A spark that ignites the fire
Like in the case of the Persian Gulf oligarchies, economic power and wealth in Central Asia is concentrated in the hands of members of the presidential families and their cronies. These privileged elites run monopolies, mostly through state-connected structures or front companies, involving not only key sectors of the economy like oil, natural gas, cotton, and aluminum, but also a wide variety of activities such as import and export of consumer goods, media, banking, agro-industry, transport and telecom, real estate, hotels, restaurants, and holiday resorts. The nadir was reached when the companies run by these elites virtually ventured into «war profiteering» – the highly lucrative business of providing transit rights and the practical facilitation of transporting supplies over their territory for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces in Afghanistan.
Generally speaking, outside of these elites, there is virtually no scope in the Central Asian countries today for economic counter-points to function in the prevailing climate of crony capitalism and oligarchical economic monopolization.
Despite the official window-dressing, do the local populations have any awareness of what has been going on in the name of free market policies? Surely they do have. The point is, in many ways, these aberrations translate also as facets of everyday life for the populations, and even if they are not being voiced through protest march or demonstrations, they talked about audibly enough, and the anger and frustrations do get commonly talked about in the street and most certainly at home in private conversations, including with foreigners.
There is indeed a significant amount of resentment that has piled up over time over the suppression and obstruction of economic activities pursued by those who do not come within the charmed circle of the elites, which further fuels the anger that is already there that the predatory neo-liberalist policies by the regime have resulted in a squandering away of the immense heritage of the Soviet era in terms of social achievements and human capital.
What strikes an outside observer increasingly is that the Central Asian societies are no longer hermetically closed or are completely isolated from the outside world or that the social impact of globalization has bypassed them. Their youth travel abroad for education or commercial activities; people go on religious pilgrimage; intellectuals participate in conferences and discourses abroad; most important, the active populations migrate abroad in large numbers in search of work. And in the process, they get exposed to other ways of life and alternative sources of information and opinions that contradict the official local discourse. Mobile phones and satellite dishes have become far more relevant in everyday life, which cancels out the restrictions placed by the state security on the Internet and other social media.
Indeed, this also has another side to it. The psychological ties that bind the Central Asian societies to Moscow remain by far the strongest still. In other words, there is no Al-Jazeera to churn up revolt. On the other hand, the regimes also go the extra league to cultivate negative perceptions regarding the Arab Spring. In any case, the so-called «color revolutions» in Georgia (2003) and Ukraine (2004) and Kyrgyzstan (2005) have not exactly created a positive impression about the «change».
The enigma of uprisings
Having said that, we need to revert to the contrarian trend that the grassroots are nonetheless quite aware of what is happening. Information is accruing thanks to satellite dishes, the Russian media and the information conveyed by the migrant labor. And the populations are fascinated by the tantalizing possibility that some day, somehow such things could also happen to their own «Gaddafis» and «Mubaraks».
Clearly, it is not at all the case that the silence of the graveyard prevails in the Central Asian region. For one thing, Central Asians have a long historical consciousness and would know that no regime is eternal. At the end of the day, the current regimes will also cease to be – as a result of a chronic illness and physical incapacitation of the patriarch-president or his outright death or if the existing faultlines in the society breach, finally.
To say that the populations are culturally attuned to oppression and humiliation and are incapable of raising their voice is to underestimate the heights of social formation this region scaled during the Soviet era and the emancipation of the human mind the ideology and culture of that unique period of eight decades brought about. The Central Asian populations cannot but know that «stability» under authoritarian rule is artificial and is not static. The power elites also would be knowing very well that the popular perceptions are nuanced despite the avalanche of propaganda that is pouring out in the official media. Hence the nervousness manifesting in the form of the intensified security clampdown.
To be sure, there is an extraordinary degree of consensus amongst the ruling elites in the Central Asian countries. This has so far precluded any power struggles as such erupting. The elites have rallied around the presidents. (In Egypt, there were internal schisms within the establishment, which played out during the upheaval on Tahrir Square.) Given that the allocation of resources is centralized, and taking into account the propensity to keep the officials frequently rotating, there is also little scope for emergence of other power centres.
However, there is that ultimate unquantifiable mystique haunting the political chessboard in all the Central Asian states – the succession question. Every now and then when the president catches cold or cough or disappears from public view, speculations begin. And they refuse to die down until he reappears. It shows that there is extreme nervousness griping the society about the uncertainties of a political transition if and when it becomes necessary.
So far succession issue came up in two Central Asian states – Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan. It is difficult to draw any firm conclusions from the happenings in these two countries, which were radically different situations – and of course both predated the Arab Spring. The transition has been quite rocky in Kyrgyzstan so far and it has bred instability while Turkmenistan simply slid into a new leadership that is not fundamentally different from the one it succeeded. The question still remains unanswered as to what could happen if a succession issue comes into play and the elites face difficulties in resolving their differences peacefully. None of the Central Asian presidents has designated a successor in the event of a succession issue suddenly appearing. In two countries, family members of presidents have been projected into public life and have been talked about as possible successors but there is no certainty that these kinsmen (or kinswomen) would gain wider acceptance once the strongman vacates the scene.
In the short term, the probability of major societal unrest in Central Asia similar to the upheavals in the Middle East may appear to be low. But the stillness in the air could be deceptive and may give way to volatility if and when the countries need to undergo transition processes – and indeed the day of reckoning could be nearing.
The enigma of uprisings in a surcharged socio-political environment is that all that is needed is an initial spark, which of course is not hard to find in the prevailing atmosphere in Central Asia. If not a sudden illness and death of the patriarch, it could be a price hike, or even the sight of a BMW or Mercedes haughtily speeding away from the scene of the crime after mowing down an innocent commoner attempting to cross the street.
On January 23-24 in the provincial town of Ismayilli in Azerbaijan, some kilometers north-west of the capital Baku, that was actually what happened, when the driver working for the nephew of the local governor and the son of a Minister insulted the local people following a minor car collision and all hell broke loose in no time with protestors venting their anger toward those in power. But, even more curiously, protestors rallied in support in Baku itself with young activists organizing themselves via social media holding more than one protest in the capital in the recent months. Then, there were demonstrations in the towns of Zaqatala and Imishli.
Anything can happen
Clearly, a society with glaring inequalities and injustices, is heaving heavily with tensions, deeply resenting a political system in which ministers are oligrachs and various cliques in the ruling hierarchy monopolize the economy, and corruption is widespread. Interestingly, like in Tunisia and Egypt, the new media played a major role in the protests in the recent months in Azerbaijan.
The prominent expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Thomas de Waal has estimated that the protests in Azerbaijan show that the authorities no longer have the same control over the provinces as they had in the past, and a combustible mix exists with ordinary people harboring deep resentment about corruption and the seamless power and arbitrariness of the authorities.
He is of the view that conditions exist similar to what sparked the upheavals in the Middle East and North Africa. Again, the former US ambassador to Azerbaijan Richard Kauzlarich has been quoted as saying, «I do not want to draw a direct parallel with the Arab countries, where revolutions took place, but experience shows that similar events outside the capital [Baku] can turn into major upheavals».
Again, the protests have erupted, ominously, against the backdrop of a presidential election that is due to be held in Azerbaijan – that is to say, a «succession question» of sorts. Something that has not happened before and was considered to be improbable to happen is indeed happening.
Similarly, while the common opinion is that the prospects of spectacular popular uprisings may appear remote on the Central Asian landscape at present, anything can happen. Then, the possibility also exists for hybrid forms of regime change. It could be an internal coup resulting from or exploiting and manipulating a local unrest, or from clan struggle in a looming succession race when interests at the interpersonal, regional or even institutional fault lines collide and in turn trigger an uprising.
Besides, Central Asian countries are no longer hermit kingdoms. Not only have they globalized but also thanks to the Afghan war and the rise of China, they are «frontline» states in world politics. Interestingly, even as the endgame in Afghanistan is getting under way, Central Asia has got a curious visitor from Washington this week – Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs Mike Hammer…
The state department announcement in Washington regarding Hammer’s tour of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan said that while in Dushanbe he «will engage with journalists, government officials, civil society leaders, and students on public affairs issues and U.S. support for democratic institutions, among other topics, and will underscore the U.S. Government’s commitment to the region… discuss press and internet freedom» and in Tashkent he will «participate in a conference on government transparency and press freedom with a panel of journalists, ministry spokespeople, and representatives from parliament». The announcement concluded that Hammer «will also host a Facebook chat and an on-the-record discussion with independent journalists»,
(To be concluded)