Central Asia: The New Arab Spring?

by Griffin W. Huschke

UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg meets with Kazakhstan President Nazarbayev

The uprising in Tunisia spread with surprising contagion to its Arab neighbors, and the question that’s been on everyone’s mind is where it would spread to next.  Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Egypt, and even Saudi Arabia have seen protestors take to the streets to demand more political freedoms and economic opportunities, but the scuttlebutt around DC is that the transatlantic community should be thinking about how to respond to instability in Central Asia.

When you think about it, Central Asia has a lot of the trappings that made MENA ripe for revolution.  High unemployment, and lack of economic opportunities?  Yep.  A youthful population dissatisfied with the status quo?  Check.  Stifling political climate ruled with an iron fist by calcified oligarchs?  Yahtzee.  Indeed, all of these factors came to a head a last year, when rioters protesting governmental corruption started a wave of demonstrations that toppled Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev and installed a new government that promises to have free elections in the country’s history.

Looking at other countries in the region, though, it’s difficult to see where the next strong-man will fall.  A popular revolution is unlikely in Kazakhstan, as President Nazarbayev seems to enjoy a lot of popularity thanks to his country’s petroleum-fueled economic boom (and, for some reason, a lot of good press coverage for someone who just stole an election) and we haven’t seen any signs of popular agitation in Turkmenistan in a very long time.  The Land of the Turkmen also has such a low level of internet penetration (1.6% of people in-country have internet access), that its unlikely would-be activists could organize themselves in a way that made the Arab revolutions so successful.

That leaves Tajikistan and Uzbekistan on as the greatest sources of potential popular instability.  We’ve talked before about Islam Karimov’s internecine response to the 1991 protests in Andijan, where possibly thousands of people lost their lives after demonstrating against the regime.  But as my former professor Russel Zanka rightly points out, popular agitation has been out of vogue since the massacre in the Fergana Valley, where people are still terrified into submission by local security forces.   This may also be similar to the denizens of Tajikistan, who, after a withering six-year civil war, have largely accepted the government’s iron-fisted and somewhat ham-handed governance in exchange for moderate (if uneven) economic growth.

While the brains in the strategic planning departments of the transatlantic community may be drawing up their color-coded schemes for intervention in Central Asia, I wouldn’t hold my breath. The Arab Spring is a unique event, and Central Asian countries are a lot different in a number of different ways.  What the transatlantic community can do, however, is remind our allies in Central Asia of Honsi Mubarak’s fate after he was disposed, and hypothesize that some political reforms may go a ways towards satiating a population hungry for political rights.  Uprisings in Central Asia might not be imminent, but we should still try to use their specter to push our friends in the region on a straighter path to democracy.

Griffin W. Huschke is the Mayme and Herb Frank Fund Research Fellow at the Streit Council. Photo Credit: Cabinet Office (http://www.flickr.com/photos/cabinetoffice/5223605189/sizes/z/in/photostream/)

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