Don't Expect Mideast-Style Revolution in Central Asia > Articles

Skip to container

팝업레이어 알림

팝업레이어 알림이 없습니다.


사이트 내 전체검색
Don't Expect Mideast-Style Revolution in Central Asia
By Georgiy Voloshin


WHEN TUNISIAN protesters overthrew the 23-year-old regime of President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in January after a month of demonstrations, few in the West seriously expected the storm to eventually inundate the whole Middle East. But it looks like it has.


The spread of popular uprisings across the whole region, reaching Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Jordan, Bahrain, Algeria and Morocco, with Saudi Arabia and Qatar already fearing for their futures, is now posing a serious threat to other undemocratic regimes. The bloodbath in Libya shows how uncertain those futures might be. The inability of Western powers either to change the course of events or to accurately predict their likely direction only validates the already strong impression that even the most oppressive regimes can be torn down in a matter of days.


Could it now be the turn of Central Asia? A landlocked area at the heart of the Eurasian continent, comprised of the five ex-Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, it is the lair of a considerable fistful of strongmen. The idea of peaceful revolutions resembling the ones in Tunisia and Egypt is now being carefully considered by opposition parties. Although these parties may claim that an anti-authoritarian wave of popular discontent will soon roll up the borders of their respective countries to blow away their repressive regimes in a few weeks' time, it is not at all clear that Central Asia is in a position to experience a similar revolutionary tide.




At first blush, this faraway region may look too detached from the cauldron of global politics, unlike the Middle East, where every revolution or coup d'état sends reverberations rippling across neighboring territories. But despite its remoteness, Central Asia is equally important to its powerful neighbors, represented by Russia and China, and distant players such as the United States or Europe, both as the European Union and some of its member states.

For the US, Central Asia is a linchpin of its political and military undertakings in "Greater" Central Asia (as it was invented back in Washington). The region provides a natural connection to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and, if this logic is traced further, south to the Persian Gulf. For Europe, Central Asia is an important source of energy supplies (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan being the principal interested parties), especially at a time when Russia's energy policy towards its Western clients has become a tool of political bargaining.

For Russia and China, the region is also vital in terms of energy and physical security, with both fearful of Islamist ideologies and drug trafficking. The presence of other political interests originating from Tehran, Ankara or New Delhi only adds to the concerns.

One may have often heard outright calls for regime change in Iran or for speedy replacement of some over-corrupt government officials in Afghanistan, but all moves capable of interfering with Central Asia's internal politics have been assiduously avoided. The US and the EU were very critical of the handling by Uzbek authorities of 2005 uprisings in Andijan in which as many as 2,000 people are believed to have been killed by riot police. Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov responded to the criticism by closing down the US airbase at Karshi-Khanabad and scaling back on US-Uzbek cooperation in Afghanistan. Although the EU went so far as to impose economic sanctions on Uzbekistan, which were lifted only in October 2009, the country's economy, already quite self-sufficient, did not suffer much. On his latest visit to Brussels in January 2011, President Karimov was warmly welcomed by the President of the European Commission and the NATO Secretary General, who sought cooperative EU-Uzbek relations. In exchange for the EU's milder attitude, Karimov agreed to the opening of an EU delegation office in Tashkent, which has been blocked for years because of the Andijan incident.

The US dropped its critical rhetoric even before that, still hoping to restore severed ties. In Kyrgyzstan, where former president Kurmanbek Bakiyev repeatedly tried to evict US troops from the US airbase at Manas near Bishkek and thus had to be accommodated before he was ousted from power in 2010, the US moderated its rhetoric as well. What to say of the positions of Russia and China? They are traditionally interested in maintaining the status quo ante by supporting their regional allies and can hardly be expected to counter their resentful resistance to the Western powers' proclivity to preach democracy and human rights.

Therefore, there seem to be at least two enclosed spaces, the one existing inside each of the Central Asian republics, watchfully protected by their respective elites against destruction or transformation, and the other pertaining to the interests of powerful neighbors and their competitors, all of whom strive to preserve their interests. This double protection serves as a guarantee of the regimes' longevity. In the Middle East, no such enclosed spaces exist. The intrinsic interests of regional powers and extraneous forces differ to a degree where no compartmentalization is possible, thus creating a multitude of intersecting and interpenetrating spheres of influence.


Central Asia is home to two key regional security organizations, which are a direct response to the level of uncertainty in the region. Despite the fact that effective economic integration remains out of reach, as distrustful neighbors tend to pursue their egoistic policies regardless of their impact on the overall regional situation, military cooperation is much more visible and substantial.

The only economically active structure, the Russia-led Customs Union, in force since July 6, 2010, counts only a single Central Asian republic, Kazakhstan, among its three members. Military cooperation extends to all countries in the region, however, except for solidly neutral Turkmenistan. The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), dominated by Russia, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), spearheaded by China, act as safeguard mechanisms against potential threats from terrorism, extremism or separatism as well as armed attacks by foreign states.

Last year's overthrow of Bakiyev's regime in Kyrgyzstan was regarded by many as a litmus test for both organizations as they looked anxiously at the unfolding violence in the south of the country, where thousands of ethnic Uzbeks were massacred by a Kyrgyz mob. Neither the CSTO nor the SCO was ready to intervene. President Medvedev of Russia told the media that inter-ethnic clashes in Southern Kyrgyzstan had nothing to do with a "threat of military intervention."

As such, Kyrgyzstan's recent history may provide at least two good examples of a chaotic and volatile situation a few steps away from a real revolution, which was not dealt with by the regional organizations. The 2005 coup d'état ousting President Askar Akayev and the 2010 uprising that brought down Bakiyev's corrupt rule were both a kind of surprise for Russia and China. What matters here is that no drastic change ever materialized. Unlike what many believed back in 2005, Bakiyev was not as "pro-American" as is, for instance, Mikheil Saakashvili, the president of Georgia since 2004, who was brought to power as a result of a "color revolution." Nor did the 2010 revolt against the Kyrgyz president represent an existential threat to the neighboring regimes, as the rebels were mostly driven into the streets by sheer poverty and humiliation, not ideology. They did not attempt to change the rules of the game, unlike what we are seeing now in the Middle East.

At the same time, the CSTO and the SCO would be more likely to get involved in an Egyptian-style crisis, because they represent the particular interests of their most powerful members, who would be wary of an easily flammable reform movement catching fire.


Central Asia is, of course, also home to organizations other than military ones. In 2010, Kazakhstan assumed the chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and even called for a summit on Dec. 1, 2010, in which leaders of 56 member states took part. A few months later, a nationwide campaign for the abolition of presidential elections in 2012 and 2017 was launched, despite outspoken criticism from Brussels and Washington. Ultimately, the country's leadership did not find it suitable to pursue this truly undemocratic idea, and early presidential elections are now scheduled for April 3. This example clearly demonstrates the value of such organizations as the OSCE for the region's rulers, whose commitment to democracy and the rule of law is rather a smokescreen behind naked, sometimes cruel, pragmatism.




Lastly, the democratic experience of Central Asian republics is quite limited. Although the fallen regimes in Tunisia and Egypt were autocratic in nature, their populations have always been actively involved in all sorts of civic activities. The diversity of political parties, from ultra-conservative to ultra-liberal; the relative strength of civil society, which benefits from financial and other aid from various foreign organizations; the erudite leadership of pro-democracy movements — all of these factors tend to create an atmosphere favorable to democratic change. It may be true that the majority of protesters have no far-reaching political aspirations and are sometimes guided exclusively by their perception of social injustices as a driving force behind their dissenting voices. However, they are organized and educated by those who cherish more sophisticated ideas about what their societies should look like.


The Central Asian political landscape is not fully devoid of liberal, democratic political forces. But at the same time, broader groups of the population are reluctant to see major political and social transformations or to participate in them.


Tajikistan is plagued by dire poverty, its leaders constantly cracking down on those they consider to be dangerous Islamist elements bent on the destruction of incumbent political elites.


Turkmenistan has long suffered from the cult of personality of former president Saparmurat Niyazov and is sticking to its complete neutrality.


Uzbekistan, headed by Islam Karimov, has earned the reputation of being Central Asia's most oppressive regime, mostly due to the 2005 Andijan massacre, in which it dealt brutally with the aspirations of poverty-stricken dwellers of the Fergana Valley. Karimov later thanked Russian President Vladimir Putin for his support after Putin said he was pleased to discuss economic and security cooperation with the Uzbek president.


Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are regarded as more democratic and tolerant, though in the first, repression against the regime's opponents has recently intensified and the latter has not fully recovered from its post-revolutionary chaos.


However different they may be, these five countries share a unanimous perception of power, which is to keep it in the hands of authoritarian figures surrounded by close circles of counselors and family members, all profiting from their high standing.


Many observers of the revolutions in the Middle East stress the inevitability of popular revolt in places where disgruntlement with longtime rulers has outgrown the limits of people's patience. Why then not overthrow the inhumane regime of President Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, a country whose official currency was abolished because of hyperinflation and whose citizens live on less than a dollar per day?


The limits of this theory are evident. Central Asia is just one example of a region where persistent decades-long regimes survive, the likes of which turned out to be so fragile in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt. Interestingly, most of the Central Asian potentates brandish the bugaboo of chaos to forestall their grip on power being threatened. Together with great-power games and the weakness of grassroots organizations, which might otherwise be able to implement a peaceful transition and take responsibility for the consequences, this contributes to the effect of cementing the political status quo to the detriment of both present and future generations.


Georgiy Voloshin is a field reporter from Kazakhstan for the Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, the biweekly journal of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Centre.



Back to Issue
    With the Arab world gripped by turmoil as one autocratic regime after another falls, Georgiy Voloshin, a Kazakhstan-based field reporter for the Central Asia-Caucus Analyst, asks whether this chain of revolutions could extend to Central Asia, where local potentates keep their destinies hitched to the support of powerful neighbors and self-seeking businesses.
    Published: March 2011 (Vol.6 No.1)
    About the author

    Georgiy Voloshin is an analyst for the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University and the Jamestown Foundation. His website is at

    Download print PDF


No Reply

About Us Latest Issue Back Issues Article Search How to Subscribe Advertise with Us Submit an Article Forum Privacy Policy
Global Asia, The East Asia Foundation,
4th Fl, 116 Pirundae-ro, Jongno-gu,
Seoul, Korea 03035
Business Registration Number: 105-82-14071
Representative: Sung-Hwan Kim
Tel. +82 2 325 2604
This website
© 2016 by the
East Asia Foundation.
All rights reserved.