Will Central Asia Follow Egypt’s Example?
Will the chain reaction of protests crossing the Middle East now reach Central Asia?
- If energy prices soar because of the spreading Middle East unrest, the energy-rich Stans will certainly benefit from a windfall in revenues.
- Central Asia is likely to be insulated from unrest by major geographical and ethnic factors.
- A major shift to a far more religious pattern of government across the Middle East may destabilize the two resource-poor Central Asian nations, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
The situation in Central Asia is easily most problematic in Tajikistan, where conditions most closely parallel those of Egypt: a long-stagnant and decaying economy; a history of violent, radical Islamist unrest; rapidly growing Muslim religious influence (both mainstream and extreme); and a corrupt, decaying and widely unpopular authoritarian government that, unlike its neighbors in the energy-rich Stans, has failed to deliver any real economic growth.
For its part, Kyrgyzstan appeared to be as vulnerable to Islamist-influenced and -directed mass unrest as Tajikistan is now. But its often chaotic and messy democracy succeeded in channeling popular anger and demand for reform into more constructive — and constitutional — channels.
Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan appear to be least likely to suffer any major protests, especially if Islamist forces are required to have a serious impact on them. In general, the same can be said of Uzbekistan. However, its larger population, massive population growth and significant pockets of poverty that have not benefited from general economic growth will give its government some cause for concern.
Central Asia’s insulating factors
On the whole, the region is likely to be insulated by major geographical and ethnic factors.
The unrest across the Middle East has already jumped thousands of miles to topple the governments of Tunisia and Egypt and shake the kingdom of Jordan and the republic of Yemen.
If the Muslim Brotherhood becomes the dominant force, or a major force, in the new government of Egypt — as seems extremely likely — then the region could face its greatest wave of revolution and destabilization in more than 50 years, since the government of Iraq was toppled by a socialist/communist-influenced military coup in 1958.
However, although the distances from Tunisia to Egypt to Yemen are vast, all three nations are part of the same Arab world. All three face the same problem of rapidly expanding populations and economic stagnation, with little in the way of natural resources to exploit.
And all three had heavily bureaucratic, socialized governmental systems that oppressed ordinary people and that made dynamic, free-market growth impossible.
Many other countries in the region share that explosive combination. Algeria, which has great natural gas resources but which has not used them to benefit its population significantly, comes to mind.
None of those factors appear to apply in the three energy-rich Stans. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan certainly still have highly bureaucratized economic systems, but both of them, especially Uzbekistan, have been moving to attempt liberalizing them. Both economies have been growing dramatically, and their macro-economic prospects are very good.
Ironically, soaring global energy prices, especially in the futures market, could prove to be a bonanza for the three energy-rich Stans, especially Kazakhstan, in the short term. If energy prices in general, but especially oil prices, soar because of the spreading Middle East unrest, they will certainly benefit from a windfall in revenues.
Also, we can project that foreign direct investment into the three major Central Asian nations may rise rapidly if the Middle East unrest spreads. Central Asian stability will then become very profitable to the nations that have achieved it.
Major energy investors will want to develop back-up production, refining resources and pipeline infrastructure as widely and rapidly as possible to hedge against possible disruptions or cut-offs of Middle East oil.
In the longer term, a major shift to a far more religious pattern of government across much of the Middle East may threaten the stability of the two resource-poor Central Asian nations, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
Tajikistan, as has already been noted, was already feeling under threat before the Middle East wave of disturbances began. Kyrgyzstan still appears resilient, and its prospects for growth appear far better than they appeared last year because of the energetic and promising new policy initiatives launched by Prime Minister Almazbek Atambayev in the past two months.
In the long term, however, the establishment of an Islamist-led or -influenced new government in Egypt, and in other Middle East nations, would certainly affect the tone and policies of governments even in the three wealthy Central Asian nations.
Uzbekistan looks likely to be least affected in the short term. President Islam Karimov has excellent relations with China, cautiously improving ones with Iran — and he is even thawing towards Russia. Of all the leaders of Central Asia, Karimov is the least likely to be swayed into adopting any policies of Islamization.
Kazakhstan, the wealthiest and largest economy in Central Asia, will certainly retain its traditional policies of tolerance and attracting foreign direct investment under President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
However, even before the current Middle East crisis erupted, the government of Kazakhstan was moving towards far warmer ties with the Muslim world in general — and with Middle East nations in particular. For example, it is going to chair the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) this coming year, which will give the government a major opportunity to assess prevailing religious and political winds blowing across the Muslim world — and to modify its own policies and responses accordingly.
That leaves Turkmenistan, geographically the closest of the Central Asian nations to the Middle East and also the most independent-minded of them.
President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov already has excellent relations with Iran and is eager to develop a lucrative travel corridor to the Gulf in cooperation with Tehran. He may seek to draw closer to Iran in return for its protection in helping control potential revolutionary Islamist sentiments in his own country.
The nations of Central Asia, with the exception of Tajikistan, therefore do not appear to be in any direct danger as a consequence of the chain-reactions of protest shaking the Arab world. But they are still likely to be significantly influenced by longer-term developments as a result.
Editor’s Note: This feature is adapted from an article that originally ran on Central Asia Newswire (CAN).