For autocrats everywhere, the risk of becoming toast

Lost among the high-profile shake-ups going on in the Middle East — Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia, Lebanon, Yemen, Sudan — is a little development 2,500 miles away in the petrostate of Kazakhstan. President Nursultan Nazarbayev yesterday discarded intricately laid plans for a 10-year extension of his rule. If enacted, the plans would "set the wrong guidelines ...

DMITRY ASTAKHOV/AFP/Stringer
DMITRY ASTAKHOV/AFP/Stringer
DMITRY ASTAKHOV/AFP/Stringer

Lost among the high-profile shake-ups going on in the Middle East -- Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia, Lebanon, Yemen, Sudan -- is a little development 2,500 miles away in the petrostate of Kazakhstan. President Nursultan Nazarbayev yesterday discarded intricately laid plans for a 10-year extension of his rule. If enacted, the plans would "set the wrong guidelines for further generations of politicians," he said.

Nazarbayev is right, but what about his substitute for the extension -- a snap election in a few months that will add five years to his already two decades in office?

We've been discussing how far the ripples of the turmoil in Egypt might be felt. Until now, only Middle East dictatorships have appeared to be at risk. But it's early -- it took awhile in the late 1980s before the Gorbachev-era democracy wave took hold, and long-standing political and commercial walls fell from Latin America, to Asia, to Europe.

Lost among the high-profile shake-ups going on in the Middle East — Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia, Lebanon, Yemen, Sudan — is a little development 2,500 miles away in the petrostate of Kazakhstan. President Nursultan Nazarbayev yesterday discarded intricately laid plans for a 10-year extension of his rule. If enacted, the plans would "set the wrong guidelines for further generations of politicians," he said.

Nazarbayev is right, but what about his substitute for the extension — a snap election in a few months that will add five years to his already two decades in office?

We’ve been discussing how far the ripples of the turmoil in Egypt might be felt. Until now, only Middle East dictatorships have appeared to be at risk. But it’s early — it took awhile in the late 1980s before the Gorbachev-era democracy wave took hold, and long-standing political and commercial walls fell from Latin America, to Asia, to Europe.

Over the weekend, Russell Zanca argued on this blog that the former Soviet Union in particular feels impervious. To that list one might add Iran (pictured above are, from left, Nazarbayev, Turkmenistan’s Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad). When such uprisings have occurred in their midst in recent years, Russia and Iran have demonized their participants as stooges of Western-inspired "velvet revolutions." Imaginative U.S. diplomats assigned to these countries themselves have conjured up an inflated role in events.

The Middle East turmoil therefore ought to put the kabosh on such thinking: Assassinations and military coups can be organized from the outside, but successful popular uprisings arise from within.

Likewise, the uprisings are both vindication and repudiation for former President George W. Bush. They are vindication of what he said in 2003 — that "as long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment, and violence ready for export." They are a repudiation of what Bush did in response, which was to invade Iraq: Eight years later, the country remains a case study of the axiom that democracy cannot be imposed from the outside.

Current and former U.S. diplomats tell me that Egypt had little influence on Nazarbayev’s decision to backtrack from his planned decade-long term extension. More likely, said one, is that Nazarbayev’s motivation was to freeze out rivals with dreams of succeeding him, which the snap election resolves almost as well and perhaps better than the referendum idea. After all, like asking your boss for a 25 percent raise, 10 years can seem like overreach.

Yet even if Nazarbayev had been getting cold feet prior to Egypt, he could not be indifferent to the turmoil in the Middle East. Even if a popular rebellion appears highly unlikely at the moment, much can change: No dictator wants to spend a decade looking over his shoulder. Certainly this thought cannot be far from the minds of autocrats around the world.

<p> Steve LeVine is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, and author of The Oil and the Glory. </p>

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