For the leaders of Central Asian states surrounding Kyrgyzstan, the early April upheaval in Bishkek constitutes a nightmare scenario: an angry mob looting the capital, marching on the seat of government and driving an authoritarian-minded leader from power. It is a fate no other Central Asian president wants to see happen elsewhere, and regional leaders are moving quickly to try to ensure that it doesn’t.
Central Asia’s rival powerhouses, namely Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, may share the same general opinion about Kyrgyz developments, but they have responded differently to the situation. Predictably, the region’s most autocratic rulers in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan opted immediately for isolation, the leadership and state-controlled media remaining largely silent on the political convulsions in the Kyrgyz capital.
In contrast, Kazakhstan – this year’s chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe – chose soft power: on the international front, diplomacy to defuse tension that threatened to spill over into more violence in Kyrgyzstan; and on the domestic front, gentle – if unsubtle – reminders to the people of Kazakhstan that they should prize their hard-won stability and relative economic prosperity.
The contrasting reactions reflect the different political environments in the states often misleadingly lumped together by international commentators as “the Stans.” In fact, in the over 20 years since the Soviet Union’s implosion, vast differences have emerged among Central Asian states. “The region is different in the level of political freedoms and liberal movements,” points out Aitolkyn Kourmanova, executive director of the Institute for Economic Strategies – Central Asia.
This is reflected in reactions to the crisis in Kyrgyzstan: Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan imposed information blockades in their tightly controlled local media, while Kazakhstan adopted a more circumspect approach. Tajikistan, which is poorer and enjoys none of the political clout of its energy-rich neighbors, did no more than express sympathy with Kyrgyzstan.
Tashkent and Ashgabat “will keep a tight grip on any possible protests,” Kourmanova told EurasiaNet.org, while in Kazakhstan “the soft power approach is seen to be more effective, particularly in view of the Kazakh chairmanship in the OSCE.”
The individual reactions of regional leaders reflect this variance. While expressing concern over the potential for disorder in Kyrgyzstan to spread across the region, Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev expressed sympathy for the Kyrgyz people and called on the provisional government in Bishkek to take action to reduce poverty.
This is symptomatic of the Kazakhstani administration’s tactic of containing domestic opposition by promoting economic prosperity. The administration’s support is grounded in an emerging middle class that is afraid of losing its economic gains. This group also tends to be politically apathetic, willing to tolerate a political environment that – although less restrictive than others in the region – is still stifling, with strict restrictions on public protest.
Underscoring these tight controls on public protest in Kazakhstan, opposition leaders from the OSDP Azat party were denied the right to hold a rally on April 17. Instead of rallying, the opposition activists decided to place flowers at the independence monument in Almaty’s Republic Square. Authorities quickly punished this subtle act of disobedience, as the offending opposition members were fined and cautioned by an Almaty court.
Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, meanwhile, tend to rely on brute force to keep public attitudes contained.
Karimov broke his silence during a visit to Moscow on April 20, with the ambiguous comment, quoted by the Kremlin website, that “in Uzbekistan no one is following the actions of the freedom-loving Kyrgyz people with joy.” He expressed concern that political instability was becoming a permanent feature in Kyrgyzstan and sought to disassociate neighboring states from it. “The whole region cannot be judged by one country,” he remarked. "This is too much of a one dimensional approach and a somewhat, sorry, primitive approach.”
The political unrest in Kyrgyzstan is coming at a sensitive time for Karimov, during the run-up to the fifth anniversary of violence in the city of Andijan, just 50 kilometers from Kyrgyzstan’s second largest city, Osh.
On May 13, 2005, security forces fired on protesters in Andijan, leaving an official death toll of 187; some sources say over 1,000 died. After the bloodshed, Uzbekistan closed off to the outside world and Karimov clamped down on dissent, determined to prevent any threat to his iron rule. [For background see EurasiaNet archive].
Some observers doubt a Kyrgyz scenario is possible in Tashkent, given Uzbekistan’s restrictive political environment. But from the inside, some Uzbeks are not so sure.
“People are divided into two camps,” said one Uzbek entrepreneur based in the Tashkent Region who spoke to EurasiaNet.org on condition of anonymity. “Some believe anything is possible in this life. But many people think they don’t need the repeat of the Kyrgyz events in Uzbekistan and they are impossible in Uzbekistan because many still remember the Andijan events of 2005.”
But with Karimov’s 20-year rule currently appearing unshakeable, he added, “I do not think these events will erupt in our country while the current president is in power.”
A Tashkent-based translator also speaking on condition of anonymity agrees. “The Uzbeks have a different mentality [from the Kyrgyz],” he said. “So, I don't see that changing for another 50 years.”
Another Tashkent resident, expatriate Alan France, suggests that the unrest in Kyrgyzstan actually “helps the current government.” The general mood on the streets, he added, is “pride that Uzbekistan is not in the same position” as Kyrgyzstan.
Similar feelings prevail among many in Kazakhstan, who watched scenes of looting and violence in Bishkek with horror. But as Nazarbayev takes pride from having helped broker the deal that enabled ousted president Kurmanbek Bakiyev go into exile, allowing him to claim a share of the credit for averting more violence in Kyrgyzstan, the opposition in Kazakhstan is warning that he should take a lesson from the turmoil.
“Once again the truth that a lack of democracy is the path to destabilization, confrontation and human casualties is confirmed,” the OSDP Azat party said in a statement on April 8 that called on Nazarbayev’s administration to draw conclusions about the “harmfulness of a repressive approach to dissent and the need to enact democratic reforms.”
And with the poverty, corruption, and harsh economic conditions that bred resentment in Kyrgyzstan also present in abundance in neighboring states, Kourmanova says, none of them can rule out turmoil at home. “I don’t think we can have a 100 percent guarantee that these events can never be seen in any other country of the region in the coming years,” she concluded.
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.
Joanna Lillis is a journalist based in Almaty and author of Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan.
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter.