The Arab Revolts: Impact on Central Asia

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.


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.