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Qishloq Ovozi

With the Russian economy in free fall, Central Asian migrant workers are feeling the squeeze. The resultant decline in remittances has also been hitting their own economies back home. (file photo)

Central Asia experts have recently voiced a consensus view: A leadership change in the region won't translate into real changes. The verdict is logical. Yet a look at known trends suggests changes might come sooner than anticipated. (The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect the views of Qishloq Ovozi blog or RFE/RL.)

Central Asia experts have recently voiced a consensus view: A leadership change in the region won't translate into real changes.

The verdict is logical. Yet a look at known trends suggests changes might come sooner than anticipated.

The pressure for change is likely to grow, especially, in Uzbekistan, as several forces are working against the status quo. Some of them are beyond the authorities' control, at least, in the short-to-medium term.

One obvious factor: The Russian economy, having entered what looks like a long-term recession, is unlikely to serve as a safety valve for Uzbekistan's unemployment problem. Some 2 million Uzbeks have been working in Russia, and the money they send home has propped up the Uzbek economy. As the jobs and remittances disappear, the Uzbek government will face a fiscal challenge. Already last year it was struggling to pay even the salaries of the police, a group whose loyalty is crucial. Then there are around half a million youths graduating from high school every year; they, too, need jobs.

Another risk factor is that Uzbekistan is losing its agricultural capacity. This is significant for an agrarian economy in which half of the people live in the countryside and one-third work in farming. In the decade from 1991 to 2001 alone, some provinces lost 14-15 percent of their arable land to soil degradation. Such loss almost certainly has continued apace, since there has been no discernable change in farming methods -- suggesting that today the situation is probably much worse. Adding to this, droughts appear to have become common and river flows are down: Local glaciers are losing about 5 gigatons of ice per year. (For comparison's sake, Germany consumes around 3.5 gigatons of drinking water annually)

Last but not least, civil-society activists are learning to be effective. The Cotton Campaign has been successful, and Uzbek officials can no longer ignore the calls to stop using forced labor. In Kazakhstan, rallies have compelled the government to suspend an unpopular land reform. Even Turkmenistan has seen public protests that halted bureaucrats' bizarre decisions.

Fleeting Loyalty?

With economic, demographic, and environmental trends that are clear, fairly rapid and in some cases mutually reinforcing, Uzbekistan seems to be headed toward an upheaval. And what happens there will affect the rest of Central Asia.

Recently, commentators have observed that a large number of young Uzbeks seem to genuinely mourn the passing of their country's leader Islam Karimov, who died earlier this month, and apparently don't mind the regime.

This loyalty, however, may prove fleeting, potentially echoing Egypt's experience. There, too, the majority of the population (75 percent) is under 25 and had known only one leader, Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled for almost 30 years. They had been indeed infantilized by a great leader narrative. Yet this didn't stop them from taking to Tahrir Square once a sufficient number of them realized the regime was failing to deliver jobs or opportunities.

The authorities have known of the challenges -- and ignored them for years and, in some cases, for decades, even as the problems grew deeper and wider. This makes their grip on power potentially brittle: They are fully in control until they aren't.

Thankfully, there is still time, and the new leaders might recognize they are facing forces they can't dictate to and thus choose to be pragmatic.

Potential Breathing Space

For example, Uzbekistan could replicate other dictatorships' success in agricultural reform. Back in the 1980s, both Vietnam and China solved pressing issues overnight by simply giving their farmers some breathing space. As a result, jobs were created, incomes rose, and people felt more content -- all improving political stability, a concept favored by Central Asian governments.

In the absence of such pragmatism, change could take a nonlinear path. This needn't be accompanied by bloodshed, as some might fear. The world has accumulated a treasure trove of knowledge that the regime and its opponents could use.

The experiences of other countries -- like the 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe -- offer insight on how to steer such changes down a nonviolent path that improves life for most people, including the ruling elites. Even those transitions that have failed (the Arab Spring) or struggled to succeed (Ukraine's Maidan) offer valuable lessons on mistakes to be avoided.

In the meantime, human rights defenders, civil-society activists, and independent journalists can rely on the wisdom of an earlier generation. By 1982, the Soviet dissident movement had been crushed and its prospects looked grim. Andrei Sakharov, in a letter from his internal exile in Gorky, wrote, "Fortunately, the future is unpredictable and also -- because of quantum effects -- uncertain." Six years later, he elaborated in an interview, "I believe the future is unpredictable and uncertain, it is created by all of us, step by step, in our infinitely complex interaction."

T. Kamilev is the pen name of a Central Asian blogger.
Uzbek President Islam Karimov (left) with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in Shanghai in 2014. The friendly relations both countries have enjoyed in recent years could change depending on who succeeds the late Uzbek leader.

Following the death of Islam Karimov, the uncertainty surrounding Uzbekistan's leadership transition has caused particular alarm in China. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.

On September 2, Uzbekistan's government announced the death of longtime President Islam Karimov. While Uzbekistan has remained tranquil in the days immediately following Karimov's death, the fact that he did not publicly anoint a favored successor has increased the risk of a prolonged power struggle in Tashkent.

Many Central Asia experts fear that political instability could disrupt Uzbekistan's natural gas exports and make the country a nexus for Islamic extremism in the region.

The uncertainty surrounding Uzbekistan's leadership transition has caused particular alarm in China. Chinese policymakers fear that Karimov's death could cause Uzbekistan to strengthen its security ties with Russia. This would erode China's leverage over its most important Central Asian partner.

The Chinese government is also concerned that instability in Uzbekistan could disrupt Uzbek liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports to China, and increase the threat posed by Uzbekistan-based Islamic extremist movements to China's security.

Why Karimov's Death Could Weaken The China-Uzbekistan Partnership

Even though Uzbekistan is a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and exports large quantities of LNG natural gas to China, Karimov's death could weaken the burgeoning alliance between Beijing and Tashkent. Karimov's pro-Chinese foreign policy stance was rooted in his disdain for Russia's hegemonic aspirations in Central Asia. The Uzbek government also viewed China as a consistent partner, as it defended Uzbekistan when the United States criticized Karimov for egregious human rights abuses.

The extent of China's loyalty to Karimov was revealed by Beijing's handling of the 2005 Andijon massacre. After that massacre, the United States called for an international investigation into the Uzbek government's repression of Andijon demonstrators. But China refused to condemn Karimov's conduct.

China supported Karimov's claim that 187 civilians were killed in the Andijon massacre, and rejected Western media allegations that Uzbek military repression caused the deaths of 750 civilians. Karimov rewarded China's loyalty to his government over the Andijon massacre by supporting China's territorial claims to Taiwan and strengthening counterterrorism cooperation with Beijing.

The absence of personal loyalty bonds between Chinese officials and Uzbekistan's new leader might cause Tashkent to drift away from China's orbit. The likelihood of a China-Uzbekistan rift would grow significantly if Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyaev -- who is serving as interim president until a December 4 election -- emerges as Karimov's successor.

Mirziyaev's rumored alliance with Rustam Inoyatov, the former KGB officer who heads of the Uzbek Internal Security Service, has caused some analysts to predict an imminent improvement in the Uzbekistan-Russia relationship.

The growth of Uzbek nationalist sentiments and Russia's economic recession make Uzbekistan's accession to the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) an unlikely scenario.

However, enhanced Tashkent-Moscow security policy coordination is more likely, as Uzbekistan was a Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) member from 1992-1999 and 2006-2012. If Uzbekistan rejoins the CSTO, China's leverage over Uzbekistan's security policies will dramatically diminish.

Even if Uzbekistan's foreign policy does not radically change as a result of Karimov's death, Mirziyaev's history of impulsive violence and thuggish reputation could cause alarm in Beijing. China has strengthened its relationship with Uzbekistan, in part because it viewed Karimov as a steady-handed dictator presiding over a highly authoritarian regime.

Interim Uzbek leader Shavkat Mirziyaev (file photo)
Interim Uzbek leader Shavkat Mirziyaev (file photo)

If Uzbekistan's international conduct were to become more unpredictable under Mirziyaev's rule, China could redirect its investments and diplomatic energies towards strengthening its budding partnerships with Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. A Chinese pivot away from Uzbekistan would be devastating for Tashkent, as Uzbekistan stands to benefit more than any other Central Asian country from China's One Belt, One Road funding.

If Mirziyaev's erratic conduct was to cause a schism within the elite that prevented him from maintaining complete dominance over Uzbekistan's political life, as Karimov did, Uzbekistan's relationship with China could suffer. Uzbek political analyst Anvar Nazirov recently told Eurasianet that Karimov's absolute control over the Uzbek media has restricted coverage of winter fuel shortages caused by excessive Uzbek gas exports to China.

If Uzbek elites opposed to the Samarkand clan's political hegemony foment anti-Chinese nationalist sentiments, many Uzbeks may no longer view alignment with China as a lesser evil to Russian neo-imperialism. This change in perception would weaken the soft power foundations of China's most important Central Asian alliance and cause considerable strains in the Uzbekistan-China relationship.

How Karimov's Death Could Undercut The China-Uzbekistan Security Partnership

Even though China elevated its relationship with Uzbekistan to a strategic partnership at the Tashkent SCO summit on June 22, instability in Uzbekistan resulting from Karimov's death could threaten China's strategic interests. Chinese policymakers are concerned that unrest in Uzbekistan could disrupt Uzbekistan's LNG sales to China.

Uzbekistan has drastically increased its gas exports to China in recent years to take advantage of Beijing's investments in Central Asian gas pipelines and dilute China's reliance on Russian gas. Three major Chinese-funded gas pipelines run through Uzbekistan. These pipelines contribute 20 percent of China's annual natural gas consumption. According to a recent Global Risk Insights report, Chinese investors are in the process of constructing a fourth pipeline that would pump an additional 30 billion cubic meters of gas from Turkmenistan to China via Uzbekistan.

As Uzbekistan's gas exports to China directly threaten Russia's interests, Moscow could offer Uzbekistan's new president security guarantees that require Tashkent to slow the growth of its gas exports to China. The resolution of the 2015 Uzbekistan-Kyrgyzstan dispute on Russia's terms provides a useful precedent for Russian President Vladimir Putin to apply to the Uzbekistan-China relationship.

Journalist Chris Rickleton suggested in a January 2015 article for Eurasianet that Russia offered to forgive Uzbek debt if Karimov agreed to resume gas exports to southern Kyrgyzstan. This implies that, if Russia provides Tashkent with the right incentives, Uzbekistan could align with Moscow's preferences and restrict China's access to Uzbekistan's natural gas reserves.

A suicide bomb attack on the Chinese embassy in Bishkek late last month has heightened Beijing's concerns about extremism in Central Asia.
A suicide bomb attack on the Chinese embassy in Bishkek late last month has heightened Beijing's concerns about extremism in Central Asia.

Chinese policymakers are also concerned that instability in Uzbekistan could strengthen Islamic extremist groups, like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and Islamic State (IS). The August 30 attack on the Chinese embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, has heightened Beijing's concerns about the threat posed by radical Islamists in Central Asia. As Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have a long-standing border dispute, Chinese officials are worried that radicalized Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan could cross the shared border and launch terror attacks against Chinese nationals in Kyrgyzstan.

To appease Chinese policymakers and maintain Uzbekistan's secular authoritarian system, Uzbekistan's new president will likely continue Karimov's repression of Islamist movements. But if Uzbekistan succumbs to a power struggle between the Tashkent and Samarkand clans, internal discord could empower Uzbek Islamic extremist movements, which direct their animosities towards China.

According to a Eurasianet report that cited an unnamed translator at a company working on Uzbekistan's Angren-Pap railroad project, many Uzbek Islamists disdain Chinese guest workers because the majority of Chinese expats are atheists. The IMU's official alignment with IS in mid-2015 has further increased the risk of religiously motivated terror attacks on Chinese Confucian institutes in Uzbekistan.

The Chinese government is also concerned that instability in Uzbekistan could fuel Uyghur terrorism in China's Xinjiang province. An estimated 55,000 Uyghurs live in Uzbekistan, and some Uyghur insurgents have a cordial relationship with the IMU. Some analysts have speculated that the IMU could militarize Uyghurs in Uzbekistan to attack Chinese-funded pipeline projects in Uzbekistan. This scenario could compromise China-Uzbekistan counterterrorism cooperation under the SCO umbrella, and undercut the security foundations of Beijing's Central Asian strategy.

Islam Karimov's death has plunged the future of the China-Uzbekistan partnership into a prolonged period of uncertainty. If Uzbekistan undergoes a smooth presidential succession to the rule of Mirziyaev or Finance Minister Rustam Azimov, Beijing-Tashkent relations will likely remain largely unchanged. But if Uzbekistan succumbs to inter-clan strife and the rising tide of Islamic extremism, China stands to lose a critical Central Asian ally.

Regardless of how Uzbekistan's political future unfolds, Chinese policymakers will be keeping a close eye on developments in Tashkent in the months and years to come.

Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at St. Antony's College, University of Oxford. He is also a freelance journalist. He can be followed on Twitter (@samramani2) and on Facebook (Samuel Ramani).

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.



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