Despite some obvious similarities, the wave of protests and violence that has been sweeping through the Middle East and North Africa differs in many ways from the challenges facing Central Asian nations. It is because of these important differences that events in the Arab world are unlikely to directly affect this region. No revolutions should be expected in Central Asia any time soon, although social discontent is mounting in the poorer areas, and wealthier countries will continue to stagnate without political reforms. At the same time, the tenuous stability in Central Asia will collapse if local dictators fail to learn from the events in the Arab world.
Poverty, unemployment and growing discontent are huge problems both in the Arab world and Central Asia. Each year it is becoming more difficult for the population to get basic necessities. The region has been mired in recession since the global financial crisis.
Rising food and fuel prices pose a serious threat to stability in the region. While Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are being kept afloat by oil and gas exports, Uzbekistan, and especially Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are in a very difficult situation. These countries have fewer natural resources while being much more densely populated. Corruption is also an important factor. Most of the wealth in these countries is controlled by a narrow circle of people around the authoritarian president. Nursultan Nazarbayev, Islam Karimov and Emomali Rahmon have been in power for about two decades.
The political systems have become extremely rigid over this time, which has, in turn, stifled their economies.
There are essentially no democratic freedoms, and the media are tightly controlled. The opposition, if any, is suppressed by any means necessary, from bribes to violence.
The conditions appear ripe for the kind of unrest that has upended the Arab world; and yet, all is quiet in Central Asia, and will likely remain so in the near term.
Why is this? It may be because Central Asian societies are not very politicized. They have a weaker middle class, and they also lack the communication channels that helped spread the revolutions in Tunisia or Egypt. Similarly, the educated youth, which led the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, are incapable of protesting against the regimes in Central Asia.
The status quo is also supported by the fact that the segment of the population most capable of starting an uprising is living and working in Russia. They send money home, which alleviates the discontent. This is especially true in the poorer countries.
Revolutionary impulses are also kept in check by the fresh memories of massacres committed in the past two decades, such as the Tajik civil war, the riots in Andijan, and the unrest in Kyrgyzstan. These nations’ proximity to unstable Afghanistan also contributes to the inaction.
It is also significant that Russia, the United States and China have a vested interested in the region’s stability. As a result, they don’t press Central Asian rulers over the slow pace of political reform.
However, this did not save Tunisia’s President Ben Ali or Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak from their fate. The Central Asian regimes should see the turmoil in the Arab world as their final warning.
The future of the former Soviet republics in Central Asia depends on whether the people of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan – the two key players in the region – manage to reform or overthrow their regimes. From an economic perspective, the conditions are much better for a revolution than in other countries in the region.
If the political changes that have started in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan turn out to be more than just window dressing, this will have a stabilizing effect on poorer nations, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, where potential unrest could be triggered not by the desire of freedom, but by social frustration and Islamic radicalism nourished by that frustration.
Everything depends on how successfully these countries handle their social and economic problems, first and foremost by modernizing their political systems.
Since the countries in the worst situation are incapable of eliminating poverty on their own, they must seek closer cooperation with stronger neighbors such as Kazakhstan, as well as with the great powers of the region, Russia and China. This could compromise poorer countries’ sovereignty, but it would certainly have a stabilizing effect.
Stability is extremely important in Central Asia, which is struggling with serious problems and does not need any new ones. But stability is impossible without significant political, economic and social changes.
Gabor Stier is foreign policy commentator and editor at the conservative Hungarian daily newspaper Magyar Nemzet