Scott Radnitz has a provocative take in Foreign Policy:
On the surface, Central Asia would appear to be ripe for a popular uprising modeled on the Arab Spring. The “stans” are home to repressive governments, high unemployment, inequality, and widespread corruption. Over a year has passed since the wave of protests began to spread across the Arab world. Yet there’s been no comparable sign of popular discontent in this other Muslim-majority region…
Or, more accurately, criminality is integral to the functioning of the system. It is no secret that in Central Asia many government jobs are for sale. People who can afford a lucrative post, whether operating a state agency or running a province, can expect to get a return on their investment. Rulers understand that their subordinates are greedy, and allow them to exploit their position as long as they also perform their basic duties, such as keeping order in the provinces or passing on revenues to the state budget. (This arrangement resembles a practice in pre-revolutionary France called tax farming.) …
Thus, we see a picture of dictatorship that is far from the orderly, meticulous image dictators seek to project. Central Asia’s leaders have distinguished themselves as expert managers of greed and graft, but because this system rests on informal agreements and depends on the personality of the ruler, it is also fragile. The episodes above hint at possible troubles, but the possibilities are more alarming when we consider historical examples of how apparent stability can suddenly give way to instability on a massive scale. What could cause such a breakdown in Central Asia?
There’s a lot to unpack here. I understand the need for framing, but “Arabs are Muslim and Central Asians are Muslims so why aren’t they behaving the same” is an awful frame (I will assume that was decided by the FP editors, since they’ve done similar things to other authors). Radnitz goes on to wonder if the lack of succession for the tyrans of the region is the most likely flashpoint for a sudden breakdown of order.
It’s a compelling story, with one exception: Turkmenistan. The one country where you’d expect a secretive palace politics would lead to a massive breakdown in order and control after a tyrant’s sudden passing, in Turkmenistan we instead saw an orderly consolidation of the local elites to discard the established succession laws and emplace Berdimuhamedov as the new replacement tyrant. In return, the elites of the country — who profit handsomely from the country’s vast gas reserves — continue to profit handsomely from their positions.
Despite the lack of known succession plans in Kazakhstan, this is the most likely result when Nazarbayev kicks it. Right now, the current elite structure benefits greatly from the status quo, so it’s likely that they will organize to continue that status quo when the top becomes a vacuum.
In Uzbekistan, there’s likely to be at least an attempt to maintain a similar continuation when Karimov dies. Despite the grand warnings of total chaos when he kicks it, in all likelihood there will be at least an attempt by the current elite class to consolidate power and just replace the dictator at the top. Using Radnitz’s hypothesis that it’s the distribution of loot that solidifies regime stability, Uzbekistan’s many economic issues could come into play in that scenario, but there’s no way to know if that would be the case.
However, this is where Radnitz’s piece doesn’t quite gel together. His title, intro, and conclusion reference the Arab Spring and Tahir Square. In most cases, those events, collectively, were masses of normal people agitating for regime change — not the collected elites of a given system. Radnitz does not actually discuss why the people of Central Asia are not taking to the streets to demand freedom and whatnot (he also elides past the fact that so far, Tahir Square in Egypt hasn’t really altered the oppression of democracy activists there but that’s probably another post).
In this case, the repressiveness of the Central Asia regimes might offer a clue. The December riots and massacre in Zhanaozen, Kazakhstan, did not prompt massive demonstrations in support of the victims elsewhere in the country. In Uzbekistan, a brief protest movement in Andijon in 2005 led to years of increased oppression but never a repeat of the massive protest that preceded the killing. In Turkmenistan, regime control is so tight that even rappers have to toe a very uncertain line about upsetting the authorities. And in Tajikistan, it’s unclear that there is much of a movement against the Rahmon regime at all, to say anything of a growing society-wide movement.
It’s really only in Kyrgyzstan where we’ve seen a mass movement coalesce into a regime change. And many Kyrgyz I’ve spoken with have expressed frustration, even regret at what that’s done to their country (the constant upheaval has not exactly served most Kyrgyz well). Other regimes and other publics, too, look at what Kyrgyzstan has gone through trying to establish what the International Community would consider “normal” politics and see something to be avoided, not a shining example to replicate. Many Kyrgyz, too, openly express a desire for a Putin-like figure who can impose order on the chaos, rather than more voting and more turmoil.
So maybe that’s part of the answer as well. Central Asia’s first experiment with democratic revolution hasn’t exactly worked out for them. It makes it hard to argue that other countries — especially relatively well-off places like Kazakhstan — should try to replicate that for themselves.