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Central Asia: Holding On To Power

Protests in Kyrgyzstan in March led to the ouster of President Akaev (AFP) While the upheavals that ushered in new heads of state in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan in recent years resist easy definitions, they share a characteristic that has sent shockwaves rippling across the post-Soviet world. Amid varying levels of commitment to democratic reform, post-Soviet ruling elites have developed a number of mechanisms for maintaining, extending, and transferring power. Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan were cases in which those mechanisms did not function as their inventors intended. In their aftermath, ruling elites elsewhere are nervously wondering whether the next plans to go awry may be their own.

The possibility of a widening pattern of regime change raises particularly intriguing questions in Central Asia. Four of five current leaders in the region have been in power for well over a decade. All five countries have witnessed a contradictory period since gaining independence, with remarkable degrees of domestic political continuity, but records on democratic and market reforms that range from ambiguous to atrocious. The past 15 years have not been devoid of accomplishments, but a firm foundation for regional stability and prosperity is not yet among them.

The prospect of political upheaval adds a volatile element to the mix. What, then, are the chances of "unplanned" regime change in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan?


Kazakhstan holds a presidential election on 4 December. Elections were the flashpoint for unrest in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, and the obvious question for Kazakhstan is whether a botched ballot could have a similarly devastating outcome for long-time President Nursultan Nazarbaev.

Such a turn of events seems unlikely at present, however. As Brookings Institution scholar Fiona Hill noted in the 20 October issue of "In The National Interest," a combination of skyrocketing oil revenues, sensible reforms guided by a long-term vision, and solid statecraft has put the president of oil-rich Kazakhstan in a position that is only minimally comparable to that of former Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, former Ukraine President Leonid Kuchma, and former Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev.

The president's achievements may not be quite as great as he likes to claim -- particularly in the area of democratic reforms and the equitable distribution of oil profits -- but he has a record to run on and clearly intends to do so. As Nazarbaev told the Kazakh Trade Union Federation on 31 October: "By 2012 [when his third term will end, should he win reelection in December], per capita GDP should increase to $8,000-$9,000...and we should double personal incomes," "Kazakhstan Today" reported.

The president made no bones about the source of this coming windfall, as RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported. "By 2012, Kazakhstan should become one of the world's top 10 exporters of oil and gas," he said. "Overall industrial production should double, and the oil-and-gas sector and the entire extractive industry will be the main contributor to the accomplishment of this task."

Other factors work in Nazarbaev's favor as well. Elite cleavages played an important role in the political tumult in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. While the Kazakh president has seen a number of political allies defect to the opposition over the past year -- including former speaker Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, who split with Nazarbaev after September 2004 parliamentary elections and is now challenging him for the presidency as the leader of the opposition bloc For a Just Kazakhstan -- much of the country's elite is comfortably integrated into the current climate.

Critics point to the perils of a patronage system, and have considerable justification for doing so, but patronage in Kazakhstan has not yet produced the discontents that were evident in neighboring Kyrgyzstan toward the end of Akaev's tenure, where the presidential family had come to be viewed as a predatory force unwilling to tolerate contenders at the trough.

Nevertheless, observers should not conclude that the 4 December presidential election will be a cakewalk for the incumbent. Many in the West saw political changes in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan in 2003-05 as victories for democracy, while CIS elites, particularly in Russia, interpreted the events as externally funded and supported plots to install pro-Western client regimes. The events themselves, however, bespoke a failure of managed democracy. The lead-up to the December presidential ballot in Kazakhstan has exhibited several classic features of managed democracy, with state-controlled media pushing the president's agenda and opposition candidates and media experiencing harassment.

Given Kazakhstan's stated desire to chair the OSCE in 2009, and the attendant investment of official prestige in the bid for the chairmanship, there may be a high-level commitment to conduct a "cleaner" election free from the shortcomings chronicled in the OSCE report on the September 2004 parliamentary election (which concluded that "the election process fell short of OSCE commitments and other international standards for democratic elections in many respects"). But mid- and low-level officials are likely to fall back on tried-and-true administrative methods of ensuring an impressive win for the home team.

Moreover, the factors noted above in Nazarbaev's favor may not be quite as significant as they seem. Relative prosperity, reform-minded technocrats, and favorable comparisons to economically and politically stunted neighbors like Uzbekistan often mean more to foreign observers than to ordinary citizens on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder. And recent experience shows that once managed democracy begins to fail and ordinary people become energized, the failure rapidly becomes catastrophic for the ruling elite.

Still, the risks to the president should not be overstated. If, as seems likely, Nazarbaev is reelected on 4 December, other difficulties loom on the horizon. The president's long-term program consists of soft-authoritarian modernization, economic diversification, and political reform, with implementation to be fueled by the fruits of a resource-based economy.

Although alluring in theory, the program is studded with pitfalls in practice. The outsized profits from natural resources in a not-quite reformed, diversified, and modernized political and economic system create disincentives for the elite to pursue those aspects of the program -- namely, political reforms and economic diversification -- that would force them to give up some of the enormous benefits of their prosperous present for the sake of a more equitably flourishing future. And if the program stalls, it could face inevitable crises, from falling oil prices to succession.

In sum, Kazakhstan faces limited, but not entirely nonexistent, short-term chances of unplanned regime change. But the long-term picture is more ambiguous, with the issue of succession looming larger and larger with each year of Nazarbaev's rule.


Kyrgyzstan differs fundamentally from its Central Asian neighbors in that the 24 March collapse of the government and the flight of then President Askar Akaev have already made it an example of unplanned regime change. In the intervening six months, the country has elected a new president, Kurmanbek Bakiev, and formed a new government led by Prime Minister Feliks Kulov. But full stabilization remains elusive.

During a two-week-long visit to Bishkek and Osh in October, I spoke with a broad array of politicians, civil-society activists, and journalists, as well as people whose professions have no direct tie to politics. Kulov and other political figures were consistent in identifying corruption and poverty as the two gravest problems facing the nation. But virtually everyone, including politicians, expressed varying degrees of frustration at the slow pace of government action on these two fronts.

The murders of three members of parliament since 24 March have underscored threats to stability in Kyrgyzstan. Particularly worrisome to many was the 20 October killing of Tynychbek Akmatbaev, who died under unclear circumstances while visiting a prison. Akmatbaev's brother, a reputed crime boss named Ryspek Akmatbaev, led a series of demonstrations in Bishkek calling for removal of Kulov, whom Ryspek charges with involvement in his brother's death. The murky backdrop to Tynychbek Akmatbaev's death, compounded by his brother's subsequent emergence as a vocal public figure, seemed to confirm a fear I heard expressed often during my visit to Kyrgyzstan -- that the criminal underworld may be making a play to exert influence on high-level politics under conditions of atrophied state power.

A narrowing window of opportunity and a shrinking backlog of trust confront the so-called tandem of Bakiev and Kulov as they attempt to get down to work, win back some of the support that has ebbed away amid the political maneuvering of the past six months, and begin solving the country's problems. Those problems include not only corruption and poverty, but strained relations with neighboring Uzbekistan in the wake of the Kyrgyz government's decision to allow the airlift of more than 400 Uzbek refugees from Kyrgyzstan to Romania in late July.

If the government fails to meet these challenges, political opportunists could rush in to fill the gap, exploiting the new era of protest politics inaugurated by the March events and raising the frightening prospect of a rent-a-mob free-for-all. The slogan of a "revolution betrayed" could serve as the prelude to various programs, including an authoritarian drive to reestablish order.

The short-term chances of destabilization in Kyrgyzstan remain significant. But the long-term prospects, though clouded by current uncertainties, hold promise as well as peril. Akaev's fall, the sudden injection of long-held popular concerns into the political process, and the new leadership's stated commitment to badly needed reforms could provide the impetus needed to smash through the various logjams that have prevented the country from moving forward.


On the face of things, Tajikistan would seem to exhibit the necessary preconditions for political upheaval in the model of Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. The economy is experiencing a protracted malaise that has sent hundreds of thousands of workers abroad in search of higher wages, President Imomali Rakhmonov's efforts to tighten his hold on power have constricted the political sphere, recent elections have displayed telltale symptoms of managed democracy, and a presidential election looms in November 2006.

Historical factors suggest, however, that Tajikistan may be different. Just as Kazakhstan's oil wealth sets it apart from its neighbors, so does Tajikistan's bloody 1992-97 civil war, the only instance of a prolonged violent conflict in post-Soviet Central Asia. The war left behind not only a ruined economy, but innumerable memories of the savagery and suffering it unleashed. These cast a long shadow, providing a stark warning that not all political confrontations end peacefully.

Still, the upcoming presidential election could prove tricky for Rakhmonov if it fails to break with the traditions of managed democracy amid unresolved economic problems. Moreover, Tajikistan's increasingly entrenched status as a conduit for Afghanistan's burgeoning opium and heroin production to reach European markets bodes ill for the country's political development. Drug money provides little impetus for greater transparency and better governance, but it can fund shadowy centers of informal power that may eventually seek to formalize their growing influence.

The short-term chances of unplanned regime change in Tajikistan are not great. But the long-term prospects for stability are poor if current trends continue.


While a catastrophic failure of managed democracy is hardly possible in a country where there is no democracy to manage, that does not mean that Turkmenistan under President Saparmurat Niyazov is safe from unplanned regime change. A political system that concentrates all power in the hands of a president-for-life whose cult of personality engulfs the public sphere is still vulnerable to a coup or to a succession struggle in the event of the leader's untimely death.

The main political event in Turkmenistan in 2005 has been an ongoing shakeup in the country's lucrative energy sector. Yolly Gurbanmuradov, deputy prime minister in charge of the oil-and-gas sector and a longtime associate of the president, was removed in May and charged with embezzlement and treason. Other high-ranking officials soon followed, their dismissals usually accompanied by corruption charges: Saparmemed Valiev, head of the national oil company; Orazmukhammet Atageldiev, minister in charge of state-run geology firm Turkmengeologiya; Guichmurad Esenov, head of the Turkmenbashi refinery; and Guichnazar Tachnazarov, deputy prime minister in charge of the oil-and-gas industry.

Cyclical reshuffles are one of Niyazov's favorite pastimes, but the scope of the most recent purge and its focus on a sector of the economy that provides easy access to considerable sums suggest that the president may be increasingly sensitive to the possibility that he could face a well-funded threat from the upper echelons of his own entourage.

Whatever the real or imagined chances of regime change from within, biology decrees that change must come eventually, and systemic factors render the problem of succession starker in Turkmenistan than in any other Central Asian country. Niyazov's insistence on eliminating any and all prospective rivals, his refusal thus far to anoint a successor, and the concentration of all real power not merely in the presidency, but in the person of the president himself, have laid the groundwork for a potentially dangerous succession struggle that the country's enfeebled institutions may not be able to withstand.

The impenetrable opacity of politics under Niyazov precludes short-term and long-term prognoses. The regime will be perfectly stable until it is not, and then all bets are off. What can be said is that when change comes, destabilizing scenarios abound. The chances of a smooth transition to a reformist future seem remote.


Regime change brought on by a breakdown of managed democracy is the remotest of possibilities in Uzbekistan, where parliamentary and presidential elections have had virtually no perceptible influence on real politics. The violence that rocked Andijon on 12-13 May, however, raises troubling questions about the prospects for short-term and long-term stability.

The armed attack on government facilities in Andijon, and the security forces' subsequent actions to quell the unrest, brought to light factors that have important implications for the paths political change may take in Uzbekistan.

First, violent opposition to the current regime is a fact. All reports state that on the night of 12 May, armed men attacked a prison and police post, seized hostages, and took over a large government building in the center of Andijon.

Second, socioeconomic complaints can galvanize popular unrest. The Uzbek government has depicted the demonstration that took place in Andijon on 13 May as a relatively small protest consisting of the relatives and supporters of religious extremists, but independent reports indicate that thousands of ordinary citizens gathered to voice their frustration at economic hardship and a dysfunctional justice system. Previously, economic complaints triggered protests in Andijon in September 2004, a large demonstration in Kokand in November 2004, a riot in Jizzakh Province in late March 2005, and a hunger strike by 400 workers in Ferghana Province.

Third, the government is willing and able to use force. The official version of events portrays a measured police response to an outbreak of violent extremism, blaming nearly 200 deaths on the actions of terrorists. Numerous eyewitness accounts suggest that the government responded to a legitimate security threat with grossly excessive force, massacring several hundred people.

The result is a dangerous impasse. Objective evaluations of social and economic conditions point to significant grounds for discontent, while President Islam Karimov and his government insist that all is well, blame unrest on conspiracies involving religious extremists and foreign backers, and are committed to the use of force to crush dissent.

These factors suggest grim possibilities. One is an uprising, though the security services are surely on a heightened state of alert in the wake of Andijon. Another is a coup, with an ambitious rival, or rivals, seeking to capitalize on popular dissatisfaction. A third is a purge, for Karimov is no doubt alert to the dangers his own entourage may hold, and regime consolidation around an even harder line. The prognosis is a high short-term risk of instability, with murky long-term prospects no matter what course events may take.

One For All

The preceding survey reveals a paradox that could have serious implications for Central Asia as the region moves toward its next round of political turning points. Despite a great deal of historical and cultural common ground, the five independent countries' political and economic development has been anything but uniform. Central Asia is not a large grouping by world standards, but it is an increasingly disparate one.

Nevertheless, common ground is precisely what all five countries occupy. This overview has treated Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan as discrete entities, but geography eventually enforces what political analysis must sometimes hold in abeyance. For all the differences within Central Asia, the various outcomes discussed here in isolation will in reality have broader consequences. In light of the wide range of possibilities the future holds, the international community should take note. Even as each Central Asian country follows its own path, it will nudge its neighbors, and together they will determine the course of the region as a whole.

Central Asia In Focus

Central Asia In Focus

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