Accessibility links

Breaking News

Governments Move To Thwart 'Arab Spring' In Central Asia

While Kyrgyzstan is no stranger to demonstrations on the streets of the capital (such as this one on March 30), the other Central Asian states seem anxious to prevent anything too similar to the unrest in the Arab world from getting a foothold.
While Kyrgyzstan is no stranger to demonstrations on the streets of the capital (such as this one on March 30), the other Central Asian states seem anxious to prevent anything too similar to the unrest in the Arab world from getting a foothold.
Like the Middle East and North Africa, Central Asia also suffers from poverty, corruption, heavy-handed governments, widespread unemployment, and scant opportunities for the young. All too aware of the similarities, governments there are already taking measures to prevent public upheaval of the kind that has shaken the Arab world.

"Much has been said and written about the possibility of the repetition of such events in Central Asia," Tajik President Emomali Rahmon said before parliament on April 20.

"I want to reiterate that the wise people of Tajikistan, who were once the victims of such events, know the meaning of peace and stability. They are aware of the importance of peace and stability," he added. "They have gone through civil wars; therefore, they reject military solutions to any problem."

With nearly 8 million inhabitants, landlocked Tajikistan is one of the poorest of the five "stans" in Central Asia. Though Tajik leaders might well deny it, the country has already experienced its first Facebook-organized protest. About 30 people took part in the brief demonstration on April 8 in the capital, Dushanbe.

Now the little-known Uzbek youth group Yetar (Enough) is planning to organize similar demonstrations in Tashkent, the capital of the most populous country in Central Asia, reported on April 14.

According to the same source, memos circulated by Yetar call for potential participants to gather in Tashkent's central Mustakillik (Independence) Square early on July 1. The group is asking people to bring bedding, tents, radios, and enough food to last for several days.

Uzbek Civil Disobedience

Tashpulat Yuldashev, an Uzbek activist and former Soviet diplomat, confirmed the reports about preparations for a protest, but would comment only that it would "be held strictly within the legal framework of the country."

"If you have to go to work, tell them [your officers] that you're at work, but find an excuse not to work," Yuldashev says. "They [the government] can't do anything to you. They'll pay your salary. Or just stay at home. The bottom line is that if there's any [official] order, don't obey it."

Many protests against the Uzbek or Turkmen regimes take place in exile, such as this one in Brussels.
Regardless of the outcome, Yuldashev says, the opposition's efforts are increasing the government's wariness and inspiring its readiness to crack down on critics.

Press reports suggest that government pressure on religious circles has intensified in recent days.

Several bookstores specializing in Islamic literature have been raided by security forces, and a number of Islamic scholars with Middle Eastern academic backgrounds have been removed from their official positions.

Saidjamol Masayaidov, the assistant dean of Tashkent Islamic University; Najimuddin Hasanov, the imam of Tashkent's Jurabek Mosque; and Jabborali Nurmuratov, the imam of the Yalangoch Mosque are just a few figures who have been removed from their posts recently, the Haraket news agency reported on April 7.

Growing Tension In Turkmenistan

Like Uzbekistan, neighboring Turkmenistan is also yet to see actual cases of street protests. But the government of this energy-rich republic of 4.5 million people is taking measures nonetheless.

Like his Uzbek counterpart Islam Karimov, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov is enforcing a complete news blackout when it comes to reports about the Arab uprisings.

With all traditional media already under tight state control, the government has now taken an extra step to maintain its hold over information by canceling a contract with the Russian company MTS, which until lately was the main source of communications for more than 80 percent of all Turkmen mobile-phone and Internet users.

Meanwhile, according to Human Rights Watch, Turkmen authorities have detained at least four people since early March for apparently political reasons.

Rumors are circulating among Turkmen students overseas that any of them who return home for visits might not be allowed to leave again. And there are signs that the government in the Turkmen capital of Ashgabat might also be stepping up monitoring of citizens living outside the country.

Several local sources say that government officials have recently been paying unexpected visits to Turkmen families who have loved ones studying abroad. The visitors ask about the absent family members, requesting detailed information about their location, employment status, and finances.

Farit Tukhbatulin, head of the Vienna-based Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, says that he sees a connection between these measures in Turkmenistan and recent events in some Arab countries. "If we look at those rumors, they emerged following the uprisings in the Arab countries," he says. "I think the reason for the monitoring [by Turkmen officials] is [to know] that those revolutions aren't coming to us [Turkmenistan]; if it's reaching us [the government] should be aware of it."

Kazakh Solidity, Or Fragility?

So far the situation in Kazakhstan appears relatively calm. In a recent interview with RFE/RL, Kazakhstan's ambassador to the United States, Erlan Idrissov, insisted that the government had little to fear: "Addressing the needs of the people is our priority, so we have no reason to worry."

"My personal account of what is going on in the Middle East is the rise of a young generation that was not given a chance to run its own destiny," Idrissov added. "In some countries, they highlighted economic unhappiness; in other countries they highlighted political unhappiness. We in Kazakhstan are secure against this because [President Nursultan] Nazarbaev and his team have addressed these issues as part of their long-term policy."

The comparatively positive financial and social situation of Kazakhstan may distinguish it from the tottering regimes of the Middle East and North Africa in that respect, but there are certain similarities nonetheless.

Among them are corruption and a lack of freedom of the media, speech, and politics. Like the leaders of some Arab countries, Nazarbaev has been in power for decades and shows little inclination to step down.

He has been in power since the country achieved independence in 1991, and he clearly has no desire to leave the presidential palace any time soon. (Indeed, he recently declared his intention to stay on in power until 2030 -- an unlikely prospect at best, considering that he is already 74.)

His determination to remain in office is not only likely to make him one of the world's longest-serving leaders, but also diminishes the likelihood of any serious political reforms. A deficit of reform and the persistence of leaders in power have been two of the main themes of protest in Middle Eastern and North African countries.

Reform, Or Tighter Control?

In little Kyrgyzstan, meanwhile, the threat comes less from revolutionary upheaval -- a phenomenon already familiar in that country -- than the possibility of renewed ethnic clashes between the titular Kyrgyz nationality and minority Uzbeks.

The pronounced ethnic, social, and linguistic differences that exist among the five Central Asian republics complicate any generalizations about the likelihood of potential protest movements.

Yuldashev, the former Soviet diplomat, says that Uzbekistan's President Karimov is shifting some of his authority to loyal subordinates, a strategy he thinks is aimed at binding them more tightly to the leader.

In Turkmenistan, President Berdymukhammedov has recently been ordering relevant officials to find ways to recognize academic degrees obtained from foreign institutions. The issue is important because the refusal to accept non-Turkmen degrees often prevents young Turkmen who have studied outside the country from obtaining jobs at home, serving as an oft-cited source of frustration.

Anthony Bowyer, program manager for the Europe and Asia Division at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, sees a different approach at work in Tajikistan. "President Rahmon has recently been seen making an effort to explain the reason behind the severe energy crises and acknowledging the problem," he notes.

So predicting what happens next in Central Asia remains a challenge. Given that protests have already broken out in other countries in the neighborhood, including Iran, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, the prospect cannot be entirely discounted. What is already manifest, though, is that governments in the region are doing their best to leave nothing to chance.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.