Waiting for Spring

If the Middle East is your yardstick, the countries of Central Asia ought to be on the verge of revolution. But don't hold your breath.


On the surface, Central Asia would appear to be ripe for a popular uprising modeled on the Arab Spring. The "stans" are home to repressive governments, high unemployment, inequality, and widespread corruption. Over a year has passed since the wave of protests began to spread across the Arab world. Yet there’s been no comparable sign of popular discontent in this other Muslim-majority region.

On the contrary, Central Asia’s regimes appear to be thriving. In January, Kazakhstan’s ruling Nur Otan party won over 80 percent of the votes in parliamentary elections, and on February 12 Turkmenistan’s incumbent President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov won a national poll with a resounding 97 percent. Even his opponents endorsed him. The point is not that these elections accurately reflected the popular will; far from it. Yet in neither country, despite the incumbent’s blatant violations of election laws, did citizens challenge the results as they recently did in Russia.

Central Asia has some of the most repressive states in the world. Freedom House’s "Freedom of the World" index rates Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, as "not free," while Kyrgyzstan barely squeaks into the "partly free" category. The region even has the dubious honor of having placed two presidents on Foreign Policy’s 2010 list of the "Worst of the Worst" dictators. With the possible exception of Kyrgyzstan, which certainly boasts greater freedoms than its neighbors but also suffers from unacceptably high levels of instability and violence, the voices of ordinary Central Asians are rarely heard.

It did not have to be this way. Western intelligence during the Cold War always saw the region as poised for revolt, a potential dagger aimed at the heart of the "evil empire." During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the CIA had copies of the Koran translated into Uzbek and smuggled across the border in the hopes of starting an anti-Soviet jihad among the USSR’s Muslims.

Needless to say, history did not vindicate that plan. Instead, the most vocal opponents of Soviet rule appeared in the Baltic region, while the Central Asian republics lay low. In fact, in a critical referendum of the remaining Soviet republics in March 1991, over 90 percent of all five Central Asian countries voted to stay part of the Soviet Union rather than go their separate ways. They were eventually forced into independence when Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus failed to agree on forming a truncated union and the USSR fell apart.

Having done little to push back against the Communist regime, Central Asian societies had few means to shape the course of politics in their own new states.

Instead, the transition process was controlled — some would say hijacked — by Soviet Central Asia’s political elites. Four of the five founding Central Asian presidents had been the Communist Party first secretaries of their respective republics. They had risen through ranks of the Party by being disciplined and loyal, not creative, compassionate, or rebellious. They already controlled the levers of power and vast networks of patronage, so it was not difficult for them to assume control of the new governments upon attaining independence. This process was delayed in Tajikistan, where the old guard was challenged in 1992 by rival elite factions, leading to a struggle for power and five years of civil war. The new president, a former collective farm chairman, was able to consolidate power only after the end of the war.

The new leaders had plenty of tools to keep democracy at bay. They inherited a sophisticated intelligence apparatus, with legions of citizens recruited to inform on their neighbors. Since private property was illegal in the Soviet Union, the state ran the economy and managed the republics’ lucrative resources, including oil, gas, gold, and cotton. Having been handed such gifts, Central Asia’s new leaders found no reason to allow political competition or privatize their economies more than absolutely necessary.

Kyrgyzstan was an exception to this rule. Its first president was a distinguished physicist and self-styled democrat who enthusiastically carried out political and economic reforms. Partly for this reason, Kyrgyzstan has experienced mass upheavals that forced two changes of government in the 2000s. As a result, many of the hallmarks of Central Asian authoritarianism do not apply there. (The photo above shows a Kyrgyz policeman on patrol in the city of Osh last summer.)

In the other four states, however, ordinary citizens faced huge obstacles in the push for democracy. Central Asia, which is still predominantly rural even today, was the poorest part of the Soviet Union. One of the few consistent patterns that have emerged from the study of democratic transitions is the importance of a middle class, a social force that developed quickly in the Baltic region and has grown fast in Russia in the last decade, but remains stunted in Central Asia. Religion was a potential source of civil society, but Islamic activists were repressed early on in Uzbekistan. Other governments later invoked the participation of (moderate) Islamists in the Tajik Civil War as a pretext to crack down on suspected Islamists at home. Consequently, there is no organized Islamic movement comparable to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood anywhere in Central Asia.

In Central Asia, then, as opposed to Egypt or Tunisia, it may appear as if the regimes are indestructible. But there’s a rub: Even if a regime can build an impenetrable shield from society, it does not mean all will be smooth sailing for a tyrant. In fact, Central Asia’s regimes face many challenges, but most of them come from within the upper echelons of power, not from the opposition.

To understand politics in Central Asia, it does not make sense to fixate on ordinary politics, such as parliamentary debates or elections, rigged or otherwise. Instead, we should turn our gaze toward the inner workings of the regimes — the intrigue, backstabbing, and blackmail that counts as real politics in Central Asia. It is, of course, not straightforward to observe; it can be like watching "the fight of bulldogs under the carpet," to use Churchill’s description of Soviet politics. But we can learn much from the episodes of political acrimony that make it into public view. Here is a glimpse:

Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov regularly fires regional governors and publicly lambasts them for various transgressions, including poor economic performance, corruption, and lack of responsiveness to the people. Governors have been known to end up in prison.

For a more poignant example of high-level acrimony, take Kazakhstan. Rakhat Aliyev, once a major banking and media magnate, called Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev a "communist sultan" from exile in Austria, after being convicted in absentia of crimes including kidnapping and attempting a coup. Such an epithet would be a predictable reaction from a persecuted opponent of the president — except for the fact that Aliyev was Nazarbayev’s son-in-law. To punish Aliyev even though he could not reach him physically, the president forced his daughter to get a divorce, disinheriting him from the family fortune. As a Central Asian proverb says, "A person separated from the family will be eaten by wolves."

What is going on here? Are these presidents simply ferreting out corruption and criminality in their ranks? Are they acting as the benevolent tsar looking after the national interest? Perhaps, but consider the fact that the presidents are surrounded by billionaires, and are rumored to have stashed billions in Swiss bank accounts themselves. Criminality is in the eye of the beholder.

Or, more accurately, criminality is integral to the functioning of the system. It is no secret that in Central Asia many government jobs are for sale. People who can afford a lucrative post, whether operating a state agency or running a province, can expect to get a return on their investment. Rulers understand that their subordinates are greedy, and allow them to exploit their position as long as they also perform their basic duties, such as keeping order in the provinces or passing on revenues to the state budget. (This arrangement resembles a practice in pre-revolutionary France called tax farming.)

But a ruler cannot always trust his subordinates. One concern is that they might grow too close to the populations they serve, thus working for their constituents’ interests instead of the government’s. The ruler’s first line of defense against this risk is to frequently rotate local officials. (Lest we think this practice is unfair, the United States, like other democracies, limits the terms of its diplomats’ overseas tours for the same reason.) But a dictator may also fear that his underlings are growing so rich or powerful from their position that they can become a potential threat to his rule. Dictators may indeed face real threats, but they also tend to overreact by using heavy handed methods, alienating allies and creating new enemies in the process.

Thus, we see a picture of dictatorship that is far from the orderly, meticulous image dictators seek to project. Central Asia’s leaders have distinguished themselves as expert managers of greed and graft, but because this system rests on informal agreements and depends on the personality of the ruler, it is also fragile. The episodes above hint at possible troubles, but the possibilities are more alarming when we consider historical examples of how apparent stability can suddenly give way to instability on a massive scale. What could cause such a breakdown in Central Asia?

While forecasting is difficult, there are two plausible risks on the horizon. One is if there is not enough loot to go around, and elites have to compete over fewer resources. This is not likely to happen any time soon in Kazakhstan or Turkmenistan, where petroleum reserves are projected to last decades, and Chinese buyers are willing to pay top dollar. But it is a more serious concern in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, which have struggled to regain their economic footing since the 2008 financial crisis.

More likely to cause a stir are presidential successions. Foremost on the list of soon-to-be-ex-presidents are Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, 71, and Karimov of Uzbekistan, 74, who have been in power since 1991. (Emomali Rahmon of Tajikistan has been in power for 17 years but is only 60.) None has a known plan for succession.

Karimov has no sons but has two daughters, the eldest of which was described in a WikiLeaks cable as "the single most hated person in Uzbekistan." Nazarbayev has three daughters and no sons; his family problems are well known.

Given the lack of a reliable mechanism to transfer power, all bets are off when the leaders eventually pass on. For two decades, the informal rules have worked effectively to safeguard the interests of ruling elites. But these elites have no experience in dealing with major changes, so they may not be able to resolve their differences peacefully when the old man is no longer around to enforce the old rules.

If elite struggles spill out onto the streets in a Central Asian country, the consequences could mirror the darker side of the Arab Spring, as in Syria or Yemen. On the other hand, the elites might be able to work together to ensure a smooth transfer of power, as happened in Turkmenistan after President Niyazov’s death in 2006.

In either case, democracy is not the most likely outcome. Sadly, Central Asia’s Tahrir Square moment may still be a long way off.

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