Shudders on the Steppe

By bne IntelliNews February 22, 2011

Clare Nuttall in Almaty -

With mass protests spreading from Tunisia across North Africa and into the Middle East, could the Caucasus and Central Asia - which share many of the problems of corruption and high inequality - be next? There are already rumblings of discontent.

All the countries of the former Soviet Union (FSU) suffer many of the same ills that have brought the people out onto the streets in North Africa and the Middle East: corruption that benefits a well-connected elite; strongmen who exert a tight grip on power and have been at the helm for too long; and weak civil society and a persecuted opposition, so the populations feel disenfranchised.

Ukraine, arguably the only true democracy in the FSU, has gone backwards following the election last year of President Viktor Yanukovych, who has been rapidly rolling back much of the progress made over the past decade. Moscow saw riot police on its streets for the first time in over a decade at the end of 2010 after an ethnic-related killing that ended in street fighting. Belarus saw thousands of protesters try to storm a government building in December when President Alexander Lukashenko won an obviously fixed election.

However, while experts say that the risk of revolt has certainly risen in Eastern Europe, the chances of an outbreak of violence remain low thanks to the combination of powerful security forces and rising living standards. If anywhere is going to blow up, the most likely venue will be in Central Asia or the Caucasus.

The first signs of problems have already been seen in Azerbaijan, where on February 6 a group of youth activists surrounded a statue of President Hosni Mubarak in Baku in a show of solidarity with Egyptian protesters. But posters saying "Dictator exit!" and the linking of Egypt to local grievances about price increases sounded alarm bells and the demonstration was dispersed almost immediately, Radio Free Europe reported. But even before the demo, the Azeri government had announced a new initiative against graft, with the anti-corruption commission meeting for the first time in more than a year on January 27 - two days after the first nationwide protest in Egypt. The Azeri government is also rumoured to be planning a government reshuffle to get rid of some unpopular ministers.

From the machinations behind Kazakhstan's early presidential elections, to Azerbaijan's new anti-corruption drive, to the monitoring of internet traffic in Armenia for signs of discontent, it has become obvious that the authorities across Eurasia are closely watching for any warning signs that their populations could catch the revolutionary bug that has swept across the Maghreb and the Middle East.

Ripe for revolt

While a one-size-fits-all explanation cannot be applied to the protests, the common themes are exasperation with government corruption, high unemployment, a male "youth bulge" in demographics, rising food prices, and a wish for greater democracy and freedom of speech.

As in North Africa and the Middle East, Eurasia has seen a steady rise in incomes during the last decade, with a temporary setback during the recent economic crisis. At the same time, high unemployment has increased resentment over lavish lifestyles of the ruling elites.

The Gini coefficient - a measure of inequality - is relatively high across all regions, especially in Yemen, Egypt and all of Central Asia except Kazakhstan. Rising food prices are another source of dissatisfaction - a report from IHS Global Insight documents the return of the "punishing high" food prices seen in 2008. With some exceptions, countries across the regions also score badly on Transparency International's corruption perceptions index and Freedom House's measure of press freedom.

In the post-Soviet region, three countries - Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine - have already overthrown their leaders (Kyrgyzstan twice) in the "colour revolutions" of the last decade. The most recent, Kyrgyzstan's April 2010 revolution, was caused by a combination of rising food and fuel prices, high energy costs, increasing government corruption and authoritarianism. The specific trigger for the revolts was the increase in electricity and heating tariffs at a time when the main power distribution companies had been sold off to organisations allegedly connected to the president's family. Tajikistan shares similar problems; like Kyrgyzstan, it is a net importer of fuel and grain, so vulnerable to international price fluctuations.

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan were singled out in an International Crisis Group report as at risk from social unrest due to their governments' near inability to provide essential services to the populations. The report, "Central Asia: Decay and Decline", warns that all five Central Asian states have woefully under-invested in infrastructure since the break-up of the Soviet Union. "The region is entering a period when systemic collapse of infrastructure for education, healthcare, transportation and energy is becoming increasingly likely," the report warns.

This risk is particularly high in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. "Continuing declines in the provision of services will exacerbate social tensions in an already volatile region. This in turn could well heighten the potential for future conflict," according to Crisis Group's Central Asia project director, Paul Quinn-Judge.

Both Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have high levels of inequality and corruption, and an almost complete lack of democracy. However, the control the governments of both countries wield over their populations means the consequences of revolt could be potentially terrible, as was seen with the bloody putdown of the Andijan demonstrators in Uzbekistan in 2005, when hundreds of protesters were gunned down by police.

Less bloody likely

In Kazakhstan, there is not yet any conclusive explanation of the initial proposal to replace presidential elections with a referendum aimed at keeping President Nursultan Nazarbayev in power until 2020. Nor is it clear why the idea was subsequently rejected, and the decision made to hold early presidential elections instead. The proposal to hold a referendum, which was roundly condemned by international governments and rights groups, was particularly puzzling as Nazarbayev is virtually certain to win any election whether now or in 2012.

There are rumours that the whole saga was engineered to get a new mandate for Nazarbayev's government immediately due to fears the 70-year-old Nazarbayev would be too frail to fight an election in 18 months time, or that it was motivated by fears the unrest in North Africa could be replicated in Kazakhstan. "Plans for a referendum may have been initiated in order to maintain the status quo in Kazakhstan, both to ensure continued political stability and economic growth, and for the political establishment to be sure of their own future," Dr Gulnara Dadabayeva of the department of political sciences at Kimep university says. "People have seen the events first in Kyrgyzstan, and more recently in Egypt and Tunisia."

In fact, Kazakhstan appears the least likely country of the Eurasia region to see a revolt. Its over $8,000 per-capita income is the highest in the region, and Kazakhstan's Gini coefficient is the lowest in Central Asia. The government has been careful to ensure at least some trickle down of Kazakhstan's oil and gas revenues to the population, including in rural areas. As a result, living standards are the highest in the region. When the crisis began to bite in 2008, the government launched a multi-billion-dollar support package for the economy and put pressure on major employers not to lay off their workers.

In addition, since Kazakhstan became independent in 1991, Nazarbayev has ensured good relations between Kazakhs, Russians and other ethnic groups. "Much of the Kazakhstan population sees Nazarbayev as the guarantor of stability in the country," says Dadabayeva. This is the key reason why "Papa," as Nazarbayev is sometimes dubbed in Kazakhstan, will certainly win the election. As long as the majority of voters remember the terrible times immediately after the break-up of the Soviet Union - the unemployment, poverty and social disintegration - stability will continue to be a deciding factor in Kazakh politics.

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