Welcome to this hearing on the potential impact of the Middle Eastern revolutions on Central Asia. Though it is far too early to know what will come of the “Arab Spring,” even in the Middle East itself, it is clear that the revolutions and uprisings have already changed the Middle East – and it may well yet change other parts of the world.
This hearing will inquire whether the uprisings and protest movements in the Middle East and North Africa might inspire and invigorate popular movements for democracy in post-Soviet central Asia – or even trigger similar uprisings, and crackdowns – and what our government’s policy should be.
Obviously, much distinguishes the countries and peoples of Central Asia from those of the Middle East. But they also have a lot in common – especially in what they have suffered. Broadly speaking, in both regions people are ruled by undemocratic and corrupt dictators, many of whom have been in power for decades. Where they exist, parliaments are largely rubber-stamp institutions and the judiciary is either corrupt or beholden to the executive. National resources and state authority have been illegitimately appropriated by small groups of people, closely bound to the ruling elites.
There are many differences between Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, but presidential longevity in office is a defining regional characteristic. Central Asian dictators have monopolized power for the two decades since independence while the public has effectively been removed from politics. Only Kyrgyzstan is a striking exception to this rule – in that country street protests have toppled two heads of state since 2005, and last year the country commenced parliamentary governance.
Sadly, in most of Central Asia, democratic reform and observance of human rights commitments have progressed little in the 20 years since independence. In general, elections have been controlled and rigged; rarely has the OSCE given them a passing grade. Opposition parties have been harassed -- where they are permitted at all -- and independent media – where it exists – has been put on a short leash. In the most repressive states, there is little or no space for civil society to function. Access to the Internet is tightly controlled. Religious liberty, particularly for non-traditional religious groups, is constrained. Torture and mistreatment in custody are routine. Corruption is common at all levels and thwarts not only human rights but also economic development.
Central Asian leaders often claim that their citizens are “not ready” for democracy because of their history and culture. This is insulting, bigoted, unacceptable, and untrue. It is also sadly familiar – many Middle Eastern tyrants said the same thing about their peoples, but the recent events in the Middle East show, once again, that it is not democracies that are unstable but dictatorships.
The conventional wisdom is that similar popular protest movements are unlikely in Central Asia – yet a few months ago that was the accepted wisdom for the Middle East. It is time we re-think and to challenge our conclusions on both regions – gross and systematic human rights violations have surely created a just sense of popular grievance in Central Asia. And Tunisia showed that it is impossible to predict when a people will decide that a situation is intolerable.
Of course it is our hope that there will be peaceful democratic movements in central Asia, and, equally, that the governments will respond peacefully and with significant reforms. Yet we need to think also about the potential for violent crackdowns, and what our government’s policy should be in the region.