Is Central Asia Ripe for Regime Change? (I)

Is Central Asia Ripe for Regime Change? (I)

Why Arab Spring sidestepped the steppes – so far

The persisting speculations regarding political succession in Uzbekistan, the incipient trends of unrest in Azerbaijan in recent months as the country lurches toward a crucial presidential election, growing volatility of the situation in Afghanistan – what surges to the mind is the great Middle Eastern upheaval known as the «Arab Spring.» Are we nearing a «tipping point» in Central Asia? 

The «Arab Spring» has already become a loaded expression laden with heavy political overtones. Although it is still in its early stages, in the two years since it appeared on the political landscape of the Middle East, it has ceased to be a regional movement. Different patterns of regime change have appeared. The indigenous content is also evaporating fast while external content is being injected to give new dynamics and direction to it. The «Arab Spring» is at times perilously close to being discredited as a geopolitical stunt. 

It had a peaceful run – and probably untethered run – in Tunisia two years ago. It became quite a bit rowdyish and muscular by the time it appeared in Egypt and it wasn’t an entirely «Egyptian» spring, either. Some called it a «revolution’ although the jury is still out an year later. On the other hand, Libya was a contrived regime change forced through brutal western military intervention, where the spontaneity that was associated with «Arab Spring» was almost entirely lacking. Again, Syria closely follows the Libyan model with some added features. 

Could the Arab Spring appear in the Central Asian region? There are indeed similarities between the two regions but, equally, there are striking differences too. The human rights organizations and western governments have been critical of the Central Asian regimes, much as they tick off occasionally their Middle Eastern allies for their nasty habits of running authoritarian oligarchic regimes. The rebuke is comparatively uncharitable when it comes to Central Asia, considering that these are new states whereas authoritarianism has an established history in the Middle East. Again, comparisons can be drawn between the two regions with regard to the socio-economic challenges they face – poverty and inequality, corruption and nepotism, unemployment or scant opportunities for the youth, a lack of freedom of the media, authoritarianism, rigged elections and lack of democratic opposition, and so on. Thus, scholars and experts of the region became inquisitive through the past two-year period whether the uprisings in the Middle East would spread to the Central Asian region. 

However, the ground reality is that there have been no major signs of popular discontent in the Central Asian region during these two years since the Arab Spring appeared. The pundits seem to have reached a wary assessment that the historical circumstances and prevailing conditions in Central Asia and the Middle East could be significantly different and the possibility of revolutionary stirrings appearing in the steppes is very remote. Overall, the prevailing opinion of scholars can be summarized in three or four segments. First, most experts agree that it is unlikely that events similar to the Arab Spring would take place in Central Asia. However, they also add the caveat that nonetheless conditions do exist which could create potential for unrest such as poverty, unemployment, corruption, and authoritarian rule. 

Again, there is a point of view – howsoever contentious it might seem in the light of the fall of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak – that the Central Asian regimes have drawn lessons from the events in the Middle East and have prepared counterstrategies to deal with any protests that may erupt. Put differently, the regimes in the region have put in place the instruments of repression that would swing into violent, coercive action if popular protests erupted. Finally, there is a somewhat optimistic view that the «big powers» are just not interested in promoting unrest in the Central Asian region and are instead focusing on the pursuit of compelling economic interests such as energy, which outweigh human rights concerns.

In the light of the above, it is tempting to conclude that the Central Asian regimes have successfully thwarted the advent of a spring season in their midst. It almost seems that when we compare the Middle East and Central Asia, it becomes a comparison between the apple and an orange. Indeed, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in April last year in a speech at the Kyrgyz-Russian Slavic University in Bishkek that there is no scope «to view the Central Asian region through the prism of [the Arab Spring]». 

The Tahrir Square in Cairo was witnessing the revolution even as Lavrov spoke and it seemed he aimed his words at the West, and, interestingly, he was speaking while on a visit to Bishkek. Lavrov made it clear that Russia would take a dim view of Middle-East style upheavals appearing in the post-Soviet space. He strongly hinted that the Arab Spring was not spontaneous. 

He said: "We very much do not want the Arab Spring events, in which less and less attention is being paid to the rule of international law and the tune is more and more being called by unilateral geopolitical interests, to become a tradition and especially do not want anyone to view the Central Asian region through the prism of these processes." 

Learning the bitter lesson

Lavrov spoke as an experienced statesman. But his remarks are also of analytical relevance. So, let us proceed to examine the empirical reasons why the Arab Spring has not spread to Central Asia. First, the undeniable ground reality is that the Central Asian region has made significant recovery from the chaos of the disbandment of the former Soviet Union unilaterally by Boris Yeltsin. Any outsider who traversed the region would know the colossal disruption of the material supply system and the resultant economic dislocation whereby overnight renowned professors steeped in the fields of scholarship had to step out to eke out living as gate keepers, or geologists turned into gardeners, or doctors switched profession to become taxi drivers. No doubt, compared to that dark period, many people in Central Asia today are better off than they were in the past, and the general standard of living is going up, and, most important, there is even hope that the future could be promising. 

Second, it could also be argued that the Central Asians’ apparent apathy is rooted in the Soviet past. The plain truth is that the more things seemed to change in the Central Asian states, the more they remained the same. Alas, the Central Asian societies – unlike Russia which could make the painful democratic transition – played virtually no role in the formative period in the early 1990s in shaping their future. Rather, their future was decided on their behalf by elements who did not represent them, never bothered to consult them and in whom, in turn, they could never think of reposing trust. Put differently, the transition process itself was simply appropriated by Soviet Central Asia’s political elites, who of course had at their command the powerful intelligence and security apparatus and a command economy that exercised total control over the management of resources. Thus, the essence of their past 20-year history turns out to be that the Central Asian societies simply resigned themselves to their current conditions, bereft of any real choices in the matter. 

Again, apart from the Soviet heritage, the Central Asian countries lack a genuinely free media culture – except, perhaps, in Kyrgyzstan to an extent – or any strong opposition movements. Ironically, Russian media provided their window to the outside world but then, it also was disinterested to play the role of a catalyst of change. Indeed, the media remains controlled in most countries of Central Asia. Social media sites, opposition Web sites, and foreign news outlets have been specially targeted and free Internet access is unavailable. The World Press Freedom Index currently ranks Turkmenistan 177, and Uzbekistan 164 out of 179 countries. To be sure, even the most authoritarian Middle Eastern regimes fare better in comparison. This becomes important, ironically, because the social networks, Internet and television did play a major role in stoking the fires of protest in Egypt. 

Yet another factor is that the international criticism of Central Asian governments has probably diminished in the most recent years. The United States and other western countries have strategic and economic interests in the region and their main priority is that the region remains stable and secure so that cooperation is not impeded. Besides, the searing experience of imposing an embargo on Uzbekistan in 2005 following the Andizhan uprising and the subsequent unceremonious backtracking a few years down the road have taught the western countries the bitter lesson that it does not pay to preach human rights to the Central Asian region and such intrusive approaches could even be counter-productive. 

Above all, the war in Afghanistan necessitated the creation of a Northern Distribution Network as an alternative to the two transit routes via Pakistan for moving supplies in and out of Afghanistan. The deterioration of the US-Pakistan strategic partnership and an year-long closure of the two transit routes via Pakistani territory for the ferrying of supplies for the American troops deployed in Afghanistan compelled the Pentagon to depend heavily on the Central Asian region as an alternative access route. 

Arguably, everything else became of secondary importance in the US’ geo-strategies toward the region to the all-important needs of the war in Afghanistan. Thus, the wheel has come full circle and Uzbekistan, which evicted the US military from the K2 [Karshi-Khanabad] air base as recently as in July 2005, happens to be Washington’s closest partner country today in the Central Asian region – although much ambivalence shrouds that complex and unpredictable relationship. 

(To be continued)

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