BISHKEK, Feb 27, 2011 (IPS) – As revolutions and popular protests against dictatorships spread across northern Africa and the Middle East, questions are being raised whether they will inspire similar uprisings in Central Asia. Activists say that it is now a question of when, not if, regime change comes in the region.
“There are parallels between Egypt and Central Asia. In some countries in the region conditions for protest are growing. In others, there may be a revolution tomorrow or it may be in five years, but either way regime change is inevitable, it is just a question of when,” Alisher Ilkhamov who works on Uzbek issues for the Open Society Foundation in London, told IPS.
The resource-rich and increasingly strategically important region of Central Asia has some of the world’s worst dictatorships.
Uzbekistan is widely regarded as having one of the most brutal dictatorships on the planet with state-sanctioned torture, including the boiling alive of prisoners, corruption, and religious and political persecution all rife.
Turkmenistan is seen as little better, while regimes in Tajikistan and Kazakhstan are less cruel but remain in the complete control of powerful dictator presidencies.
The similarities between the absolute dictatorships in Central Asia and those which have been brought down in the past two months in northern Africa are clear, according to many analysts.
But they also say that for a variety of reasons, including fear instilled in populations by sometimes decades of brutal repression at the hands of state security forces, popular uprisings that would force rulers from power are unlikely soon.
Following the revolution in Egypt protestors have spoken of how social networks and the Internet were used to mobilise demonstrators and counteract government propaganda.
The role of local Muslim groups and leaders and potential political opposition movements was also key. The Egyptian army, which was widely seen by Egyptians as a trusted institution throughout the crisis, was another vital element.
In the Central Asian dictatorships, however, meaningful opposition has been eradicated over decades, third sector groups have little or no influence and, in Uzbekistan in particular, where state forces massacred hundreds of people who took to the streets in a protest in the city of Andizhan in 2005, locals have no faith in state security forces.
Religious, particularly Muslim, groups have been repressed and portrayed as extremists and terrorists and do not have the status or influence in society which the Muslim Brotherhood has in Egypt. State control of media and what little Internet access exists among local populations is also virtually complete.
Sherzod Azimov, a photographer in the Uzbek capital Tashkent, told IPS: “Uzbekistan exists in a virtual vacuum. Twitter, Facebook and other social networks are not widespread and popular, Internet connections are not good and foreign media are not present.
“Local media is under tight government control and there is no political opposition inside – legal or illegal. There is no united and organised opposition outside, no sponsors who could support any uprising, no people with opposing views in either the army, police or media who are waiting for the right time to start protests. And the 2005 Andizhan massacre cannot be forgotten. People are afraid.”
Also, while Western governments may have thrown their weight behind regime changes in Tunisia and Egypt and backed protestors in Libya they may be more reluctant to do so in Central Asia, some analysts believe.
Justinus Pimpe, an analyst at the Eastern Europe Studies Centre in Vilnius, told IPS: “The USA has far bigger interests, political and economic, in Central Asian countries and would use its influence to prevent any rebellion or upheavals to protect those interests.
“Central Asia is crucial for the U.S. war on terror and operations in Afghanistan while also important for maintaining, and ensuring the growth, of hydrocarbon exports to both the West and the East.”
The driving reasons behind the revolutions in northern Africa – unemployment, economic hardship and rising food prices – are also, at least on paper, relatively absent in Central Asia.
This month Uzbekistan was rated as one of the top ten fastest growing economies in the world by the Economist Intelligence Unit. Turkmenistan holds the world’s fourth-largest reserves of natural gas while Kazakhstan boasts over three per cent of the world’s recoverable oil reserves.
But warnings are being sounded that the region could soon see unrest over worsening economic conditions.
The World Bank said last week that a spike in food prices that has seen tens of millions of people in developing countries pushed into poverty could lead to instability across the region. Poverty is widespread and many people spend more than 50 percent of their income on foodstuffs.
The World Bank also warned that remittances, which form a large part of the income of many millions of families in the region, had been hit by the global economic crisis.
Kyrgyzstan is the only Central Asian state to have experienced revolutions – two in the past six years – and protests are common with ethnic tensions rarely far from bubbling over.
But local media last week warned of potential protests over soaring food prices amid crippling inflation.
The International Monetary Fund has warned of high inflation becoming entrenched and independent economic groups are forecasting 20 percent inflation for Kyrgyzstan this year. Labour unrest has also been predicted if the government does not go ahead with a pledged pay hike for health sector workers and teachers.
Migration has, analysts say, also suppressed labour tensions for many years in the region. But any change in the current relatively easy access to Russia’s labour market could set off what some have said would be “an explosion” of unrest in Central Asia.
Ilkhamov told IPS: “A lot of people in Central Asia can migrate to Russia which means that a lid is kept on problems, specifically labour tensions. If there was not this option then in Uzbekistan in particular the situation would just explode.
“Politically Russia says that it welcomes migrant labour for its economy, but there is a degree of severe and violent antipathy towards immigrants (from Central Asia) in the local population which politicians must be aware of. If Russia introduced visa requirements for migrants from Central Asia, there would be problems.”
Experts in the region believe that its dictators will be watching growing unrest in North Africa and the Middle East with concern and say they are likely to increase the repressiveness of their regimes – a move which will only worsen their situation in the long run.
Sukhrobjon Ismoilov, the head of the Expert Working Group – an Uzbek human rights and political think-tank – said in a statement given to IPS that “Central Asian authoritarian regimes will turn to a mixture of repression, increased state of vigilance, superfluous social protection of the population and cosmetic changes in order to mitigate their situations. But it is known that repression only drives problems inwards.”
He added that even in Uzbekistan, where fear of state repression is pervasive, authorities will need to address “fundamental human rights and freedoms, poverty, massive unemployment and corruption or face the prospect of soon turning into an arena of serious upheaval on the same scale as Egypt has faced.”
Bahadir Namazov, an opposition activist and head of the Uzbek dissident movement Prisoners of Conscience, told IPS even the brutal regime in his country could not last indefinitely.
He said: “The opposition, both secular and religious, has been completely destroyed. The few independent human rights defenders still in Uzbekistan are scattered and their protests are few and inefficient. The fear of violent reprisals by the authorities still runs deep within the people and no one so far wants to take to the streets.
“But as they say – nothing lasts forever.”