Starting from early January popular unrest in Kazakhstan turned into widespread instability throughout the country with violent actions from protesters and violent reactions from law enforcement, in what the Economist described as a brief and bloody revolution that resulted in the death of 225 civilians and 19 police, and thousands of arrests.
On 10 January, during an extraordinary session of the CSTO Collective Security Council on the Kazakh crisis, Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko declared that the violence that took place in Kazakhstan in the past two weeks could be easily replicated in other Central Asian countries due to similar exposure to alleged foreign terrorist forces. He then focused specifically on Uzbekistan sending a veiled invitation to the country to join the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) in order to receive the same support to quell revolts that the block provided to Kazakhstan’s leadership.
This piece tries to discuss Lukashenko’s allegations by drawing a picture of what happened in Kazakhstan dividing the social causes of the initial protests and the appropriation of the popular uprise by power groups in the country. The social aspects, the power dynamics and the geopolitical implications of the crisis will then be discussed in the context of Uzbekistan. A preliminary analysis of the situation in the country sees the presence of instances for social unrest but depicts a more cohesive picture in terms of power relations, with power steadily in the hands of President Shavkat Miziyoyev. Finally, the possibility of Uzbekistan joining the CSTO will be assessed by focusing on traditional Uzbek foreign policy, recent history and legislation.
Discussions about the causes and effects of events in Kazakhstan will probably occupy analysts for the next few years, but what seems to be accepted by most reconstructions is that popular protests started from the liberalisation (and subsequent soar) of the price of liquefied petroleum gas, a cheaper fuel used by a large part of Kazakhstan’s less affluent citizens and evolved into widespread demonstrations asking for political change. Instances of change, the New York Times reports, include tackling social and economic disparities, the ousting of the political elite that ruled the country since 1991, and political liberalisation with fair elections.
What is also apparent from most analyses is that some sort of elite power struggle turned these protests into a bloody fight that saw the victory of governmental forces through harsh repression – symbolised by President Tokayev’s shoot-to-kill order – and foreign intervention of the Russian-led CSTO. Finally, international analysts and sources from Central Asia agree on the fact that President Tokayev’s allegation of involvement of foreign forces seems not to be supported by facts.
Notwithstanding the causes behind it, for the first time since independence in 1991, Kazakhstan faced the possibility of protesters toppling the government and forcing change in the country. The largest Central Asian economy was ruled by its first President Nursultan Nazarbayev until his resignation in 2019, when he was peacefully substituted by his handpicked successor, former diplomat, Prime Minister, and head of Senate Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who was supposed to represent continuity.
However, it became soon clear that the latter was not ready to be a puppet in the hands of the Nazarbayev family, as demonstrated by several low-key manoeuvres such as the removal of Dariga Nazarbayeva as Head of the Senate. Yet, until the start of 2022 the elbasy, as Nazarbayev is often referred to, was still one of the centres (probably the main one) of both political and economic power in the country in what has been described as a duopoly. Only after the alleged leadership battle that was fought alongside the turmoil in early January and as an answer to requests from protesters, Tokayev has substituted Nazarbayev as leader of the country’s Security Council (action subsequently confirmed by the parliament) and has started to remove elbasy’s cronies from key position in the political and economic spheres.
When comparing these developments with Uzbekistan’s own process of presidential succession we can notice many similarities. Both countries saw a peaceful leadership transition in the second part of the 2010s that led to the substitution of the founders of both the republics with new leaders belonging to the same Parties and political spheres as their predecessors. Furthermore, like Tokayev in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan’s Shavkat Mirziyoyev had been a central political figure during the last decade of Islam Karimov’s regime and was selected by the ruling elite as the new President after his death in 2016. However, as commented by Alisher Khamidov for Eurasianet, differently from the Kazakh case, the transfer of power in Tashkent saw Mirziyoyev concentrating all power in his hands. A source in Uzbekistan interviewed for the present article describes the country’s leadership as characterised by a vertical structure of power controlled by one man. Hence, although elite competition exists at some level in the country (see Ruiz-Ramas and Morales Hernández for a detailed analysis), there seem to be no potential for a real challenge to the leadership of the President.
If the potential for escalation is low, the instances at the base of the initial Kazakh protests are present in Uzbekistan and some form of social unrest is already ongoing in the country. Starting from gas and energy, the touchpaper for protests in Kazakhstan was the liberalisation of prices of LPG. In Uzbekistan, prices of petroleum have been growing for some time and the process of liberalisation of energy prices is ongoing in the country since 2020. Although met with some complaints, fuel prices have not caused widespread protests in the country.
However, 33 energy/gas related protests were reported in Uzbekistan from 2018 to August 2021 (source Oxus Society’s Central Asia Protest Tracker), accounting for slightly more than 10% of total protests in the country, mostly related with energy shortages in households and not to prices and/or fuel for transports. Energy shortages, our source reports, are a seasonal disease in Uzbekistan where citizens face energy shortages during the cold season due to limited capacity of production, exports of energy particularly to China and Russia, and a poor infrastructure to deliver gas to households that causes the dispersion a lot of resources. It is to be noted that the Uzbek government seems to recognise the potential of these issues to cause unrest and acted upon shortages already in the past by phasing out exports abroad and distributing cheap fuel to the affected population. As a reaction to events in Kazakhstan Eurasianet reports a total block of exports of gas abroad and a stop to raises of price for energy.
State intervention and firm government presence in the economic life of the state and its citizens has been a commonplace in the economic history of the country. Uzbekistan represents a peculiar example of post-Soviet economic transition in Central Asia as its policy has been described as a more gradual transition from a socialist to a mixed economic model compared to other post-Soviet countries. The first steps of the reform successfully focused on maintaining social and economic incentives to reduce the impact of the economic transition to a liberal economy. Protectionism, together with trade differentiation were described by Fazendeiro with the concept of economic ‘self-reliance’. Yet, Karimov’s protectionist policies in the 1990s fell short of attracting foreign investment until the beginning of the 2000s, when the economy was partially liberalised.
The advent of Mirziyoyev saw a strong liberal push with liberalisation of the currency exchange and competition rules, and a long list of privatisations. At present, social diseases such as widespread poverty (11% of the population lives under the poverty line, compared with 4.3% in Kazakhstan, source Asian Development Bank), unemployment (6%) and large young population are widely recognised as potential harbingers of instability. Marlene Laruelle pointed out already in 2020 that the same issues are considered to be at the base of revolutions such as the Arab Springs. Yet, our source underlines the role and decentralised presence of the state together with the support of the state-run banking system as a check for these destabilising instances. Is there a potential for liberal reforms to remove these checks?
Our sources disagree, as the reforms are quoted as another reason for lack of unrest in the country, as allegedly now people have possibilities that were denied to them before 2016 and are generally better off and freer now than they were before. However, they continue, liberal reforms could become a potential problem if the state were to rush into change without maintaining social support systems. If there is an area in which reforms are not showing any rushed improvement, that is the role of civil society with routine silencing of organisations and trade unions, gross human rights violations, and state-pressure on independent information as symbolised by the questioning of many bloggers reporting on Kazakhstan.
Nonetheless, investors seem optimistic about the future direction of the country. A financial analyst covering the area recognised in a written statement provided for this article that “instability in Central Asia certainly had an impact on investor confidence in the region, which was reflected in falling sovereign and corporate Eurobond prices that have yet to fully recover from December 2021 levels”. However, he continued, the events in Kazakhstan could become an opportunity for Uzbekistan’s regional role in the medium-long term.
With regards to investment, Scott Osheroff, CIO of Asia Frontier Capital’s Uzbekistan Fund, interviewed by the author, has listed stability, actuation of the promised reforms and legislative protection of investors as fundamental aspects to attract international funding. Focussing on stability, Osheroff comments, the potential unrest coming from hastened liberalisation efforts seems to be reduced by Uzbekistan’s slow and progressive approach to reducing the role of state intervention concentrated on cutting blanket state protections and re-directing welfare efforts towards citizens in need. However, the next couple of years will be telling in terms of whether the government will keep up with its plans for reform and liberalisation. For now, one of our sources confirms, “the Ministry of Finance is moving ahead with its ambitious privatization program and introducing new capital markets reforms, which should provide potential investors plenty of opportunities to enter Uzbekistan”.
Finally, the international side of the analysis focuses on the involvement of Russian-led CSTO called upon by President Tokayev to counter alleged threats from foreign terrorists, which as of present evidence feel like a misreading the events at best or – at worst – an excuse for requiring foreign intervention. Hence, the Kazakh crisis has given no further reason to Uzbekistan to join a military alliance, which would require to review not only the country’s multilateral foreign policy, but also its legislation that impedes joining military blocs. Moreover, siding with Russia would impede many of the soft power objectives that the country is trying to achieve in a year in which Uzbekistan has important leadership roles in many international fora.
To conclude, an analysis of the present situation in Uzbekistan both from an economic and political perspective seem to refute most aspects of Lukashenko’s declaration, at least partially. Firstly, the peculiar characteristics of Uzbek economic and social policy, that are living a moment of gradual but decisive reform and liberalisation seem more promising to citizens than Kazakhstan unequal stability. Moreover, the image of solidity given by a stronger authoritarian and vertical control by the government, with power centralised on the figure of President Mirziyoyev and ubiquitous state presence, control, and repression, seems at odds with the polarised and conflictual power centres of the “post”-Nazarbayev era. Finally, there seem to be no reason whatsoever for Uzbekistan to join a political alliance that would impede many of the objectives of Mirziyoyev’s international charm offensive to attract investors, who seem to bet on Uzbekistan’s reforms and future plan for liberalisation.