uzbekistan plans to develop an app that will track where patients travel and with whom they speak. While these apps are intended to be used to aid contact tracing, they could be retooled in future to monitor citizens en masse.

Finally, in Kazakhstan the military used unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to monitor checkpoints. On March 31, the Ministry of Defense announced that the Kazakh military is now “intensively involved in the maintenance of the state of emergency” in the country, adding that approximately 1,000 troops are being deployed to “disinfect facilities, man roadblocks, and carry out patrols.” To increase the effectiveness of these roadblocks, “the servicemen have begun using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to prevent any unauthorised crossings,” they stated. The current pandemic has offered the Central Asian governments a first opportunity to test how effective these surveillance technologies are on a mass-scale, allowing them to prepare for future outbreaks of unrest or instability.

Signaling Success

Each government has claimed to have been effective in addressing the public health crisis. With no official cases, the government of Turkmenistan has argued its measures, which included travel restrictions, quarantine zones and raising awareness of hygiene, have been successful.  Despite the pandemic, the authorities continued to mobilise citizens forcibly to attend state organised celebrations. Turkmenistan has gone so far as to offer assistance to neighbouring Afghanistan, establishing two testing centres at the border. Similarly, the government of Uzbekistan has taken the lead in regional “virus diplomacy” continuing its role as the lynchpin of Central Asian regionalism since the death of Islam Karimov in 2016. President Mirziyoyev’s government has sent medical aid  in April and a team of eight doctors in May to Tajikistan. It also donated food and medical supplies to Kyrgyzstan. Not to be outdone, Kazakhstan made its own donations shortly afterwards.

Despite the fact that the government budgets just $30 per person for healthcare, the lowest in the former Soviet Union, the government of Tajikistan has claimed to have been effective in fighting Covid-19. In a meeting with healthcare professionals on May 20, president Rahmon claimed the government had taken “timely measures” to address the crisis. “The Tajik people have gone through situations that were many times more difficult than this disease. I can confidently say that they are going through this with their heads held high,” he concluded.


While the Central Asian governments have taken varied approaches and had different levels of success in addressing the pandemic, it has presented each government an opportunity to test their capacity to control the population and strengthen their regimes. To varying degrees, each government has cracked down upon those spreading “disinformation” about the situation or challenging the official narrative. Each country, apart from Turkmenistan, has amended its legislation to introduce penalties for violating quarantine and other measures to respond to Covid-19. Such measures have been increasingly enforced via mobile apps and smart city technologies, offering an opportunity to test systems of mass surveillance. While such measures are framed as being in the public interest, and they have been somewhat effective in curbing the spread of the virus, next time they may not be used for such noble purposes.

  • by Edward Lemon and Oleg Antonov

    Edward Lemon is DMGS-Kennan Institute Fellow at the Daniel Morgan Graduate School in Washington D.C. and a Global Fellow at the Wilson Center. Oleg Antonov is a visiting researcher at the Centre for Baltic and East European Studies (CBEES), Södertörn University.

  • all contributors