On April 7, 2010 the President of Kyrgyzstan Kurmanbek Bakiyev fled the capital city of Bishkek that was under a state of emergency after antigovernment protesters started clashing with security forces following incidents that started in the Northern city of Talas, close to the Kazakhstan border. By the end of April 7, Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty was reporting 40 dead and 400 wounded, numbers that have over doubled since. In this context, one can only wonder which country in Central Asia could be next, if any, and which Central Asian leader could find himself out of a job and possibly on an airplane.
The ongoing events are monitored very closely as Central Asia is a very sensitive region: it is rich in natural resources, notably energy (oil & gas and a large hydropower potential), and as Kyrgyzstan hosts two military based on its soil - one U.S., the Manas Air Base (now called the “Transit Center at Manas International Airport”), and one Russian, the Kant Air Base. The U.S. base plays a critical role with operations in nearby Afghanistan and will stay in place according to Kyrgyz interim leader Roza Otunbayeva.
Manas constitutes a financial bonanza of tens of millions of dollars in addition to all the jobs created around the daily operations of the base. In 2009 the U.S. and Kyrgyzstan signed an agreement, renewing the right for the U.S. to use the facilities for $60 million/year, which is over three times more than what was paid before.
These events are also closely monitored inside the presidential palaces of neighboring Central Asia countries as this revolution, like some that took place in Eastern Europe and Eurasia since 2000, did not take much to topple the government.
All Central Asian leaders where elected through elections that the OSCE considers as failing at different levels to meet international democratic standards which prevents the development of a pluralistic political system. In this context, there is no real way for the opposition, or the people espousing the view of the opposition, to express utter dissatisfaction other than by demonstrating in the streets.
Protesters can be shot at and quieted temporarily like in Andijan, Uzbekistan in May 2005, or they can succeed in ousting their government like in Kyrgyzstan. The fact that the people can go down in the streets to voice their discontent with their government is a dire reminder that a silent or silenced public opinion is not one without an opinion and a that a little spark can launch an entire sequence of events, even more so as there are many worms in the Central Asian apple, fruit which is supposed to have originated from Central Asia.
The events in Kyrgyzstan do not come as a surprise, except for those who wondered why news about the return of Tiger Woods was occasionally being bypassed in prime time news by events in a mostly unknown country. What was a true surprise is the speed at which events unfolded. They were triggered by an increase in fuel and electricity rates but the spark came in an explosive climate of latent and massive dissatisfaction with the regime in place.
This is not the first time Kyrgyzstan experiences a spring-cleaning revolution. Almost exactly five years ago, the 2005 Tulip Revolution ousted then President Askar Akayev under allegations of widespread corruption and cronyism. Bakiyev fell for the same ills, the resentment being exacerbated by an authoritarian drift that led to the shutting down of independent news media, the arrest of prominent opposition leaders and blatant nepotism with Bakiyev’s family securing key positions.
Bakiyev’s brother Marat was serving as ambassador in Germany but will be recalled, while his brother Adyl was an advisor to the Kyrgyz ambassador in China. In October 2009, Bakiyev appointed his son Maksim to head the newly created Central Agency for Development, Investment, and Innovation (CADII) while another son worked for the National Security Service.
The Scorecard of Central Asia
Some leaders are more enlightened than others in understanding that the distribution of wealth cannot just benefit a small minority: enabling their population to become more prosperous like in Kazakhstan allows everyone to see opportunities and not feel excluded. Central Asia is burdened by a ruling class and elite with vested interests, creating a natural brake to any efforts to change the way things are done.
Change can unleash unforeseen events and the fear of its consequences explains the efforts made to maintain the status quo. Allowing too much democracy and dissenting voices to be heard is equivalent to opening a Pandora box: too much transparency coupled with greater accountability leads to questions that challenges and weakens the legitimacy of the governments in place.
Looking at the levels of freedom and corruption and at the ease of doing business are good indicators of where Central Asian countries stand, even if some ratings are perception indexes. These reports can convey a bleak picture of Central Asian countries and are partially unfair as each country has some potential and there are many Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Tajiks, Turkmens and Uzbeks that strive to abide by high standards and who can be trustworthy partners. Changing a system is not easy.
Freedom House, an independent watchdog organization that supports the expansion of freedom around the world, will release at the end of Spring 2010 its Freedom in the World 2010 Report but preliminary findings should that “virtually all of the countries in the non-Baltic former Soviet Union continued to pursue a repressive course, including Russia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, which was downgraded from Partly Free to Not Free” further stating that “of the 47 countries ranked Not Free, nine countries and one territory received the survey’s lowest possible rating for both political rights and civil liberties: Burma, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Sudan, Tibet, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.”
On November 17, 2009 Transparency International, a civil society organization fighting corruption worldwide, released its 2009 annual Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) which measures the perceived level of public-sector corruption in 180 countries and territories around the world. There were no major changes from the 2008 CPI, with most of the Central Asian countries ranking towards the bottom of the totem pole. The best performing country, Kazakhstan, ranked # 120 compared to #145 in 2008; followed by Tajikistan at #158 compared to #151; Kyrgyzstan at #162 compared to #166; Turkmenistan at #168 compared to #166; and Uzbekistan #174 compared to #166.
Ease of Doing Business
In the 2010 World Bank’s Doing Business Report which ranks 183 countries on their ease of doing business, the ranking is also mostly disappointing: Uzbekistan ranks #150 compared to # 145 the year before; Tajikistan makes a commendable leap forward from # 164 to # 152 but has still a long way to go; Kazakhstan remains stable at # 63 compared to # 64 in the 2009 Report; Kyrgyzstan is mentioned at one of the top 10 reformers, ranking # 41 compared to # 80 just a year before; and Turkmenistan is not even mentioned.
Each country has its own reality
So, in this context, could another regime fall like in Kyrgyzstan? One thing to understand is that uprisings can happen naturally or be planned. If a revolution was to be fomented or supported from within the system, anyone involved would have to be sure to be able to overthrow the existing government: failure would be met with dire consequences and even exile may not be enough to stay alive. The chance of seeing such uprisings, initiated from within the apparatus, or from criminal groups, is limited.
Uprisings that happen naturally (if we can say so) and unfold like in Kyrgyzstan are possible but each Central Asian country has a different local reality that needs to be looked at closely, and special attention should be given to the points of view of the citizen who don’t necessarily want to turn their life upside down for change that may not bring a better life.
Kazakhstan is the shining star of Central Asia, though its glow was affected by the financial crisis that hit it as early as 2007 and revealed an overexposed financial and banking sector to risky business practices and toxic assets. Kazakhstan is blessed with natural resources, notably oil, and enacted policies that stir the country towards economic development that show results.
Kazakhstan is the most transformed country in the region and the most open to the outside world. It is also the most courted country, and it maintains good relations with Russia, the United States, Europe and China. Kazakhstan was given the honor to hold the chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in 2010 despite what many considered as a questionable political and democratic track record (see article: Land-Locked Central Asian Oil Country Plays Important Role from Vancouver to Vladivostok).
President Nursultan Nazarbayev, has been in power since 1989 and is 69 years old. There is no indication he is grooming a successor or that he is even considering relinquishing power by not running for President again in 2012. The risk of a revolution is very low, even more so as the vast majority of the population has benefited from the economic growth of the country and accompanying opportunities stirred by President Nazarbayev. Criminal groups in Kazakhstan are probably more powerful and established in Kazakhstan partly thanks to the fact that the country has the most developed private sector in the region but the fall of the President would not necessarily serve their interests.
When the Soviet Union broke up, many analysts expected Uzbekistan - the most populous country with a population of 26 million - to become the shining star of Central Asia but trade barriers of all sort and an unfriendly investment climate, including a debilitating currency inconvertibility, resulted in Kazakhstan taking the lead instead.
President Islam Karimov, has been in power since 1989 and is 72 years old. He is up for reelection again in 2012. The risk of a revolution toppling Karimov is low, though Karimov has been playing with fire by repressing the Muslim opposition and assimilating them to terrorists. The uprising in Andijan in May 2005 was severely repressed and is food for thoughts for anyone wanting to demonstrate. Relations with its neighbors are tense to different degrees.
Turkmenistan remains a secretive society, sometimes compared to North Korea, even though it has opened up to the outside world after the death of its omnipresent leader Saparmarat Niazov in 2006. The death of Niazov came as a surprise but his succession has not resulted in the radical transformation of the country. Turkmenistan remains a top-down decision-making system. Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov was elected president in 2007 and is only 52 years old. The risk of a revolution is low as Turkmenistan remains a very controlled state and the opposition is almost non-existent.
Tajikistan, one of the poorest countries in the world along with Kyrgyzstan lacks the natural resources its neighbors enjoy and is highly dependent on the good mood of its mighty neighbors, Russia and China, and of Uzbekistan that interferes with energy and freight transits.
President Emomali Rahmon remains popular despite the challenges of taking the country out of poverty. Only 57 years old, he has been officially President since 1994 and is up for reelection in 2013. The risk of a revolution could be considered as high in light of the economic situation, had Tajikistan not been exposed to a devastating civil war in the early 90’s. That war left a strong imprint on the collective mind resulting in a tacit desire to maintain the status quo rather than seeing the country fall into greater turmoil. As a result, the risk of a revolution is low.
However, the recent decision by the President to raise money to build the Rogun Hydropower Dam could raise that level to medium as it could bankrupt the country and its people that were heavily solicited to contribute to this national project. If the project does not go through, President Rahmon will be in the hot seat.
So far, as of March 10, 2010, the country had only raised $176 million, or about 13.5% of the estimated cost of $1.3 billion for the project (see article: The Hydropower Solution in Central Asia: Yes But…). Russia has said that it would back the project if all the countries in the region back it up, which will not happen since Uzbekistan vigorously opposes it, concerned that it could damage its agriculture.
The United States cannot force its private sector to enter a market if it is not interested and China has more to gain from maintaining good relations with Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan that supplies it with oil, gas and natural resources it needs to keep its export machine running. And the overall environmental impact of such a project may be such that multilateral development banks may end up refusing participating in such a project.
And the next regime to fall is…
Answering that question should be left to London bookmakers as it would only be speculation and even sheer delusion. Just like many would like to see the Iranian regime fall when it is not proven it is the wish of the majority of Iranians, it is not certain that any of the regimes in place are on the brink of collapse or that Central Asians would want to see their regime collapse, even if they are aware of all existing flaws.
Assuming that the population of each country wants a dramatic change of power is a misconception rooted in the standards used by the West to judge what is right or wrong or to say what type of political system other countries should have. Undoubtedly, change is wanted and necessary but not through a kick in the anthill or a stone thrown at a beehive.
Each Central Asian leader understands that opening their country to greater democratic processes has its pluses but it also exposes them to criticism and to the revelation of their shortcomings and even misdeeds. What we may see instead of a revolution and the fall of a regime is more gradual transition that can be peaceful.
The lack of a well-established and institutionalized opposition and of a civil society, or their lack of means to express themselves when they exist, prevents them from being a catalyst of ideas and opinions to change the system.
Despite the challenges, change is still happening:
• Turkmenistan has opened up to the outside world - maybe not to the level many would have wanted - but it has nevertheless opened up both at a political and commercial level.
• Kazakhstan has seen the emergence of a middle class and of a highly sophisticated political and business elite that is not limited to the inner presidential circle and that is bound to play a role in transforming the Kazakh society and even its Central Asian neighbors.
• Tajikistan is the only country in Central Asia to have allowed an Islamic political party to operate in the country.
• And Kyrgyzstan probably has the most dynamic political scene of all in the region in-between revolutions.
Change may come from within, gradually or unannounced like it did in Kyrgyzstan. Change could also be triggered from outside events, actions or influences.
The role that Afghanistan could play as a destabilizing factor is on everybody’s mind. Uzbekistan’s blocking of hundreds of train cars of supplies for the Tajik agricultural industry or disrupting the transit of energy destined to Tajikistan could play a destabilizing role and have a boomerang effect if Tajikistan ends up in a desperate economic and social situation. Ergo, further instability at the Uzbek border is not a good prospect.