Why Central Asia Isn’t Revolting

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by Joshua Foust on 2/20/2012 · 15 comments

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.

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– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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R.Duke February 20, 2012 at 4:46 pm

This is a tough subject to dissect, to be fair, but explaining the reason why the Central Asian republics haven’t revolted is because of elite control doesn’t make too much sense to me as elite control exists everywhere including the Middle East. The Mubarak regime in Egypt was extremely beneficial to many if not most of the elites there.

I think a more accurate explanation might delve deeper in the the Republics history under the Soviet Union and the culture that developed from it. If your looking to find reasons why Central Asia hasn’t revolted against its autocrats, it more likely has to do with the fact that most of people in those countries grew up with the Soviet Union building a culture of loyalty to the state and brutally repressing dissent.

Your comments on Kyrgyz public opinion mirror my own experience.

Brad Pierce February 20, 2012 at 7:14 pm

“high unemployment, inequality, and widespread corruption”
This is the exact situation here in Spain and nobody thinks that there’s going to be a Revolution or an uprising. I know there are a lot of different considerations that should be also taken into account, I agree with most of the article.

Nate Schenkkan February 21, 2012 at 7:13 am

The Arab Spring frame just won’t die for Kazakhstan. It’s a shame, because it really is irrelevant to what’s happening here, and it’s obscuring what is actually some intelligent discussion going on within the country.

The fundamental source of discontent in western Kazakhstan is a massive demographic shift as immigrants and internal migrants move to the western oblasts chasing the oil money. As they’ve done that, infrastructure has failed to keep pace — in particular, housing — so that there is a decisive shortage of what people need. Prices rise as the shortages intensify, and the amount of work to go around is less than the number of people willing to migrate. People don’t work, they pay high prices, they get angry.

The government is trying to design development plans that will solve these problems, but can’t seem to figure out how to come at it. On the one hand, their instinct is to pour money into places like Zhanaozen to fix the problem, but when they do that, it just draws more people to towns that don’t have the economic base to support them. On the other hand, when they abandon unprofitable villages and towns (as is planned in the national development program), more people migrate, and mostly head west.

None of this has anything to do with the Arab Spring, and everything to do with a booming economy in one part of a big country, combined with a busted economy in another part (the south, as well as the rest of Central Asia).

Wendell Schwab February 21, 2012 at 8:07 am

Nate, that is a great comment. I might add that there are some cultural issues – in addition to the economic issues you mention – that cause dissatisfaction among parts of the Kazakhstani population: e.g., Kazakh nationalists seeking more Kazakh-language schools and media, Russians who feel they are discriminated against, pious Muslims who want to remake society and government in a more explicitly Islamic mold, etc.

The “Arab Spring Frame” also ignores that Nazarbaev is actually popular and has brought genuine economic development to much of the country. (It should also be mentioned that discontent with a government – a la the Tea Party or the Occupy movements – does not necessarily mean popular revolt.)

Nate Schenkkan February 21, 2012 at 4:16 pm

Absolutely the cultural issues are present. The relevance of the “Arab Spring” is that Kazakhstan is also experiencing, on a delayed release, a similar wave of Islamic sentiment closely bound to a narrative of American imperialism and discrimination, combined with the daily humiliation of disenfranchised Muslim men by their own government. And Russians have both left and are leaving the country — that is the other part of the demographic shift I didn’t mention — in part because they feel this is not their country anymore, in part because the economic opportunities are often better in Russia.

On Nazarbayev’s popularity: honestly, I’ve not yet found that much support for him in the West of the country. It may be I’m talking to the wrong people, though I’m not just consorting with opposition folk. But I hear a lot of acceptance that people can’t change things, as opposed to active support for NN.

The other part that shouldn’t be neglected is local administration. Cities like Aktau and Zhanaozen in Mangystau have been visibly neglected, despite the funds that have been sent there from the national budget. Atyrau, on the other hand, is being quite well maintained by comparison and has had decent infrastructure development over the last ten years. This stuff makes a huge difference.

Agajan February 21, 2012 at 8:14 am

How u can write like that?! Did u been Turkmenistan ? We are turkmens no like arabian, we love Turkmenistan , we don’t need war,
Look at Libia now- kaddaffi dead and now peoples living in peace !? There is democracy now? We only independent 20 years only, we need time to show how Turkmenistan beautiful and rich, and peaceful place in the world!

And author if u didnt been Turkmenistan , don’t write bull sh..t!
Because other countries they don’t as help, they only looking petrol and gas reserve

upyernoz February 21, 2012 at 10:47 am

this is similar to what foust wrote, but i think the reason that central asians are not revolting is because they haven’t seen a positive model for a revolt. the arab spring spread because (a) arabs in different countries saw themselves as essentially alike (i.e. the pan-arabist spirit of the 50s and 60s wasn’t totally dead, and was resuscitated somewhat by the pan-arabist al-jazeera and al-arabiyya networks), and (b) the first “arab spring” protest (tunisia) had seemed to go well. the fact that things have gone worse in later arab spring revolts has also stopped new springs from popping up in 2012. (egypt was more violent and most ambiguous in its outcome than tunisia, then libya, bahrain and yemen all represent worse scenarios for the would-be activist in another arab country, and now syria seems to be topping them all in terms of body count and brutality)

neither of those factors are present in central asia. the average central asian doesn’t view the arabs as like them, and the only potential example of a successful uprising (kyrgyzstan) has entered the public conscience more as an example of chaos and disorder than as a story of liberation.

Guy Fawkes February 21, 2012 at 1:42 pm

This is the common fallacy of the western mind: if the countries names end with -stan than they all should look like Arabs, pakistanis, whoever those Muslims look like, wear turbans and long beards and be uneducated, have similar dictators for leaders, live in caves. So, if one of them revolts, all should revolt.

It is an understatement to say that Arab countries, their religion and culture has no bearing or influence on Central Asia. This is something that always avoids western thinking. I find that especially Americans tend to think along religious lines and most of the rational they come up with is rooted in religion. “He is a Catholic, so he must have 10 kids, probably doesn’t believe in contraception. He is a Protestant, he must work hard. He is Muslim so he polygamous, eat lamb and live in desert.” Before you all start burning my effigy let me tell you that I am not talking about those tiny minority that learns about other countries but I am talking about 95% of population whose rational is rooted in religion. S if -stans are Muslim, they should follow Arabs and what works for Arabs should work for Central Asia. The Arab countries are not the the goose and Central Asia is not the gander. They are two different species.

A revolt in Russia would give impetus to a revolt in Central Asia, given cultural and business ties nothing that happens in Arab countries can influence what happens in Central Asia, stop thinking along religious lines and stop putting Central Asia in the same basket with the Arab countries. Religion doesn’t mean a s&^%, and cannot serve something that binds these two regions of the world.

upyernoz February 21, 2012 at 2:13 pm

nothing that happens in Arab countries can influence what happens in Central Asia

i think that’s going too far. there are ties between the arab world and central asia (the UAE has a fair amount of investment in kazakhstan, for example). but even without that, sometimes influence comes from unexpected directions. the arab spring probably had some influence on the occupy wall street movement in the u.s. and the initial stages of the arab spring was directly influenced by the serbian “otpor!” movement. (plus the name “arab spring” is itself influenced by the prague spring). there doesn’t have to have close cultural or business ties for there to be influence.

Guy Fawkes February 21, 2012 at 2:41 pm

yes, I was exaggerating the differences between the Arab countries and the Central Asia but you get the point

Said khodja February 21, 2012 at 9:28 pm

I support author’s position. Zhanaozen did not create in general support among Kazakhs ( especially among clerks and elite in Astana). Arab Spring, I think is impossible in Kazakhstan for next couple of years. Majority of people still have work places, stable salary ranges . Government is building infrastructure (railroad to Beiney) , universities (Nazarbayev University). Arab Sprign even increased positions of Power in KZ as image of violent uprising which led to destruction of country. Kazakhs in genera are loyal to power ( our Soviet habitus )

Charles Marlowe February 22, 2012 at 2:36 am

I think you mean ‘Tahrir Square.’ I think Agajan’s comments on Turkmenistan (even if a bit on the emotional side), are relevant to your recent discussions of Turkmenistan. The point is simply that *most* Turkmens are very tolerant of the situation (and have been for many years), and even if they are frustrated, they believe in a better future, and are extremely worried about violence erupting in their country. Moreover, the desires of the average Turkmen citizen–go on a polling tour of former kolhozes throughout the country if you don’t believe me–does not necessarily strive for many of the things that the West believes they should strive for. There is little appetite for political engagement, a heavy focus on family and immediate community, a generally insular culture that is (and has long been) quite self-sufficient, an acceptance/understanding of corruption and graft at nearly every level. I’m not saying that Turkmenistan is the way it should be, but simply that the particular culture of the country (even distinguishing it from the neighbouring Central Asian cultures) does not predispose it to homegrown revolt. The irony, of course, is that only 150 years ago, the Turkmens were feared throughout the region as the fiercest, most independent ‘desert pirates’ . . . but those days are long gone. A combination of Soviet oppression, acculturation and education, the tribalism and regionalism that continues to obtain, plus the realities of the brutal climate, and finally the ‘boon’ of gas and oil (and the rentierism that it has enabled) all militate against a polity that is willing to collectively remake itself by ‘new rules,’ even if, intellectually, the principles and objectives of the Arab Spring make sense to many Turkmen citizens. The point is, not only can we note equate the situation in Egypt with that in Europe, but we also should not ‘expect a breakdown’ based on a political and socio-economic culture that we simply do not understand. Those of us who knew and know Turkmenistan and its culture (not just that of the elites) did not expect chaos upon Niyazov’s death . . . in fact, what did, in fact, happen was entirely consistent with our understanding of the place and its people.

Yomuslug February 26, 2012 at 11:11 am

With a strong oversimplification implied, any anthropologist will tell you that there are two types of societies:

1) traditionally thinking societies (that have existed from paleolithic era up to modern days: more to the south and east)

2) rationally thinking societies (west)

Well, Central Asia happens to be a traditional society. Now, every kind of society has its own positive and negative aspects, and its not very simple.

NOt read this attentively: JUST ANY SORT OF REVOLT IN A TRADITIONAL SOCIETY is USELESS for it will not change anything. The problem is not the leaders of politician’s lie (after all all politicians lie both rational and traditional ones), the biggest problem is that there is no blueprint (YET) for a “break through” social project that would be good for all, viable, and sustainable. Such “magic road map” just does not exist. It does NOT exist either in the North/West or in the South/East.

Thus, revolt is the last resort of the people when they see that things get a way too bad but then again they understand very well that once a revolt has taken place, the same problems remain in place and never go anywhere for there are no solutions (and here I tend to think one should be talking about economic problems which basically is about energy, technology, and demography).

You see, when one group of clueless people is replaced by another group of clueless people nothing changes, right? Knowledge development is the key. The only way to change anything is through rapid education, education, and education (balance science and arts, just like gender). Through education — an introduction of a rational and critical (yet peaceful) thinking, then when it is in place — a comprehensive social dialogue becomes possible (there will be finally someone to talk and argue with).

And there is simply NO QUICK FIX(!!!) this is a LONG TERM road, it is definitely a good one and there is no substitute, no shortcut for this route.

As for the current elite, not only in Central Asia but in the World by and large, it looks like they are either loosing intellectual stamina or undergoing some sort of intellectual fatigue. Corruption is rampant everywhere in the world and is becoming a new norm.

Yomuslug February 26, 2012 at 11:12 am

please replace NOt with NOW in “NOt read this attentively”

Yomuslug February 26, 2012 at 11:13 am

please replace “of” with “or” in “of politician’s lie”

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