Professor Anuradha Chenoy, Center for Russian and Central Asian Studies, JNU, speaks to Newsclick about the possibility of recent West Asian events being replicated in Central Asia.
Srinivasan Ramani (SR) - Hello and welcome to Newsclick. Over the past few weeks we have been witness to a series of pro-democracy uprisings, some successful, in Tunisia, Egypt, and a full blown civil war in Libya now, protests spreading over to Yemen, to Bahrain and even to the farthest reaches of West Asia- near the Caucasus in Azerbaijan. But what about Central Asia? Today we have with us, Professor Anuradha Chenoy, Professor of Russian and Central Asian studies in JNU and we shall discuss the Central Asian situation.
Even before the protests in Egypt we had a very severe uprising in Kyrgyzstan and the ouster of President Bakiyev. There was also a constitutional referendum. Can you apprise us of the current situation?
Anuradha Chenoy (AC) – Firstly, this whole concept of colour revolutions has come from the former soviet republics- tulip, rose; the orange revolution in Ukraine. In Kyrgyzstan the uprising was first against President Askar Akiyev, before Bakiyev. Within one year, because people already had tasted power and because it was a nascent democracy, more than the other Central Asian countries; in Kyrgyzstan it was realized in one year people felt, number one, which they were not getting any of the economic benefits he had promised. There was no further democratization. A small clan was appropriating all the benefits and there were some housing scams and the opposition, lead by Rosa Otunbayeva started a mass movement because they felt that the elections had been rigged, and a lot of people were killed in that uprising. Almost 76 people were killed. And unlike what is happening in West Asia, the army did not intervene. So it was a very short lived uprising; no people were killed and the President left. He actually left the country. And Rosa Otunbayeva and the opposition groups- she was already in opposition; earlier she was the ambassador to England and the US. She had very good relations both with Washington and Moscow. She became the acting President and then they had a referendum and they decided to change the political system to a parliamentary system. I think that is key in these places, because the presidential system gives too many powers to the president, without having a political party. Whereas what these newly independent republics really need, is a parliament, which will help the growth of political institutions and democratic institutions. So Rosa Otunbayeva was smart enough to do that. The elections were held about two months ago, and one-third of the people elected were women. Which also shows the level of political empowerment that Central Asian women want and can have, because of their past background of economic empowerment, when they were under Soviet regimes.
The other problem, however, in Kyrgyzstan was the fact of ethnic unrest because the last President used his clan and tribes, which are in south Kyrgyzstan, on the border of Uzbekistan, to create an ethnic nationalism of Kyrgyz versus Uzbeks, and there was almost an ethnic cleansing. A hundred thousand ethnic Uzbeks were targeted. The police stood by and did nothing and it was like any communal sectarian conflict in much of the third world.
SR - Did this affect the uprising in some way?
AC - It shook the government, who actually asked for help from the Russians. The Russians have a collective security treaty organisation and a CIS peace keeping group, but the Russians were quite right in that they said they would give complete humanitarian assistance, but they would not intervene unless all the Central Asian republics collectively asked them to. The Uzbeks kept quiet about it, but of course, they took the bulk of the refugees, because they were ethnic Uzbeks who were living in Kyrgyzstan. Now there is a humanitarian crisis of refugees in Uzbekistan because these people have been isolated and Uzbekistan is also a very rigid, non-democratic regime. But Rosa Otunbayeva, given her good relations with both Washington and Moscow, managed to stabilize [the country] and also because she had the elections; she criticized; she went to Osh and Farganah and all the affected areas. She apologized recently, which was a bit late. She should have done it earlier. But I think together Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan have to address this problem about refugees because their borders are porous and all these countries are multi ethnic and the way they were divided in nineteen twenty four were not on the basis of linguistic or ethnic grouping; there were a few linguistic issues but mainly it was an ethnic mix. So they can't have these old policies and I think real democracy in Kyrgyzstan can come when they get more minority rights and their institutions are stronger.
SR - So the prospect of a democratic system is now in place post the uprising. But coming back to the comparison of West Asia and Central Asia. In West Asia, you find the commonalities between these regions are that both are energy rich and some would say that both suffer from the resource curse. In the sense that both have enough energy resources but very little political freedom, therefore social distribution has not happened concomitantly. Some say that protests in West Asia and North Africa are a resultant of years of frustration due to the absence of political freedom and the loot that is garnered by authoritarian regime. Is there a similar structure in Central Asia? Can one generalise and say that the structural problems in West Asia exist in Central Asia as well?
AC - In a sense there are some similarities but there are also cultural specificities which distinguish them very sharply. The similarities are the fact that, not Kyrgyzstan, but Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are very oil and gas rich. As is Azerbaijan, on the other side of the Caspian. The other similarity is that all of them have very repressive dictatorial regimes. The third point I want to raise here is the word you use- ‘resource curse’. I think this is a word which we can get trapped in because resource curse is not used by the people. The MNCs, the foreign companies and a small elite are using the resource and then saying it is curse on everyone. Actually it should be resource benefit, which people are not getting. So we have to be careful when we use this term; but yes, you are right. People here are also critical, though they have no trigger, like there was in west Asia.
There is also a difference [geographically]. West Asian countries are almost a block and when one thing happens in West Asia, it triggers off a dominoes effect in the other countries. It was similar in the time of nakba and other nationalist, pan-nationalist, anti American, Anti-imperial movement in the sixties, twenties and earlier. Whereas Central Asia is a block in itself that is more likely to be affected by Kyrgyzstan or Russia. Russia has a very strong impact and Russia is opposing this western intervention in Libya very strongly and saying that this is all because of a small internet generation and it is nothing deeper than that. But that is also not true. The fact is that people don't want this kind of repressive regime. They can see the loot by the political dynasties. The small clans and the father-son kind of dynastic politics which is taking place in all of Central Asia is very pronounced in Uzbekistan and what has been the impact there? In Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, they have an order saying any that mass email or any mass SMS must be monitored. They have used the term ‘sensitive or suspicious’. Second, they are not encouraging Internet depth. They are asking each person who wants a new Internet connection, all kinds of questions. So they’re wary. They know they are dictatorial at the same time they are pretending that everything is hunky dory and they are fine, which it is not, because people don't just want economic development- they also want justice and political rights.
It is also a fact that Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan did not privatise like Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. So they did not have that shock therapy and they did not privatise in the same way. So there were social measures for the people still. So the huge gaps did not take place between a small privatised, capitalist new elite and the others. So they do have a large middle class. Then we must also remember that the middle class also wants political rights and at the same time, they are aware that the regime in power, whether it is Nazarbayev- who earlier said he would be in power for another ten years, but after this revolution he suddenly said that there would be an election in another few years. So he curtailed his own length of stay as president. But of course he is going to win the elections again. It's well known elections are completely rigged and the opposition is harassed and not allowed to function, unless it is literally the majesty's loyal opposition.
So they are not allowed to function independently and any real opposition is stopped. Recently, in Tajikistan which had years of civil war and the Russians had to intervene and stop the civil war. Now there is stability. They have given one base to the Americans and one base to the Russians. India has an airstrip, which again they have taken back and given to the Russians. So they are playing this Geo-politics. Over there the danger is more linked with Afghanistan. So their fears are different than the fears in West Asia. Their fears are from Afghanistan. Their fears are of very quick privatization. Of course there is small oligarchy which is functioning, and the oil and the gas wealth is not getting to them [the public] and then of course these leaders use xenophobic nationalism. For example, they’re saying that the Chinese are coming in big numbers and they are taking our land. China is a very important factor now, for example, in Turkmenistan.