Several CIS countries are facing a broader range of threats in view of recent events in Libya. The UN Security Council’s resolution on Libya has extended frameworks for possible foreign interference in the internal affairs of sovereign nations through the pretext of protecting civilians against armed violence from the authorities.
The waves of revolts that swept across northern Africa have embarrassed political scientists and intelligence services, since none of them predicted the upheavals that, presumably, have drawn a new picture of the world, and not only the Arab world. Subsequently, the question arises whether or not these events will continue and where. Hints at Central Asia and the South Caucasus were among the first to surface. Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have been identified as the most vulnerable to the social upheavals that have occurred in “Arab quarters.”
References to the Moslem periphery of the former Soviet empire sprang up during the peak of events in Tunisia and Egypt. All of the characteristics of North African countries – authoritarian (at best, but in most cases totalitarian) regimes that have ruled for decades; nepotism, corruption and contempt for human rights; extreme poverty, unemployment and the lack of a social security net – can be easily applied to Central Asian reality.
However, there are some significant exceptions. First, North African countries are closer to Europe geographically and their citizens have a good idea about European living standards. Many North Africans, whose countries used to be European colonies, speak European languages and it is much easier for them to “try on” European values. Second, whatever problems may plague the countries of North Africa and the Middle East, the vast majority are sustainable states – something that one can say with a great deal of uncertainty about Central Asian counties, particularly Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
According to the report “Central Asia: Decay and Decline” published by the International Crisis Group (ICG) in early February, “the risk [of a systemic collapse – Ed.] is particularly high” in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. The report says that after two decades of independence, Central Asian countries have nearly run down the schools, clinics, hospitals, roads and power plants built in Soviet times. “In five to ten years there will be no teachers to lead classes, no doctors to treat the sick and the absence of electricity will become a norm,” says Paul Quinn-Judge, the ICG’s Central Asia Project Director.
Before the events in Libya took place, discussions of a possible repeat of Egyptian-Tunisian-like scenarios in Central Asia and Azerbaijan mostly concerned internal causes for social unrest, but now some member-states of the CIS have to reckon with more serious threats. The UN Security Council’s resolution on Libya has reduced restrictions on possible foreign interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states under the pretext of defending civilians from government violence. Such pretexts may be found in any interethnic clashes. In addition, interference may become essential to avoid bloodshed before it breaks out.
Such a situation may occur if there is a risk of a repeat of the events that unfolded in June 2010 in the southern Kyrgyz cities of Osh and Jalalabat. Clashes between Kyrgyz and ethnic Uzbeks resulted in the death of several hundred people and compelled the governments of Russia, neighboring states and the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to urgently consider sending in peacekeepers or some other form of interference. Moreover, a request for such action had come from Kyrgyz leaders.
The events in Osh broke out on June 10 when the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) was holding a summit conference in Tashkent. After Presidents Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, Dmitry Medvedev of Russia and Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan held an early-morning meeting, the latter described the events as “Kyrgyzstan’s domestic affair.” This became the CSTO’s main policy concerning the situation.
The Uzbek decision not to interfere in Kyrgyz affairs can be explained by a willingness to avoid a dangerous precedent that might threaten Tashkent itself. Uzbekistan could also face disorders similar to those that shook the southern city of Andijan in May 2005. In 2009, when Tashkent blocked a consensus-based decision on the use of CSTO Rapid Deployment Forces in case of force majeur events in any of the member-states, the major motive was to prevent the formulation of legitimate grounds for intervention.
A precedent was created after the UN authorized the military campaign in Libya. Moreover, Uzbek sources told Vitaly Volkov, a German expert on Central Asia, that Tashkent is prepared to defend fellow-Uzbeks more resolutely – including by sending in troops – if violence breaks out again in Kyrgyzstan. This could result in the downfall of the ruling regime.
In the new circumstances there is a real possibility that such events – intended to produce a pretext for a foreign intervention – could be provoked by the regime’s adversaries. The existence of such a threat pushes the authorities towards using force quickly and without restrictions in order to protect foreign encroachments on state sovereignty. To sum up, in view of the Libyan campaign, the situation in Central Asia is much less predictable than it was at the start of events in North Africa.
However, is anyone willing to interfere in the region’s internal affairs? Susan M. Elliott, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Central Asia, told the Russian daily Kommersant in late March that the U.S. would not like to arrive at a point where it is compelled to make a choice between the incumbent leaders and the revolutionary forces seeking to oust national governments. As before, the main objective of the allied governments would be to secure transit routes and the logistics infrastructure supporting the campaign in Afghanistan.
It is more difficult to predict the CSTO’s reaction if the situation in the region gets worse. One could assume, though, that the Uzbek government’s official stance will set the tone, since Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, all of which share the Fergana Valley, are at political risk. This means that outside intervention in the internal affairs of a country will most likely be on a bilateral basis and without the CSTO’s mandate. A scenario of this kind will allow CSTO member-states and their Western partners to reach a more rapid agreement.
It is more difficult to forecast the consequences that a wave of violence organized by Islamic radicals in northern Afghanistan at the beginning of April may produce in Central Asia. A crowd, stirred up by a local imam, attacked and massacred people in a UN mission in Mazar-e-Sharif, a city with a predominantly Tajik and Uzbek population. Andrei Serenko, an expert at the Russian Center for Contemporary Afghan Studies, believes that the Mazar-e-Sharif tragedy may be a harbinger of a new wave of active protests in the Islamic world – “the movement of defenders of the Koran,” which was triggered by the burning of the Koran in Florida. Ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks in Afghanistan may be more religious than their brothers in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, but there is no doubt that Islamic radicalism will fall on fertile soil in those countries too.
KYRGYZSTAN – KINDLING FOR “TULIP 3”?
Most experts believe that Kyrgyzstan is the weakest link in Central Asia and is the biggest risk for destabilization. However, conditions there are only slightly related to the disturbances in North Africa. Kyrgyzstan, where it is much easier to replace the president through a coup d’etat rather than by presidential elections, takes pride in the fact that it changed into a country of social revolutions years before the first reports of turmoil in Tunisia. Kyrgyz President Roza Otunbayeva said on April 6, 2011, on the eve of the anniversary of the second (April 2010) revolution, that: “Our April revolution became a phenomenon for the world community and set an example for peaceful civilians in North Africa and the Middle East.”
Omurbek Tekebayev, the former speaker of parliament and leader of both revolutions in Kyrgyzstan (in 2005 and 2010), made an equally pathetic observation in January 2011. “Kyrgyz Ketsinism [‘Ketsin’ means ‘Down with!’ in the Kyrgyz language] is acquiring an international status and turning into a global phenomenon,” he said. According to Tekebayev, Ketsinism means a state of society in which “the old forms cannot live up to the new content.” He indicated that revolts similar to the Kyrgyz revolutions are taking place in Africa and the Middle East. Tekebayev pointed to the similarity of their root causes – one-man rule, the subjugation of the national economy to the interests of individual groups, the lack of free and fair elections, and the impossibility of changing leaders through legitimate means. Furthermore, Tekebayev believes that Kyrgyzstan has become the first country where the crisis of the old political structure has made itself manifest. The demands for stronger parliamentarianism and fair elections are common for all places where disturbances occur, he said.
The irony of the situation is that Tekebayev, who is widely viewed as the father of Kyrgyz parliamentarianism (the draft constitution he penned was adopted in a referendum in June 2010, laying the foundations for a parliamentary system), has become an outcast in the very system that he founded. His Ata Meken socialist party, the oldest in the republic, barely received enough votes to make it above the election threshold in the parliamentary elections and emerged in the opposition. The Ata Zhurt party, which is largely made up of former government officials from the ousted regime of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, became the relative winner in the October 2010 election (the five parties that managed to gain seats in parliament received slightly more than one-third of all the votes).
After almost two months of negotiations, Kyrgyzstan got a ruling coalition at the end of 2010. It consists of both winners and losers, which was the only possible solution. A country that is home to six million people remains fragmented along ethnic, geographic, tribal and clan lines. Almost all the leaders of the elite who preside over the more than fifty “political” parties formed along these very criteria used to hold high offices in the Askar Akayev and Kurmanbek Bakiyev administrations.
In modern Kyrgyz history the elites have consolidated “more than once on the principles of aversion to one or another person at the helm of power,” says Kyrgyz analyst Daniyar Karimov. This led to revolutions in 2005 and 2010 and history began to repeat itself in the spring of 2011. “A part of the ruling establishment has tapped a new object for dislike – First Deputy Prime Minister Omurbek Babanov, the leader of the Respublika party and a member of the parliamentary coalition,” Karimov writes. Charges of raiding and selfish interests with regard to the country’s only big business, the MegaCom telecommunications company, have been made against him. The source of the accusations, Acting Prosecutor General Kubatbek Baibolov, was forced to resign “for moral and ethical reasons” by President Otunbayeva. The pretext was the alleged sale of a MegaCom affiliate reportedly carried out by Baibolov’s wife, a well-known Kyrgyz businesswoman. In addition, Baibolov suspected a number of government officials of embezzling a large amount of funds that formerly belonged to Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s family and which were confiscated after last year’s revolution from their safety deposit boxes.
A number of public scandals in mid-April threatened the government coalition, led by the Social Democratic Party leader Almazbek Atambayev, with collapse. If this happens several months before the presidential election (due before the end of October), there will be more violence in the country, where, according to an observer, a group of professional Ketsinist subversives has sprung up. Their actions will not be very different from those that accompanied the events of 2005 and 2010, which were aimed at the repartition of property and redistribution of money flows. This is the actual essence of and the incentive for the activities of Kyrgyzstan’s political elite, not overburdened, as a rule, by the responsibility for maintaining the country’s unified statehood and sovereignty.
When the first signs of recurring instability surfaced in February, Emil Kaptagayev, chief of the Kyrgyz presidential staff, made a shockingly direct statement: “If turmoil breaks out right now and everything turns upside down, we’ll have to operate in the mode of field commanders, and the country will turn into a huge hotspot ruled by criminals.” This provided confirmation of Tekebayev’s claim that “the criminal world is split among political forces in Kyrgyzstan.” They are pooled together by personal relationships and business interests, bolstered by geographic kinship. Tekebayev believes that the criminal community is interested in a weak, or “their own,” president and that is why it will try to influence the results of the presidential election “up to the nomination of its own candidate.” Otherwise these criminal groups may work against a candidate not linked to criminal circles. In January, the public was worried by reports about parliament speaker Akhmatbek Keldibekov’s meeting with Kamchi Kolbayev, a mastermind of the criminal world.
“The people have become so accustomed to lies by the authorities, stealing, and moral depravity that they simply do not want to react to what’s happening,” human rights activist Cholpon Djakupova noted with bitterness. “While during the previous regimes the people hated state power, now they despise it.”
However, in certain circumstances and with skilful manipulation, this seeming passiveness may be the kindling for another nationwide or – quite possibly – interethnic conflict. The acclaimed Central Asian analyst Sanobar Shermatova, who died prematurely, wrote about the root causes of the June 2010 bloodshed in Osh: “This was a criminal action of a hitherto unseen scale and audacity that was later retouched to resemble an ethnic conflict.” She believed that mafia circles were behind the sharp divide of the population into Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, and the ensuing fueling of Kyrgyz nationalism.
There was a new surge of Kyrgyz nationalism in May 2011 provoked by the publication of a report from the Kyrgyzstan Inquiry Commission (KIC), an international body led by Kimmo Kiljunen, a Finnish parliamentarian and representative of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly in Central Asia. The KIC investigated the June 2010 events in Osh. According to the Commission’s findings, some acts of violence committed in Osh were “crimes against humanity.” The report triggered an unprecedentedly strong reaction from a large part of the Kyrgyz elite and caused the parliament to declare Kiljunen persona non grata. These developments, which occurred on the eve of the first anniversary of the Osh events, heightened tensions in Kyrgyzstan, especially in southern areas where the authorities had to take measures very similar to a state of emergency.
A severe food crisis has further aggravated the situation. Last year’s poor harvest, which was the partial result of post-revolutionary chaos and a seasonal surge in spring inflation, has sharply pushed up grain prices. World Bank data states that grain prices have jumped 54 percent since June 2010.
It is only at first glance that Ketsinism seems to have something in common with the Arab revolts. Calls for “fair parliamentarianism” in Kyrgyzstan more often than not are a disguise which the corrupt and semi-criminal elites use to hide their cravings for a slice of the power cake. Furthermore, this cake gets smaller in an impoverished country with virtually no resources and which subsists predominantly on foreign borrowing. If this insatiability sparks off yet another – Tulip 3 – revolution, Kyrgyzstan will lose its chance to become a sustainable state and its split into North and South will become a reality.
TAJIKISTAN: A NEW OPPOSITION TO AN OLD PRESIDENT
Tajik President Emomali Rahmon was the first leader of a post-Soviet country with an Islamic population who tried to change the style of relations with the public after the series of upheavals along the Arab arch of instability. This is not surprising, since the 58-year-old Rahmon, who is in his nineteenth consecutive year of power, is permanently on the Top Ten list of leaders (regularly updated by the media) who are at risk of being ousted through a popular revolt.
In early February Rahmon agreed to receive three women from a village near the capital Dushanbe where the local authorities had begun demolishing residential houses. This was a reaction to a meeting of protesters who had gathered near his administrative office. Nothing like this had ever happened before. Two weeks later Tajikistan’s ombudsman Zarif Alizoda made an equally unprecedented move by submitting a report on the observance of human rights. The report states that about 1,500 people had filed complaints about the illegal seizure of property, the unfair distribution of land and other injustices on the part of the local authorities.
On the eve of Nowruz, the Islamic New Year celebrated on March 21, numerous portraits of Rahmon suddenly disappeared from Dushanbe streets. Usmon Soleh, a high-ranking functionary of the ruling People’s Democratic Party of Tajikistan (PDPT), explained the situation by saying that: “This proceeds from the president’s policy of opposing authoritarianism and the personality cult. He doesn’t need such outward manifestation of people’s love. Previously, Mr. President had also given instructions to local power agencies to prevent the glorification of his personality.” Nonetheless, Tajik political scientist Radjabi Mirzo said that no one would have removed posters of the president previously.
Finally, several militants from the armed opposition were granted amnesty at the end of March. The men had taken part in armed clashes in Tavildar, a mountainous region to the east of Dushanbe, in the fall of 2009. Several dozen militants who had been sentenced to death or long prison terms also had their sentences mitigated.
The nation appreciated the measures. “Many of those accused of terrorism and extremism received excessive jail terms and this may trigger the further deterioration of the situation,” says Abdugani Mamadzimov, the president of the Association of Political Scientists. One more sign of the authorities’ readiness to mollify the regime came from Mahmadsaid Ubaidulloyev, Speaker of the upper house of parliament and the Mayor of Dushanbe. Saying that “the situation in a number of countries has deteriorated sporadically due to social and economic problems,” he recommended that the Prosecutor General and law enforcement agencies “take measures to defend stability and order, tighten control over the observance of law, and avoid encroachments on individual rights.”
“The Speaker’s statement was a preventive measure because we don’t have a revolutionary situation at the moment,” Mamadzimov said in an attempt to ease apprehensions among political experts. It is true that the country has no political force or popular leaders ready to resort to decisive action to oust Rahmon’s regime. Moreover, the pressure in the “furnace” of protests has so far been effectively eased out by the activity of two legal opposition parties (the country has eight parties in all), including the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, the region’s only party founded on the faith-based principle.
At the same time, the parliament tightened legislation regulating rallies and social events in May 2011. The legislature banned party conferences, which “give rise to street marches and riots,” as the Speaker of the lower house of parliament, Shukurjon Zuhurov, said in public. The parliament also amended the police law to allow security forces to open fire to break up unauthorized demonstrations. Tajik Deputy Interior Minister Said Jurakhonov said the move was necessary because of recent events in Kyrgyzstan after the overthrow of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev.
In his address to the European Parliament in early June 2011, Rahmon explained the tightening of his domestic policy as a desire to pre-empt “extremist and terrorist acts.” At the same time, he insisted that “the accusations made by some circles against Dushanbe that such steps are a restriction of human freedom do not correspond to reality.”
The independent media – even though newspapers come out only once a week – is also a substantial factor in social and political life. Traditionally, vows of loyalty are not mandatory for journalists in Tajikistan and they are free to express their own opinions, which are sometimes very much in opposition to the regime.
The potential for protest in the Tajik sector of the Internet does not compare with the opportunities available in Arab countries. Not more than a quarter of Tajikistan’s population has access to the Internet, and those who have it are mostly government employees, students and people working for international organizations. Young people in their twenties are interested in entertainment portals and dating sites, and do not read many serious analytical or political sites, says Parvina Ibodova, chairperson of the Association of Internet Providers. In addition, access to the Internet is further complicated by high subscription fees in urban areas and it is next to impossible to get in rural areas due to problems with electricity.
When government officials need to tone down criticism from the media they choose the time-tested method of “consolidation of the nation in the face of an external threat.” The choice of pretexts is small – it is either that neighboring Uzbekistan “is putting up obstacles to the construction of the Rogun hydropower plant in Tajikistan” or some “influential circles in Russia are fanning anti-Tajik passions.”
The lingering fatigue from the civil war of the 1990s continues to play into the hands of the regime. Thousands of people were killed during the war or fled to Afghanistan and other countries. The national reconciliation achieved in 1997 has failed to reach its objectives. In time, the authorities started persecuting the opposition. Moreover, Rahmon began to persecute the most ambitious of his associates in a bid to tighten his own security. As a result, the regime has degraded into typical nepotism, where members of the president’s huge family (Rahmon is the father of nine children) and his townsmen control business and law enforcement agencies. Transparency International assesses the level of corruption in Tajikistan as not only one of the highest in the region, but one of the highest in the territory of the former Soviet Union.
Most of the people who are ready to fight against Rahmon’s regime with arms (estimates put their number at around 300) are dispersed and hiding in the mountains. Another several dozen Tajiks are ready to join them from abroad. It is noteworthy that this is the second generation of Tajik opposition that has failed to find a place for itself in contemporary society. They are the children of former members of the opposition and of People’s Front activists who have been affronted by their own government. Sources indicate, however, that the absence of a united leadership and the lack of financing means it is highly unlikely that these rebels will consolidate.
The government in Dushanbe launched efforts to stem the growing influence of Islam long before the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt. The campaign to close down unregistered mosques began in the summer of 2010 and the imams received precise instructions as to what they could say during their sermons. Rahmon said in the fall of 2010 that young Tajiks studying Islam “fall under the influence of extremists and turn into enemies.” The well-informed U.S. Internet site Eurasianet.org says the Tajik authorities forced some 1,400 students studying Islam in the Middle East, including 200 students in Iran, to return home in the fall of 2010. In December 2010, ninety children were banned from attending a school at the Iranian embassy in Dushanbe. Overall, measures to restrict the proliferation of Shiite Islam among the Sunni Tajiks have brought about a noticeable cooling in Tajik-Iranian relations.
U.S. sources leaked information in March suggesting that U.S. special forces deployed in Afghanistan had received permission to go into the territories of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan “for operations related to internal defense” upon prior consent. Eurasianet.org said the directive was issued by the U.S. Special Operations Command in August 2009. According to the document, a third group of Green Berets had been re-trained for operations under regional reorientation programs by February 1, 2010. Last year the Green Berets also took part in the elimination of militants who had entered Tajikistan from Afghan territory. The U.S. embassy in Tashkent said in a commentary to these reports that the U.S. Special Forces would continue routine military cooperation with the Armed Forces of Central Asian countries.
There is trust in such support in Tajikistan and hope that the U.S. will be unwilling to demand urgent reforms in Tajikistan while the U.S. seeks to make “the Tajik rear” of its Afghanistan operation secure. This allowed Rahmon to claim at the end of March that “an artificial acceleration of the movement along the path of democratization looks unreasonable.” But the risk of events starting to develop uncontrollably still exists. Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s regime was ousted several days after Russia had introduced a duty on lubricants and diesel fuel exported to Kyrgyzstan. On April 1, 2011, Moscow increased the export duty by an average of 16 percent on oil and petroleum products exported to Tajikistan. This may cause discontent among Tajik farmers, since the hike in tariffs came at the peak of spring planting.
Tajikistan has experienced a sharp increase in food prices in the past six months: flour prices rose 80 percent, sugar prices were up 25 percent and rice prices grew 23 percent. Considering the fact that 40 percent of Tajiks live below the poverty line, it is hard to predict what the social consequences of such price hikes may be. Moreover, no one knows if Tajik citizens heeded Rahmon’s advice he gave a year ago to stockpile foodstuffs in order to sustain themselves for a couple of years.
UZBEKISTAN: A WEARY AND FRAGILE STABILITY
It is not acceptable to discuss the Arab revolts in public in Uzbekistan. The government-controlled media rarely reports on a civil war unfolding somewhere in Libya. It is also true that the Uzbek press overlooked last year’s events across the border in Kyrgyzstan.
A sensitive analyst could hear some misgivings in a speech Uzbek President Islam Karimov made on March 21 to mark the Nowruz holiday. He called on Uzbek citizens “to safeguard social peace and inter-ethnic concord.” Rafik Saifulin, a local political scientist, does not see any grounds for drawing any analogies between the events in Arab countries and in Central Asia. Disregarding internal factors that are capable of undermining stability in Central Asian countries, he draws his conclusions exclusively from a lack of visible interest in regional destabilization on the part of external forces. Saifulin claims that the U.S. and the European Union need a steadily functioning Central Asia as a corridor with two-way traffic, meaning the transit of cargoes for the coalition forces in Afghanistan and the transit of oil and gas to Europe. The ruling regimes are not opposed to this.
Russian scholar Alexei Arbatov is confident that if revolts break out in countries like Tajikistan and Uzbekistan “they will be nipped in the bud fiercely and swiftly.” Presumably, his confidence stems from the stifled revolt in Adijan in May 2005. Even official sources put the number of the dead at almost 200 at the time, while unofficial sources said the figures were much higher. Uzbek authorities are already taking steps to put the Internet under their control. In March, the government agency for telecommunications and digital technologies issued a request to Internet providers to inform the government about any mass mailings with suspicious content. Moreover, the operators were told to disconnect users on a moment’s notice.
Uzbekistan’s status as a practically closed country played a prominent role in the disinformation campaign in late May 2011, when false reports were spread to several media outlets in Russia. The reports, which quoted unnamed sources in Uzbekistan, said that thousands of protesters had taken to the streets in Tashkent and towns in the Fergana Valley. However, as it turned out, the reports had nothing to do with reality. According to the independent and well-informed website Uzmetronom.com, several days later this surge of information activity in the Russian press caused Uzbek President Islam Karimov to initiate a telephone conversation with his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, to express his concern.
The lack of any reliable information from Uzbekistan about the potential for protest has forced analysts to make conclusions based on research conducted over many years by Vitaly Ponomaryov, the director of the Central Asian program of the Memorial human rights center. The latest report published in March 2011 analyzed the data on political persecutions in Uzbekistan in 2009 and 2010. It said that the surge of repressions at the end of 2009, which surpassed the scale of violence linked to the 2005 events in Andijan, “has become an integral feature of Uzbekistan’s everyday life and is embracing ever more sections of the population.” Ponomaryov claims that thousands of people wound up in prison simply because they studied Islam without authorization or discussed religious and political issues with friends.” The report states that the absence of clear-cut legal definitions of terms like ‘religious extremism’ and ‘fundamentalism’ creates a broad field for arbitrary justice against Muslim believers.
Given the specifics of the regime growing out of the personality of President Karimov, who is 73, the situation is not likely to change before the end of his rule. The possibility of a palace coup adds to the aforementioned threats to stability arising from grassroots protests, which are Islamic in form and social in character. A palace coup might be on the horizon if infighting among the elite for Karimov’s political legacy – a process he still keeps control over – falls into the same oscillation phase as the heightening social activity outside elitist groups. If this metamorphosis occurs as quickly as it did in neighboring Turkmenistan in December 2006, when Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov replaced Saparmurat Niyazov, the outside world will only have to reckon with a new reality.
MORE PROBLEMS EAST AND WEST OF THE CASPIAN
The image of the regime in Turkmenistan and its leader created by the international media fits very nicely into the widespread clichés regarding tyrannical rule: a leader who usurped power and portioned it out to people from his own clan, a suppressed nation, a personality cult, low living standards, a complete lack of democratic freedoms or an independent mass media, and a high level of xenophobia fuelled in society… And yet Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov remains a person with whom the international community feels quite comfortable shaking his hand. However, as the Arab turmoil has shown, this “menu” is no guarantee of either stability in a desert country with an abundance of hydrocarbons or the West’s loyalty if a crisis breaks out there.
Turkmen President Berdimuhamedov, 53, is the youngest Central Asian leader in terms of both his age and time in power. The measures he has taken to prevent possible violence are quite impressive. Shortly after the first reports on disorder in North Africa in February, he started making regular and unexpected trips to remote villages, scolding local bureaucrats for “the absence of essentials there,” and demanding that officials “urgently put things in order.” Turkmen television constantly broadcasts his care for the nation.
Control over everyone arriving from abroad – and especially from Turkey and the United Arab Emirates – has been tightened drastically. The authorities are obviously trying to “grab” those who left Egypt and the Middle East in general after the onset of the turmoil there. Through coordination with Turkish authorities, Turkmen citizens with expired visas have been deported from Turkey. Security procedures have been heightened in male prisons, especially in those where people convicted for group crimes, i.e. men capable of organizing communities, are kept. The government has taken steps to intensify control over Islamic religious communities, particularly those which are isolated in the country’s West. Special attention is being given to families and clans linked to the Turkmen community in Iran, which has become considerably radicalized of late. The group has intensified its opposition to the Iranian Shiites and is attempting to export “pure Islam” to the territory of Turkmenistan.
Berdimuhamedov has adopted extraordinary measures to enhance his personal safety. To ensure the secure movement of the presidential motorcade, not only the city streets are closed off, but also all the crossroads along the presidential route, two parallel streets and all perpendicular streets. People living in houses along “protocol roads” have been instructed to close their curtains and not have guests over when the motorcade is going past. Schedules with large intervals have been made to ensure that this takes place.
Naturally, external factors are seen as the most likely sources of threats to the regime. Ashgabat has strained relations with Azerbaijan, Russia, Iran and Uzbekistan. All of this has forced the authorities to seek support in the West and make ever more new concessions at talks on the price of Turkmen natural gas sold to Europe.
The situation in Azerbaijan resembles that of Turkmenistan. However, opposition to the authorities is quite open in Azerbaijan, with the Islamists being the most active. Their calls for the renewal of Islam evoke response among people whose devotion to religion looks more like a commitment to ethnic identity. Some Azerbaijani observers believe that the “religious threat” is small enough and is linked to society’s demand for ideas that would offer an alternative to the government’s ideology. Many Azerbaijanis living in rural areas find everything connected with the authorities’ ideology mean and sinful.
A Public Council set up as an alternative to the parliament, which was elected last fall in elections the opposition claims were illegitimate, is trying to pool together all the sections of society which are not happy with the government. However, attempts by the opposition to bring people to the streets and start talks with the government have encountered tough resistance from the latter.
Moreover, the Azerbaijani leadership, like the leaderships of some Central Asian countries, is always ready to resort to the well-tested method of rechanneling the mood of protest to protecting sovereignty and territorial integrity and fighting for the liberation of areas occupied by Armenia. In spite of the seemingly stormy rallies and street actions in Azerbaijan, the possibility of serious social upheavals in that country does not seem to be very large. President Ilham Aliyev promptly reacts to events, even though he mostly relies on “the reserve of durability” left to him by his late father Heydar Aliyev, a patriarch of politics in the South Caucasus.
The situation is similar in Kazakhstan, where President Nursultan Nazarbayev has received a new lease of legitimacy in yet another early presidential election. Yelbasi (“National Leader,” his official Kazakh title, legally established in 2010) treats the victorious election returns without any signs of self-consciousness. Someone else might find disturbing the 95 percent votes in his favor amid a 90-percent turnout at polling stations, but he does not.
William Courtney, the first U.S. ambassador to an independent Kazakhstan who clearly sympathized with Yelbasi in the early 1990s, wrote in The New York Times: “At 70, Nazarbayev is eager for a place in history as the father of his country. To deserve it he must usher in political reforms, such as independent media and judges, free and fair elections, and just governance. No sign of this is visible.” If this does not happen, then one cannot rule out an unpredictable development of events.