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On the edge of the abyss: Protests in Central-Asia

3 February 2022
The citizens of Central Asia are done. They are tired. They are hungry.[1] Unemployment has been on the rise since 2019.[2] Their houses are cold and there is no more (affordable) fuel to take the car or bus.[3] Corruption is sky-high and trust in the government is nonexistent.[4]

Kazakhstan is but the latest example of civil unrest in the post-Soviet region. In November of 2021, thousands of Tajiks protested for four days after a man, widely known for exposing government abuse, was shot on the streets.[5] Turkmenistan saw large protests last summer after the government failed to send aid during a devastating hurricane, while still denying the existence of the similarly devastating COVID-19 crisis.[6] In Uzbekistan, protests continue to surge during the winter, when the shortages of gas, coal and wood hurt the citizens most.[7] Suspicions of fraud during elections in Kyrgystan in November led to a new wave of protests.[8] Unsurprisingly, the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs,[9] reports that protests in the region have increased significantly in the recent years, as shown in this figure.[10]

That protests in one country can lead to protests in surrounding countries is something that we, of course, have already seen in the Arab Spring. Further research has also proven this impact time and time again.[11] Armed insurrections tend to lead to direct support to neighboring opposition forces, while nonviolent protest tend to lead to exchange of knowledge on nonviolent methods. What direction this transition will take in Central Asia remains unclear, but the use of violence in Kazakhstan does not bode well. The use of violence by extremist opposition groups, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, also raises concerns. Bruce Pannier, Central Asia correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, fears that these movements see the consolidation of the Taliban as a prop to make a grab for power in their own country. Yet, the area also has several characteristics that facilitate nonviolent resistance,[12] such as a high degree of urbanization and widely shared frustrations that tend to lead to mass mobilization. Several activists from the region have previously told me that they aspire to nonviolence, observe this practice from other countries, and are inspired by Gene Sharp’s nonviolent manual ‘From Dictatorship to Democracy’. Whether it will be possible to sustain this ambition when the government responds with such a degree of violence, as in Kazakhstan, I doubt. Especially since Vladimir Putin, president of Russia, pledged in January 2022 “not to allow so-called colour revolutions [referring to successful protest movements in Yugoslavia, Georgia, and Ukraine, among others]”.[13]

I am, however, quite sure that these developments worry the Central Asian rulers. Similar clashes between citizens and regime have occurred before in Central Asia – even with the death of Karimov, the president of Uzbekistan – there were not sufficient reforms to fulfill the people’s demands. This frustration, combined with an increasing military and economic presence of Russia, seems to threaten the autonomy of Central Asian “presidents“. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has already questioned whether the CSTO forces, a Russian-led military alliance of post-Soviet states, really did turn out at Kazakhstan’s request.[14] Either way, “the CSTO intervention strengthens Russia’s position in Kazakhstan and Eurasia, and shows once again that there is no state in Eurasia other than Russia to look after the security of its neighbors,” said Maxim Suchkov, director of the MGIMO Institute of International Studies in Moscow on Twitter.[15]

To desperately cling to their autonomy, it is thus likely that Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan will respond to local unrest with increasing levels of violence. The willingness of the countries to present a united, strong front seems to intensify for the first time since post-Soviet independence.[16] So, the next ‘shoot-to-kill’ order might well be used in the future to prevent Russian intervention. And as always, at the expense of civilians.

Willemijn Born (PhD candidate criminology). All information contained in this article is drawn from public sources. The article reflects the author’s personal views.

Notes

[1] https://cabar.asia/en/food-security-in-central-asia-countries-have-to-strengthen-cooperation

[2] https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SL.UEM.TOTL.ZS?locations=Z7

[3] https://www.rferl.org/a/central-asia-severe-electricity-shortages/31564293.html

[4] https://www.transparency.org/en/news/cpi-2020-eastern-europe-central-asia

[5] https://eurasianet.org/tajikistan-testy-demonstrations-in-the-pamirs-drag-into-third-day

[6] https://www.intellinews.com/protests-pose-unprecedented-threat-to-turkmenistan-s-authoritarian-government-186952/

[7] https://www.rferl.org/a/analysis-power-problems-and-protests-plague-uzbekistan/31089234.html

[8] https://www.rferl.org/a/kyrgyzstan-parliamentary-vote-rally-protest-fraud/31585124.html

[9] https://oxussociety.org/viz/protest-tracker/

[10] https://www.rferl.org/a/kazakhstan-protests-charts-infographics/31643967.html

[11] Gleditsch, K. S., & Rivera, M. (2017). The Diffusion of Nonviolent Campaigns. Journal of Conflict Resolution61(5), 1120-1145. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022002715603101

[12] See e.g. Butcher, C., & Svensson, I. (2016). Manufacturing Dissent: Modernization and the Onset of Major Nonviolent Resistance Campaigns. Journal of Conflict Resolution60(2), 311-349. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022002714541843, or Chenoweth, E., & Stephan, M. (2011). Why Civil Resistance Works: the Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict. New York: Colombia University Press. I will in the near future publish an article on the broad circumstances that facilitate or obstruct non-violent resistance.

[13] https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2022/01/10/russia-led-military-bloc-will-not-allow-color-revolutions-in-post-soviet-countries-putin-a76000

[14] https://www.rferl.org/a/blinken-questions-kazakhstan-csto-troops/31644821.html

[15] https://twitter.com/m_suchkov/status/1479122493734461450

[16] https://www.rferl.org/a/central-asia-30-years-independence/31435467.html

Picture credit: By Esetok – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=114004253