From the Editors
On April 3rd, 2011 Kazakhstan held presidential elections. Nursultan Nazarbayev, in power since 1991, called these elections a year early after scrapping a plan to hold a national referendum that would do away with the inconvenience of regular presidential contests and which was to extend his term until 2020. The referendum plan, although backed by both chambers of the Kazakh legislature and an apparently willing public (5 million signature in support of the referendum seem to have been collected), was declared unconstitutional by the Constitutional Council. Despite this setback, Nazarbayev faced only three minor candidates in the presidential contest all of whom made clear that they hoped the president would be re-elected. The incumbent was returned to office with 95.5 percent of the vote and with allegations of irregularities by the OSCE monitors. Many political analysts in Kazakhstan predicted that Nazarbayev would stay in office until his death.
While protests demanding political change were sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa this electoral contest in Central Asia’s wealthiest economy suggested that here authoritarian regimes remained well-ensconced. In this region which like the Middle East is considered strategically important by the US and its NATO allies and where Islamist groups are the most visible opposition, regimes like to portray themselves as the guarantors of stability.
Although the electoral “contest” in Kazakhstan seemed to signal that in Central Asia at least authoritarian systems continued to be resilient, there are signs that at least some in the region are watching carefully the events unfolding across the Arab world. Some activists from Central Asia are arguing that it is only a question of time before political change begins sweeping this region as well. In January, about 100 members of opposition political parties, non-governmental organizations and civic activists gathered in Babu, the Azerbaijani capital to openly call on the Aliyev regime to hold free and fair elections or expect popular protests like those that dislodged the Ben Ali and Mubarak regimes. As one opposition leader pointed out, “There is a criminal, authoritarian and corrupt regime in Azerbaijan, and the people of Azerbaijan no longer want to live under these conditions. The process going on internationally, in particular in the Arab countries, have inspired the people to fight for freedom.” (New York Times, April 4, 2011)
To many in the region, the demonstrations in the Middle East and North Africa signaled powerfully that the appearance of stability and authoritarian resilience should not be equated with a lack of opposition or the acquiescence of the people the prevailing suppression of their political will. Likewise, the ability of an authoritarian regime to stay in power for years should not be mistaken for that regimes resilience and capacity to effectively withstand a direct and widespread challenge to its authority.
Many of the conditions that precipitated the protests in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere in the region are also in evidence in these Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union. Most important, even in those countries where economic growth has been impressive, the benefits of that growth have not been distributed equitably across different social strata with many--especially the young--unable to find employment, while those in positions of political power are making fortunes and engaging in conspicuous consumption. Corruption is rampant and tales of presidential children and friends absconding with millions from national treasuries abound. Here, as in the Middle East and North Africa, the nature of the economies differs significantly of course. Like in the Arab world some, like Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, are rentier oil states. Others, like Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, are highly dependent on labor migration and remittances. They, similarly to Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen, were hit hard by the global financial crisis and the combined impact of fuel and food price increases of couple of years ago. With global food prices once again on the rise combined with the high poverty rates in most Central Asian countries are likely to put further strain on these societies.
And despite their apparent resilience, the regimes in the region have hardly been immune to pressures from political opposition. Most significantly, Kyrgyzstan has already experienced political upheavals in 2005 and in 2010 when leaders perceived as increasingly corrupt and power hungry were swept out of office amid popular protests. In 2010, the dislodging of President Bakiyev from power was followed by violent clashes which erupted in the Osh region of the country when hundreds of people died and an estimated 300,000 were displaced by the fighting. Tensions in the area remain high. As in neighboring Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan remains economically vulnerable and dependent on remittances from workers migrating primarily to Russia. With soaring prices of food and skyrocketing inflation, large segments of the Kyrgyz population are likely to find themselves in increasingly precarious economic circumstances.
The situation is not better in Tajikistan. Here, despite positive macroeconomic growth over the last few years, deep structural inequalities not only persist but by most accounts have deepened. As in Egypt, although GDP growth has been impressive, inflation rates have been brought under control and the official poverty rate has been declining, the gap between social strata has been increasing. As President Rahmon, who came into office following a five year civil war which ended in 1997, consolidated power, gradually marginalizing, imprisoning, exiling and in some cases killing political opposition, the small elite around the president has also consolidated its grip on economic power. Economic reforms the regime implemented under the auspices of the World Bank, IMF and other donors further strengthened the political elite by giving it access to new resources. While the political and economic elite has been able to acquire vast fortunes, most Tajiks who lack political connections are finding it difficult to gain access to basic health care, education and credit services. As in Kyrgyzstan, most families depend on remittances sent by workers migrating to Russia. Here too, food and gasoline prices have been rising and access to electricity, always spotty, has been increasingly restricted. Since last summer a number of local clashes have erupted between the regime and opposition fighters, especially in the Rasht Valley; a police station in Khujand and a night club in Dushanbe have been attacked; and a group of prisoners, mostly belonging to various Islamist groups, broke out of Dushanbe’s main prison. As one long-time observer of the local political scene told me recently, there is a “general sense of waiting for the other shoe to drop.”
Both Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, on the other hand, are highly repressive regimes that do not tolerate political dissent and rule through often brutal repression. Media is tightly controlled by the regimes, access to the internet is extremely limited and suspicion of security services is high. Furthermore, as in the Middle East and North Africa, potential opposition movements demanding greater political accountability are likely to encounter Western governments reluctant to support their call for democracy given the security interests in Afghanistan and their interests in maintaining stability in the region.
The timing of revolutionary upheavals cannot be predicted with any precision because it is impossible to anticipate what event will trigger a wave of protests. What is clear, however, is that many factors that contributed to the grievances that have fueled protests in the Middle East and North Africa, and in particular deep socio-economic inequalities, corruption and nepotism of political elites, and the widespread repression of opposition voices, are also evident in Central Asia. As in Middle East and North Africa many of these regimes appear stable not least because of their geostrategic position. With US and NATO focused on the conflict in Afghanistan and needing the airbases and supply routes of neighboring states, there is little outside pressure on these regimes to democratize. But as events that unfolded in Egypt and now unfolding in Yemen or Bahrain indicate, Western powers preference for maintaining stability at the cost of representative institutions, does not preclude opposition voices from emerging. And although countries like Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan restrict the use of internet technology, and Facebook and twitter are not as readily available, the satellite dishes that dot villages on the Tajik-Afghan border indicate that even seemingly remote and isolated people are often well aware of events unfolding elsewhere. And as events unfolding in Syria suggest, once people’s fear is broken, even repressive regimes can find themselves confronting protest movements.
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