There has been so much instant punditry over the last several weeks predicting the fall of various Middle East governments that I wondered – if Tunisia is so important, why hasn’t it inspired uprisings elsewhere in the tyrannical world as well? Russell Zanca, a long-time Tashkent hand and a professor at Northeastern Illinois University, examines the question in the former Soviet space.
Given the outbreak of Middle East unrest, the Obama administration has warned the region’s autocrats against continuing to ignore the popular aspirations of their constituents. Yet while it’s been easy to draw a straight line from Tunisia to Egypt, Yemen and perhaps even Algeria, one wonders why the dictators of Eurasian countries such as Belarus, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan fear no such public protests. Almost the same men have led these republics for 20 years, have brutalized their citizenry, rigged elections, imprisoned and drugged opponents, and left much of their populations in poverty while a slender elite lives lavishly. Yet there is no evidence that any stands a shred of a chance of being thrown out of power by his people.
Ousting stubborn leaders is not a function of how fed up people are, nor how well developed opposition forces are. To be sure, these factors can better the chances of a dictator’s demise, but they will not necessarily push him over the edge. Rather, people must have the sense that they can rid their country of the despised one by risking their lives in the streets and staying united.
So why are those conditions not present in former Soviet Eurasia? Last month, it looked as if Belarusian masses were united, and willing to take the big risks with a worthy assortment of capable, committed opposition forces following dubious presidential elections. However, what the Belarusians on the streets obviously underestimated was President Alexander Lukashenko’s security forces; they were better united and more committed than the masses, and violently put down street protests, arresting and beating up rival candidates.
In Turkmenistan, people may be dissatisfied with their lot under the Berdymukhamedov dictatorship, but we have seen almost no demonstrations or unrest since independence in 1991. Turkmen dissidents in exile have almost no impact on the folk back home, especially when local access to foreign media is severely limited.
Similarly, it is unlikely that Uzbeks will rebel against President Islam Karimov, who has ruled Uzbekistan since 1990. If Uzbeks think it could be better under a different president, they have not unified under that thought in the numbers necessary to face down the enormous risk of public protests. It is not hard to recall that just six years ago, Karimov’s troops shot dead hundreds and possibly thousands of protesters in the city of Andijan. This policy of maximum bloodshed proved extremely effective. Uzbeks have been so terrorized that since then there have been no significant public expressions of discontent.
As a cultural anthropologist, I am often asked if Karimov’s continued reign isn’t attributable to some aspect of Uzbek culture. For example, there is the idea that Uzbeks are meek by nature, and that their "cult" of respect for elders extends to an unquestioning respect for those holding political power. Even Uzbeks themselves occasionally suggest that people are much more concerned about the need to have something good cooking on the stove, that they steer clear of openly criticizing the regime because they are just too focused on surviving till the next day. While there may be grains of truth to each suggestion, they are just that — grains of truth.
Modern Uzbek history (from at least the mid-19th century) is replete with Uzbeks offering up their rebellious spirits, overthrowing amirs in the process as well as sacrificing themselves against tsarist and Soviet infidels into the 20th century.
They are not massing in the streets today despite mass anger toward the regime, because the risks simply are too great. Instead, Uzbeks have channeled dissatisfaction, for the time being at least, into a non-confrontational and apolitical path known as labor migration to other countries such as Kazakhstan and Russia. These physical movements entail risks as well, but people don’t see them as futile in the way demonstrating would be. After all, protesting on public squares earns one less money than road-building in Moscow’s suburbs.