The Arab Revolts: Impact on Central Asia

Syn­op­sis
The rise of Islamist forces in the com­pli­cat­ed post-revolt tran­si­tion in the Mid­dle East and North Africa may have an impact on post-Sovi­et states in Cen­tral Asia, that are still strug­gling with tran­si­tion to democ­ra­cy or have yet to expe­ri­ence pop­u­lar revolts.

Com­men­tary

Two years ago, the scenes in the Kyr­gyz cap­i­tal of Bishkek resem­bled those in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in the last 18 months. Mass anti-gov­ern­ment protests demand­ing an end to auto­crat­ic rule top­pled the country’s ruler despite attempts by secu­ri­ty forces to squash them. The protests paved the way for pres­i­den­tial elec­tions con­test­ed by a for­mer prime min­is­ter under the ancient regime and a host of Islamist and non-Islamist can­di­dates.

The Kyr­gyz vot­ers chose their for­mer prime min­is­ter, Almazbek Atam­bayev as Cen­tral Asia’s first demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly elect­ed pres­i­dent. Two years lat­er Mohammed Mor­si, a leader of the long out­lawed Mus­lim Broth­er­hood, was elect­ed pres­i­dent of a post-revolt Egypt. Though the results may be dif­fer­ent the elec­tions rep­re­sent two sides of a fun­da­men­tal issue that both Cen­tral Asia and the Mid­dle East and North Africa are grap­pling with: the rise of reli­gious par­ties in their pol­i­tics and pub­lic life.

Decades of neglect­ed dis­con­tent in the Mid­dle East and North Africa erupt­ed in Decem­ber 2010 in Tunisia, spark­ing a wave of pop­u­lar revolts that has top­pled the lead­ers of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, foment­ed a civ­il war in Syr­ia and has oth­er Arab lead­ers scram­bling to avoid being next.

Dis­con­tent is sim­i­lar­ly sim­mer­ing in the Cen­tral Asia region where half of the pop­u­la­tion is below the age of 30, and the con­stituent coun­tries are large­ly ruled by for­mer Sovi­et Com­mu­nist Par­ty boss­es who became the pres­i­dents of Kaza­khstan, Kyr­gyzs­tan, Uzbek­istan, Turk­menistan and Tajik­istan upon the demise and breakup of the Sovi­et Union. With coun­tries like Turk­menistan and Uzbek­istan ranked among the world’s worst vio­la­tors of basic free­doms, the region is feel­ing the impact of the revolts in the Arab world.

How­ev­er, Cen­tral Asia’s sus­tained sup­pres­sion of regime crit­ics, includ­ing Islamists, and its efforts to severe­ly cur­tail expres­sions of reli­gion is buck­ing the trend towards a greater pub­lic role for reli­gion seen in West Asia, such as the suc­cess of Prime Min­is­ter Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Jus­tice and Devel­op­ment Par­ty (AKP) in Turkey and the rise of Islamists in the Mid­dle East and North Africa as well as the grow­ing influ­ence of Chris­t­ian evan­ge­lists in the Unit­ed States.

A com­bustible mix

At a recent inter-faith meet­ing in Kaza­khstan, a Chris­t­ian par­tic­i­pant was quot­ed by The Nation­al news­pa­per of the Unit­ed Arab Repub­lic as say­ing: “The removal of reli­gion from the soci­ety also removes the val­ues of the soci­ety. The athe­ist soci­eties of the 20th cen­tu­ry failed and were swept away. Faith is a nat­ur­al desire of a human being. Soci­eties that do not recog­nise this are not real­is­tic. They will fail as well.”

The sup­pres­sion of Islamist forces in the Cen­tral Asian republics of the for­mer Sovi­et Union serves not only to main­tain auto­crat­ic rule in most of the new­ly inde­pen­dent states but also as a mech­a­nism for as long as it lasts to pre­serve sta­bil­i­ty in a region that shares a long bor­der with Afghanistan, Pak­istan and Iran where the con­flu­ence of reli­gion and pol­i­tics has pro­duced a com­bustible mix.

Sev­er­al of the Cen­tral Asian republics have expe­ri­enced cross bor­der attacks by Islam­ic mil­i­tants, Uzbek­istan is home to the jihadist Islam­ic Move­ment of Uzbek­istan (IMU), and Tajik­istan is still cop­ing with the after­math of a five-year civ­il war. A leader of the Islam­ic Renais­sance Par­ty (IRPT), Tajik­istan fore­most oppo­si­tion group, was recent­ly killed and anoth­er has dis­ap­peared in the rebel­lious province of Gorno-Badakhstan.

Pol­ish­ing tar­nished images

Nonethe­less, the fate of auto­crat­ic lead­ers in the Mid­dle East and North Africa holds a cau­tion­ary les­son for Cen­tral Asian lead­ers whose rai­son d’etre is main­tain­ing repres­sive auto­crat­ic pow­ers despite eco­nom­ic mis­man­age­ment and wide­spread cor­rup­tion. Some, like Uzbekistan’s Islam Kari­mov see soc­cer as a way to pol­ish their tar­nished image, a tac­tic that bought deposed Arab lead­ers time but ulti­mate­ly failed.

Kari­mov last year ordered author­i­ties to build new sta­di­ums, open new foot­ball schools, and expand train­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties for play­ers and ref­er­ees. The Uzbek leader hoped to cap­i­tal­ize on the fact that a Uzbek club won the Asian Foot­ball Cup last year as well as an ear­li­er suc­cess of the country’s Under-17 youth team. To cement his attempt to steal the show, Kari­mov per­suad­ed Span­ish giant Real Madrid to open a soc­cer school in Tashkent.

The moves did lit­tle to counter dis­con­tent, par­tic­u­lar­ly among soc­cer fans frus­trat­ed with cor­rup­tion in the sport. Clash­es among fans have tak­en the regime by sur­prise. In Guzar, it took secu­ri­ty forces a day to restore order after soc­cer riots that spilled into the town itself. Sim­i­lar inci­dents have erupt­ed in the Tajik cap­i­tal Dushanbe. Cel­e­bra­tions of the 100th anniver­sary of Uzbek soc­cer have repeat­ed­ly been post­poned because of delays in the com­ple­tion of Tashkent’s show­case 35,000-seat Bun­y­o­d­kor sta­di­um amid fears that fans were unlike­ly to show the nec­es­sary enthu­si­asm.

Kaza­khstan, Cen­tral Asia’s only mid­dle-income coun­try, last year expe­ri­enced its first sui­cide bomb­ing and sev­er­al lethal attacks on police offi­cers as a result of a crack­down on reli­gion and a dete­ri­o­rat­ing econ­o­my. Dis­con­tent in the volatile Fer­gana Val­ley recent­ly spilled into the streets of the Uzbek city of Andi­jan, where hun­dreds were killed dur­ing mass protests in 2005.

In break­ing with its Cen­tral Asian neigh­bours, post-revolt Kyr­gyzs­tan, like post-revolt Arab states,has allowed Islamist par­ties and groups to oper­ate open­ly in a bid to take the sting out of their bite. The expe­ri­ence of Turkey shows that giv­ing Islamists space has pro­duced what many see as a mod­el for the Mid­dle East and North Africa and per­haps for Cen­tral Asia too.

The rise to pow­er through the bal­lot box of Islamists in Egypt and Tunisia is forc­ing them to focus on their country’s eco­nom­ic prob­lems and to demon­strate their abil­i­ty to reach out to sec­u­lar and non-Mus­lim groups. While the jury is still out in Egypt and Tunisia, nonethe­less, it strength­ens the basis for inter­na­tion­al pres­sure on Cen­tral Asian auto­crats to loosen the reins and move towards greater trans­paren­cy and account­abil­i­ty. If that comes about it might well be the most last­ing impact of the Arab revolts on the post-Sovi­et states of Cen­tral Asia.

About The Author:
James M. Dorsey is a senior fel­low at the S. Rajarat­nam School of Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies at Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Uni­ver­si­ty in Sin­ga­pore and the author of the blog, The Tur­bu­lent World of Mid­dle East Soc­cer.

Team GlobDef

Team GlobDef

Seit 2001 ist GlobalDefence.net im Internet unterwegs, um mit eigenen Analysen, interessanten Kooperationen und umfassenden Informationen für einen spannenden Überblick der Weltlage zu sorgen. GlobalDefenc.net war dabei die erste deutschsprachige Internetseite, die mit dem Schwerpunkt Sicherheitspolitik außerhalb von Hochschulen oder Instituten aufgetreten ist.

Alle Beiträge ansehen von Team GlobDef →