Change seems to come slowly to Central Asia.
January is the time of year that people like us brashly predict the developments that will reshape country X and fundamentally alter the course of world events. If we worked at Stratfor, we’d even be paid to have the brass to do so.
I think we’ve gotten used to not expecting much with Central Asia. The conversations I have with others of you who watch the region are peppered with how little to expect. So let’s run down the list of what not to look for in 2013.
Turkmenistan will make no real commitments on Nabucco or LNG exports to Europe. They will not abandon neutrality, despite the fact that they are not all that neutral. Between their obfuscation on gas and their tacit support on Afghanistan, we can expect yet another year of futile western policy on Turkmenistan in exchange. But, with new laws on the media, political parties, and a supposed privatization campaign to come, Berdy has promised to ‘Overcome difficulties and achieve all goals in 2013‘, meaning, of course, more absurd new buildings. I have been quietly pushing for an Ashgabat Metro for the city of 650,000 since 2007, but I don’t expect that either (yet). Alas, we’re only getting ground breaking on a stunningly ugly airport, big enough to handle the imaginary landings of Airbus A380s.
Kyrgyzstan seems perpetually ripe for the excitement of a total government collapse, but alas, the five year schedule doesn’t come around again until 2015. Tashiev and his jigit crew jumped the gun in 2012. Despite promises to the contrary, Atambayev will ‘evolve’ into allowing an extended US presence at the newly renamed the Manas the Magnanimous International Stability Center, or something. The government will extract another pound of flesh out of the Kumtor gold mine, but will neither nationalize nor assuage the concerns of foreign investors. All of this will secure more revenues for Bishkek elites while earning a pass on tackling the country’s perpetual budget crisis, setting us up well for a 2015 hellstorm of deficits, political battles, and elections. Not to mention the still-gaping wound of factional tensions and criminality in the south, a tinderbox that continues to smolder. Its hard to say what will happen in Kyrgyzstan in 2013, but it will likely to be more of the same. Which is to say, trouble.
Kazakhstan, the one people outside this clique kind of, sort of, care about, will go another year without a succession plan in place. Nazarbayev, who saw Yeltsin make the famous handoff-retire-pardon maneuver with Putin, doesn’t seem to be setting up Dariga, Timur, or Karim for the pharaoh’s throne. Whether unsettling waves of crime and attacks on the authorities will continue in 2013 may be one of few other trends to watch, though the government’s typically soviet responses (deny/ignore/punish) has kept the likelihood high. Rapid economic growth is growing a middle class, but slowly.
Tajikistan’s ever-more-ridiculous elections exercise will end predictably, as we all wonder how far Emomali Rakhmon can push his authority over economic and political life of the ostensibly conflict-averse population. Who among us has not thought that this was the year that the country would implode, divide into ungovernable de facto criminal states, and drag the whole region in. He’s gone ‘too far’ with the IRPT, HT, Pamiri clans, Turajonzoda’s clan, or myriad other rivals to maintain his power base. But, it has not happened yet, somehow, so we stop predicting it.
Uzbekistan will be the loudest voice in the region to hem and haw about the US/ISAF exit from Afghanistan and the dire threat that mess poses to its northern neighbors. State will underplay its hand with regional governments while fearing the ire of the Pentagon, which itself will overpay to keep the Central Asian dictators to hold the door for coalition forces as they leave. There will be even less clarity on succession here, as a seemingly less well Karimov sits on his teetering throne. Could Azimov hold the country together? Are rumors of a clan war brewing over business interests in Samarkand and Bukhoro true? Will Gulnara finally win that hard-earned record deal that sets her back on track?
Of course, leaders in their region, and many of their subjects, would consider this lack of political progress desirable. Perhaps the region is better for it, if the alternative to the status quo is not human rights, rule of law, and economic progress for all, but a total regional conflagration. But even Stratfor isn’t predicting that.