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Book Review: Armen Mazmanyan on Scott Newton’s “The Constitutional Systems of the Independent Central Asian States: A Contextual Analysis”

[Editor’s Note: In this installment of I•CONnect’s Book Review Series, Armen Mazmanyan reviews Scott Newton’s “The Constitutional Systems of the Independent Central Asian States: A Contextual Analysis” (Oxford: Hart 2017).]

Armen Mazmanyan, Center for Constitutional Studies, Apella Institute

Central Asia is a terra incognita for comparative constitutional studies. Unlike its geographic neighbors–Eastern Europe, South and South-East Asia–the region has never been a common destination for constitutional scholars. Instead, it got its “prominence” for research subjects as infamous as clans and clientelism, drug trafficking, gender inequality, radical Islam, and most notoriously authoritarianism.

Scott Newton’s book reveals how unfortunate such scholarly prejudices are. Illustratively exposing the patterns of Central Asian authoritarianism, the author argues that the authoritarian nature of these states, some of them indeed among the world’s most repressive polities, is not a good cause for “dismissing”, in his own words, their constitutions. I find this to be a remarkable point and a fine base for producing what I think is an important contribution to our knowledge about the region and its peculiar constitutional reality.

The book offers a comprehensive overview of constitutional frameworks in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, five countries which emerged from the collapse of the USSR in 1991.

The definition of constitutional “orders” or “systems”, and these are described in Chapter 1, is broad: here the author undertakes a sweeping analysis of political, historical, economic and cultural patterns of the respective societies, providing an extremely informed account of the larger context in which these countries’ political institutions function. But here is a caveat: the book uses the term “constitutionalism” in its most minimalist meaning, interchangeably with “constitutional orders” and, rather controversially for some, often refers to “Central Asian constitutionalism” not to describe a framework for limited government (which is anyways unimaginable in that region), but simply an organizational chart for the exercise of power.[1]

In a remarkable contextual analysis, Chapters 2 and 3 offer insights into the Soviet legacies, and then the post-Soviet developments and influences that shaped the constitutional systems of Central Asian states. The book exposes the constitutional architecture of the region as a hybrid artifact owing, in the author’s acute words, to both Stalin and Madison. This is a very ingenious reference to the fact that the modern constitutional realities of the region carry the legacies of the past as much as they are influenced by the global legal system and the western constitutional tradition. Professor Newton’s knowledge of (post)Soviet politics and law is profound, and this makes his analysis of Central Asia truly informed and sensitive. In general, I find the book’s methodological “bias” towards a deeper look into the context, and its focus on the “material” constitutions to be the biggest virtue of the manuscript and its fine analytical effort.[2]

Chapters 4 to 7 outline the institutional settings of the five constitutions and the political implications of these. These chapters explain the origins and consequences of the most typical patterns of Central Asian governance: super-presidential structures, sometimes starkly reminiscent of what Juan Linz, following Max Weber, called sultanistic regimes;[3] the formal role of democratic institutions; power imbalance, and the quasi-symbolic nature of elections; weak and manipulated courts; and last but not least, the ramifications of constitutional systems for nation-building policies and the politics of identity which are high in the agendas of Central Asian policy makers. The book is a good source of information on how these patterns got embedded everywhere but in one of the five countries, and what were the dynamics of consolidation of authoritarian institutions in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, and how and why Kyrgyzstan deviated from these patterns and what it chose to build in its place.

This much said about the contents of the book, I want to share an observation about its style. Scott Newton’s book is probably not a conventional read for constitutional scholars, and neither is it, I believe, for political scientists or expert historians. The seven chapters and more than 350 pages of the book offer a stunning introduction into the societies and politics of Central Asia, but give almost no sense of their constitutional jurisprudence.[4] They also don’t try to conceptualize, compare and contrast the institutions of judicial review, constitutional doctrines and precedents, or the patterns of judicial politics as constitutional scholars often do in their work. For political science or history, the book probably lacks what is considered “evidence” in either of these disciplines. Rephrasing the author’s own acknowledgement, the book’s subject appears more a matter of journalism than anything else. Journalistic is also its style, both in terms of language and the manner of argumentation.

Let me concentrate on the latter. While the manuscript is admirably analytical, something that I have emphasized above, its analysis and arguments often strike by their structure. More specifically, I find many of the book’s arguments to be intuitive, and this is something that distinguishes a scholarly effort from a popular or journalistic one. I want to make my point clear: many of Prof Newton’s arguments are very smart, deeply informed, and often very brave. What I expected, however, was that the author would validate his points, convince the reader, and care about evidence.

One argument that surprised, and similarly fascinated me, for example, is that the Central Asian constitutions are not sham, a claim that runs contrary to the settled conventional opinion. It is definitely not the boldness of the argument that should bother us; on the contrary, I find this statement extremely interesting, and thought-provoking. But I was curious to see the reasoning behind the claim, and how it relates with the “classic” debate on the subject; probably a dialogue with Giovanni Sartori, who told us what sham constitution is, and perhaps with Richard Sakwa, who offered one of the most brilliant accounts of “constitutionalism with adjectives” in modern Russia, a country which still dictates the constitutional fashion in Central Asia.[5] In an unusual style for a scholarly audience, the author chooses to list or mention the others’ work, rather than engage and debate with them, defending the points and the potential controversies behind them.

Again, I attribute this to the style, as I said above, more than to anything else. The little reservation of mine, even if it is shared by colleagues, must not undermine the merits of the book. It is the single comprehensive and erudite overview of constitutional frameworks of the entire Central Asian region and it should be read by everyone who has interest in the politics and constitutions of the respective states. It is, ultimately, a must read for scholars interested in constitutions in authoritarian regimes, a field of constitutional studies which has by and large overlooked Central Asia, for no compelling  reason.[6]

Suggested Citation: Armen Mazmanyan, Review of Scott Newton’s “The Constitutional Systems of the Independent Central Asian States: A Contextual Analysis”, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Oct. 12, 2017, at: http://www.iconnectblog.com/2017/09/mazmanyan-on-newton


[1] For a good overview of the debate on “instrumental” v. “normative” constitutionalism, see Tushnet, Mark. “Authoritarian Constitutionalism.” Cornell L. Rev. 100 (2014): 391.

[2] Referring to A. Negri’s 2005 book (Books for burning: Between civil war and democracy in 1970s Italy. – Verso, 2005.), Scott Newton defines “material constitution” as the “actual configuration of political and economic power in a society which produces the formal constitution”.

[3] Chehabi, H. E., & Linz, J. J. (Eds.). (1998). Sultanistic Regimes. JHU Press.

[4] Turkmenistan never created a constitutional tribunal. The others had constitutional courts since early 90-ies. Kazakhstan replaced its Constitutional Court with a moderate French-style Constitutional Council in 1995, and Kyrgyzstan closed its Constitutional Court in 2010 to give the function to the Supreme Court.

[5] Sartori, Giovanni, “Constitutionalism: A Preliminary Discussion,” 56 American Political Science Review 4 (1962); “Constitutionalism and Accountability in Contemporary Russia: The Problem of Displaced Sovereignty”, in Russia and its Constitution: Promise and Political Reality, edited by Gordon Smith and Robert Sharlet (2007).

[6] See Ginsburg, Tom, and Alberto Simpser, eds. Constitutions in Authoritarian Regimes. Cambridge University Press, 2013, for a perfect introduction to this area of research.

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Published on October 12, 2017
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