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Central Asia Grows Wobbly

- September 27, 2012

Central Asia is entering a decade of heightened instability. Aging autocrats and an absence of clear succession mechanisms make a combination that, if not soon addressed, will lead to political upheaval in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. In Kazakhstan this upheaval could result in a protracted stalemate among competing coalitions of economic and political elites. Uzbekistan, which lacks Kazakhstan’s economic elites yet has a religious leadership with proven ability to rally large numbers of followers, may find in Islam the mobilizing mechanism and opposition ideology capable of toppling President Karimov’s illiberal rule.

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, countries that have struggled with violence and instability since the Soviet collapse, will remain vulnerable to political unrest. The shape that this unrest will likely assume, however, is different in each country. For the near future, nationalism rather than the once familiar calls for democratic reform will drive Kyrgyzstan’s street protests. Tajikistan will see an increased probability of Islamist-centered opposition as the US military drawdown in the region exposes the country to mobilization strategies honed by Tajik co-ethnics in the decades-long conflict in neighboring Afghanistan.

The Turkmen regime is the one in Central Asia that has some cause to anticipate longevity. Berdymukhamedov’s relative youth and his access to immense hydrocarbon reserves can combine to maintain well-functioning patronage politics at the elite level. Berdymukhamedov does, however, face challenges at the societal level. Unemployment will be compounded by the entry of one million Turkmen youth into the labor force over the next decade. Ultimately, Berdymukhamedov too may prove a casualty of unrest.

From a recent article in Current History by George Mason political scientist Eric McGlinchey. For those of you interested in a refresher on (or introduction to) Central Asian politics, it is a quick read full of useful information and a provocative thesis: the era of apparent political stability in Central Asia is coming to a close. There are also interesting implications for US foreign policy planning at the end of the piece (gated, and ungated).