Once synonymous with stability, the former Soviet republics of Central Asia now face problems that fuel popular discontent and shake their authoritarian regimes.
Since the beginning of the year there have been deadly protests and riots in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, the three countries that, along with Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan, make up this hydrocarbon-rich region.
To put an end to the protests, the authorities of these three countries used force and cut off communications.
Socioeconomic pressures brought on by factors beyond the control of these authoritarian regimes — such as Russia’s intervention in Ukraine — raise questions about whether these tactics will continue to work in a region where Moscow and Beijing have privileged interests.
Raffaello Pantucci, of the Royal United Services Institute, affirms that Central Asia is facing “exogenous shocks” such as the return to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan, which borders three of the countries in the region, or the consequences of the offensive by Moscow in Ukraine.
“But it is difficult to find the origin of the current problems, but it seems that most of them come from the interior,” he told AFP.
– Inflation and transition –
United by a shared culture and a Soviet past, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are all experiencing a period of political transition and facing high inflation, two major factors of instability.
In Tajikistan, which launched what it called a “counter-terrorist operation” in the troubled Nominally Autonomous Upper Badakhshan region in May, long-running Emomali Rakhmon is believed to be grooming his son Rustam Emomali for the top job. tall.
Rakhmon, 69, is now the longest-serving leader in Central Asia, having served as head of impoverished Tajikistan for three decades.
In Uzbekistan, self-proclaimed reformist President Shavkat Mirziyoyev was less than a year into an easily secured second term when his government bungled constitutional reform, sparking protests in the Karakalpakstan region, whose semi-independent status was threatened by the amendments to the basic law, now frustrated.
Kazakhstan, the region’s richest country, witnessed unprecedented violence earlier this year, leaving 238 dead and ending the career of Nursultan Nazarbayev, whose reign had begun before independence and remained hugely influential. even after stepping aside in 2019.
– Silence all dissent –
In all these cases, the authorities blamed “external forces” for triggers that were “clearly internal in each case,” says Emil Dzhuraev, a political scientist in Kyrgyzstan, a country that saw three of its six presidents deposed in crisis, the last in 2020. .
Internet shutdowns and pressure on the independent press hide a clear reading of the bloody events that have occurred this year in the region and raise doubts about the official death toll.
The Kazakhstan crisis remains the most complicated of all to unravel. The unrest began with peaceful protests over a rise in the cost of fuel, popular with low-income residents in the energy-rich west of the country.
Later, mobs and security forces clashed in the former capital, Almaty, and other cities, where government buildings were burned and shops looted.
The rise in prices is still a threat.
President Kassym Jomart Tokayev, who blamed the January riots on unidentified terrorists and used them to distance himself from his predecessor Nazarbayev, declared this month that food inflation exceeded 19% in the first half of the year.
Year-on-year economic growth in the same period was only 3.4%, it said.
The cost of sugar soared by around 80% in some cities, aggravated by the export ban imposed by its main partner, Russia, in response to Western sanctions.
The Economist placed Central Asian countries in a high-risk range in a study predicting potential inflation-related discord around the world.
According to the analysis published in June, among the countries most at risk is Turkmenistan, the most secretive state in the region, where autocrat Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow ended 15 years in office and installed his son Serdar as successor in March.
Although economic and geopolitical factors work against Central Asian countries, the lack of civic freedoms is, both now and in the long term, a more fundamental problem, argued Marius Fossum, regional representative of the Norwegian Helsinki committee.
The authorities “usually silence all dissent,” Fossum summed up AFP.