The Curse of Stability in Central Asia

The autocrats of Central Asia like to tout the virtues of stability. But they're really making excuses for decay.


Central Asia has a reputation for volatility. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the region has been referred to as a "hotbed" of destabilization, instability, violence, Islamic extremism, and other nefarious qualities that once led Zbigniew Brzezinski to dub it "the Eurasian Balkans." International observers cite Central Asia’s crumbling infrastructure, brutal dictatorships, and remittance economies as evidence of the region’s imminent demise. They watch as it hits new lows on indexes for corruption and repression. No regime with such problems can survive, they argue reasonably.

Yet year after year, the dictatorships of Central Asia do.

The slow, tortuous decline of Central Asia is something we should all pay attention to — not because it will inevitably lead to state collapse, but because it might not. Central Asia shows how a country (Tajikistan) can spend decades sliding toward a failed state, yet never quite arrive. It shows how mass violence can claim the lives of hundreds, as in Uzbekistan in 2005, yet fail to alter the political structure that predicated it. Above all, Central Asia shows how quiet repression can be as damaging as violent conflict — and more difficult to quell or contest. Central Asia’s biggest problem is not conflict, but stagnation: the consistency of corruption, the chimera of change.

Some experts argue that 2013 could be a year of transformation. According to the International Crisis Group, which included the region on its list of conflicts to watch, 2013 could see Tajikistan succumb to separatism (national security forces have engaged in violent conflicts with armed militants), Kyrgyzstan suffer ethnic warfare (the government has never taken responsibility for the Uzbeks murdered in the southern city of Osh in 2010), Uzbekistan spur regional upheaval (the police state is run by an aging tyrant whose successor is unknown), and Kazakhstan come undone by socioeconomic grievances (oil wealth has been little applied to remedy crippling poverty in rural regions).

The problem is that this not only describes Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan in 2012. It also describes them in 2007, 2002, or 1997, making the region a perennial player in conflict forecasts. What experts tend to underestimate is how long a nation can remain on the brink.

The endurance of Central Asia’s dictatorships serves as a reminder that the collapse of an authoritarian state is not inherently imminent, no matter how bankrupt it is fiscally or morally. Corruption, brutality, and censorship are not necessarily signs of vulnerability, but indicators of the lengths a government will go to preserve its power at the expense of its people. Central Asia’s dictatorships are not surviving on luck, as some experts have claimed, but on fear.

Stability is a value cherished by most Central Asians, and those who lived through the Soviet collapse and the economic turmoil and lawlessness that accompanied it tend to be wary of political change. "Peace," or "calm" (tinch in Turkic languages, tinji in Tajik), is deeply valued, particularly in places like Tajikistan that have endured bloody civil strife, as social scientist John Heathershaw notes. Moreover a key part of tinji, he says, is "a strong aversion to the political sphere." All political actions — joining a party, promoting a cause — can be seen as an affront to peace; in Central Asian dictatorships, all actions can be politicized and all politics can be punished. Thus the social pressure to maintain tinji — and the fear of government reprisals that may harm the whole community — is strong enough that citizens deeply unhappy with their plight are reluctant to express it.

Central Asian state elites have both nurtured and exploited this predilection for "peace." In Kazakhstan, the most prosperous of the Central Asian states, government control is passed off as benevolence. "The state paternalism and authoritarianism in this vision is not seen [by Kazakhs] as a mechanism of repression of individual rights and autonomy," writes Kazakhstani anthropologist Alima Bissenova, "but as a mechanism of enabling these rights and entitlements." But in the rare case that Kazakh citizens revolt, as in Zhanaozen in 2011, the state responds with violence. Underlying the trade-off of rights for "peace" is the fear that force will be unleashed on those who dare to disturb it.

It is hard to say then whether the promotion of "peace" is a way that citizens cope with decades of repression, or a practice that has helped regimes sustain stagnation. Some Central Asian activists have argued the latter, portraying the population as overly passive and party to its own misfortune. The Uzbek poet Dadaxon Hasanov, still a popular singer in Uzbekistan despite his works being banned, regularly chastises his fan base for their cowardice. "Uzbeks continue to sleep/ drowning in fear/ as their dictators continue to shoot," he wrote in his bootlegged hit "There Was a Massacre in Andijon," about the shooting of protesters in 2005. Uzbeks inspired by his lyrics need only look at Hasanov’s lifetime of arrests and assaults to witness the consequences of speaking out.

Analysts looking for signs of liberalization in the region often cite Kyrgyzstan, the only Central Asian country to have had more than two presidents over the past twenty years. (Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are still ruled by their Soviet leaders; Tajikistan’s president has held power since 1994; and Turkmenistan’s Soviet-era dictator was replaced by a similarly autocratic successor following his death in 2006.) Kyrgyzstan’s uprisings in 2010 and 2005 have won it praise from the West, but in important ways it is mired in the same stagnation. One satirical Kyrgyz news website mocks Kyrgyzstan’s revolving roster of ruling elites, most of whom rose to power in the 1990s. Analyst Noah Tucker notes that without reforms that increase the number of new actors in government, the revolution folds back on itself, preserving power only for those who already have it.

Central Asia has long been framed as radical and dangerous, a mischaracterization dictators play up to justify their draconian policies. But while it is true that a discourse of danger shapes Central Asian politics, it is fear of the state, not of terrorists, that shapes the behavior of ordinary citizens. There is far less radicalization than there is acclimatization to autocratic rule. One can call it resilience, one can call it resignation. When people’s primary concern is survival, there is not much difference between the two.

So what is to be done? Every year experts ask this question, and every year, there are no clear answers. Perhaps this is why so many are inclined to frame the region as on the brink of collapse. When a nation endures violence or revolution, it seems imperative to respond. Collapse calls out for engagement, for intervention, for concern.

The problem with anticipating collapse in Central Asia is that crises that seem transformative often lead to no substantial change. In 2012, violence in the Tajikistani city of Khorog prompted fear of wider instability, and in 2011, the riots in Zhanaozen had many predicting a "Kazakh Spring" — but little unrest has occurred since. In 2010, the mass slaughter of Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan led some to predict reprisals; instead, most Uzbeks chose to keep their suffering quiet and move on with their lives to avoid further harm.

This does not mean that the problems were resolved. Quite the opposite — they linger under the surface as people keep the "peace." But the peace that currently prevails is not based on equality or justice. Central Asian peace is structured on fear. This kind of peace can last a long time. The question is whether it should.

The time to pay attention to Central Asia is not when collapse creates a perceived "crisis," but now. Violence that goes on behind closed doors, as has been practiced for decades by Central Asia’s brutal police, is still violence. Suffering that is endured silently, by people too scared to speak out or too insulated from the outside world to reach it, is still suffering. For Central Asia, consistency is the crisis.    

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