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Dictators, They Aren’t Kissing Your Hand Because They Love You

During a visit to a kindergarten in Mary Province on January 26, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov received a kiss on the hand from an elderly woman.
During a visit to a kindergarten in Mary Province on January 26, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov received a kiss on the hand from an elderly woman.
The Egypt scenario that has shaken the world could spread to many post-Soviet countries where some aging presidents have been ruling for more than two decades. Seemingly tranquil now, Egypt-style civil disobedience cannot be ruled out in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, or Belarus – all countries where dictatorship, nepotism, and corruption are flourishing.

In developments that moved steadily from the unlikely to the surreal, longtime President Hosni Mubarak – who became one of the world’s longest-serving presidents by rigging election after election for decades – claimed he was “fed up with being president,” before finally resigning on February 11.

In reality, though, it is the Egyptian people who were fed up. The average income in Egypt is about $2,070 per household, according to the World Bank. With about 20 percent of the population living below the poverty line, Mubarak and his family have an estimated wealth of between $50 billion and $70 billion. The Mubarak family owns properties around the globe, according to an IHS Global Insight report.

Faced with the unprecedented protests, Mubarak had said he feared “chaos” if he left too abruptly, but what he really fears is investigation and prosecution, loss of his ill-gained assets, and the exposure of his corrupt dealings. All dictators become hostage to their own sins and to those of their relatives and the narrow circle of insiders that they brought up to the state feeding trough.

It is interesting to look at post-Soviet Central Asia through the prism of Egypt’s experience.

Personal Feifdom

Let’s start with Tajikistan. This small, poor Central Asian state has been ruled by Emomali Rahmon since 1992, just a year after it gained independence. The former Soviet apparatchik governs Tajikistan like a personal fiefdom, and his extended family and inner circle are the beneficiaries of years of entrenched corruption.

"OK, here's the plan." The president of Belarus, Alyaksandr Lukashenka (left) and Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov confer at an OSCE summit in Astana in December.

As is the case in Egypt, social unrest could erupt in Tajikistan because of poverty. A recent government survey in the southern Hatlon region revealed that some 70 percent of the population is essentially subsisting on bread and tea. Each resident of Hatlon spends an average of $21 a month on food.

But Tajikistan, too, is a largely quiet country where widespread misery is moderated by remarkably low expectations.

Perhaps it makes more sense to look at Kazakhstan. It has been ruled by President Nursultan Nazarbaev for more than 20 years. Now 70 years old, however, Nazarbaev has no ready male heir to hand power off to. Former Nazarbaev son-in-law Rakhat Aliev has written that the president has three wives and plans to hand off power to a son by his third wife who is now only 6 years old.

'Don't Leave Your Post'

Egypt clearly sent a signal to Nazarbaev. For years now, he has counted on the apathy of the Kazakh people (compared, for instance, to the neighboring Kyrgyz who seem to have developed an allergy to dictatorship). But Egypt has shown him how quickly docility can turn to unrest and turmoil. Nazarbaev cannot have failed to notice the parallels.

Nonetheless, he claims to have received another signal, this time from the Kazakh people. “The main thing,” Nazarbaev said recently, “that I have understood from our people is, ‘Don’t leave your post’ and, ‘Continue to work on.’ I promise if there is such unanimity and popular support, I will work as long as I can.”

Without an obvious successor for Nazarbaev, the ruling elites seem to have come up with a consensus that it is necessary to freeze the status quo. As is the case with Mubarak, Nazarbaev and his inner circle are hostages to their own pasts. He simply must manage the transition to a successor or risk being swept up in a flood of popular rage.

The parallels with Egypt are significant. The Kazakh people have collected insults for many years, just like the Egyptians. There has been no way for them to vent their energies and a thousand undiscussed questions have accumulated under the thumb of the authorities.

Neighboring Turkmenistan also has bitter experience with eternal presidents. Former leader Saparmurat Niyazov was a lifelong president until his death in 2006, and he showed the world without question that the art of the personality cult is alive and well.
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev (right) and his Uzbek counterpart, Islam Karimov

This kind of political culture is highly infectious. Niyazov was followed by Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, who is already treading this familiar path. He recently accepted the honorary name Arkadag (Protector). Turkmen state television recently showed an elderly woman kissing his hand, a gesture the president accepted without shame or demurral.

Recently, a parade of Turkish military servicemen paused as it passed the president and all the soldiers kneeled down before him. Later, 600 girls took to the stadium and formed the word “Arkadag” with their bodies, while participants sang a song called “Thank You, Protector.”

And, of course, neighboring Uzbekistan has followed the same path. In 2005, longtime President Islam Karimov ordered troops to fire on his own people. President since 1990, he is one of the world’s most oppressive dictators and a real time bomb.

Now he is 73. He has no sons, but his wife, Tatyana Karimova, is an economist by training, and they have two daughters, Gulnara and Lola. According to “Der Spiegel,” Gulnara Karimova has assets estimated at $570 million. She reportedly controls the lucrative oil and gas industries, as well as Uzbekistan’s telecom and construction sectors. Her opaque business interests are believed to extend to Moscow, Dubai, and Geneva. It is possible the Karimov family and the ruling elite would like to see her become the successor, but there are many in Uzbekistan who would oppose a continuation of the Karimov dynasty and, of course, the installation of a female leader.

After decades in power, any of these leaders could be the next to decide he is “fed up with being president.”

Cholpon Orozobekova is a Kyrgyz journalist based in Geneva. She has worked for BBC radio, RFE/RL, IWPR, and as editor in chief of the independent newspaper "De Facto." The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL