Muslims around the world associate Central Asia with classical Islamic scholars like Muhammad al-Bukhari or Abu Mansur al-Maturidi and the so-called Muslim golden age. Thus, most Muslims have a romanticized and often unrealistic perception of contemporary Central Asia. Many Muslims simply do not realize that after living under Russian colonialism for 70 years as part of the communist and atheist USSR, many Muslim countries of Central Asia have become greatly detached from Islam.
Even worse, the current unelected regimes in Central Asia are as hostile to Islam as the Soviet Union was. In fact, today, in most non-Muslim states of the former Soviet Union (FSU), the basic rights of Muslims are far better guaranteed than in any Central Asian state.
With this in mind, let us briefly consider what to realistically expect in Central Asia in terms of socio-political developments in the near future. In Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, all these countries’ ex-communist officials rule with an iron fist. They have established family-based ruling castes, except for Kyrgyzstan.
Over the past years, Crescent International has conducted several analyses on Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in particular. In our recent analysis on US-Russia relations in a post-Donald Trump presidency we have stated that “…NATO regimes see the Achilles heel of Russia. Thus, the campaign of destabilization in Central Asia is coming, as this will also create additional headaches for China. Beijing’s harsh measures against the Muslims of East Turkistan and the Western corporate media’s wide coverage of their plight are warning signals.” Taking this into consideration, let us briefly examine what likely developments might occur in each Central Asian country.
Turkmenistan was for decades ruled after its independence in the 1990s by a megalomaniac ex-Soviet official, Saparmurat Atayevich Niyazov. During his presidency, Niyazov wrote a “holy” book and hinted that he was a prophet. After Niyazov’s death in 2006, an equally ridiculous ruler replaced him, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, who is grooming his son to succeed him. All the visible opposition to the regime exists only abroad, mainly in Western countries. The regime in Turkmenistan used to provide free gas, water, and electricity to people; this ended in October 2017. No one objected, not only due to the iron-fist rule but also because Turkmen society made no intellectual and institutional transformation from the Soviet era. For example, even though neighboring Azerbaijan has an autocratic regime, during the period 1988 to 1995, the Azerbaijani society had a short-lived break with Soviet style control, something Turkmens never experienced.
Thus, it is unrealistic to expect any sort of real socio-political transformation soon. One of the “problematic” features of Niyazov’s presidency was that he did not appoint a successor. He did not trust even his own family. Thus, after his death Berdimuhamedow took over. The current ruler is clearly grooming his son for succession.
There is very little authentic information about what is taking place in Turkmenistan. However, if at Niyazov’s death the system did not experience any shocks during the short power vacuum, it is highly unlikely that any changes will take place under the current circumstances.
After the death of dictator Islam Karimov in 2016, Uzbekistan witnessed a swap within the ruling elite. Karimov’s family was sidelined and the presidency was taken over by Karimov’s Prime Minister, Shavkat Miromonovich Mirziyoyev. Thus, it was a simple change of faces where no substantial policy or institutional transformation occurred.
Even though Uzbekistan possesses more internal politically active opposition groups in comparison with Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, they are weak and under severe government pressure. The Islamic organizations in Uzbekistan have been harshly persecuted and the regime intentionally allowed the Wahhabi minded groups in the country to co-opt some of the youth to undercut authentic local Islamic organizations.
The smooth transition after Karimov’s death indicates that the ruling caste in Uzbekistan managed to organize itself into a coherent faction. Unless there is a severe economic crisis, the ruling caste is under no immediate threat. The socio-economic situation in Uzbekistan depends largely on how Moscow would treat the more than 1.5 million Uzbek migrant workers in Russia who send substantial amounts of remittances back home. It is highly unlikely that Moscow would deliberately sabotage its neighbors who could destabilize Russia itself. Thus, the autocratic regime in Uzbekistan is under no immediate threat.
Kazakhstan nearly the size of Western Europe, possesses vast natural resources and a population of about 17 million. It is one of the more prosperous states of Central Asia. Like its neighbors, it is ruled by an ex-communist official, Nursultan Nazarbayev. He has transformed the government of Kazakhstan into a family affair. Compared to other Central Asian states, the Kazakh society is the most Russified and secular. Kazakhstan is estimated to have 3.7 million Russians and since the days of the former Soviet Union, non-Muslim Russian cultural norms have been dominant within Kazakhstan. There is no strong opposition; the only potential upheaval may occur during the transition period when the 78-year-old Nazarbayev dies. Considering Kazakhstan’s better socio-economic situation than other Central Asian countries, there is no reason to believe that the ruling elite will not be able to repeat the transition pattern of Uzbekistan.
Kyrgyzstan has proved to be the country of major surprises in Central Asia. The Kyrgyz people overthrew the remnants of Soviet rule in 2005. Once the new government was formed in 2010, it began to openly slide toward corruption. This phenomenon was a major shock to regional despots and powers. Currently Kyrgyzstan is the least authoritarian state in Central Asia. It is highly unlikely that it will slide back to the same degree of authoritarianism as the people have mustered enough confidence to challenge any group in power. In terms of an Islamic movement rising to power in Kyrgyzstan, it is highly unlikely because it is disorganized and the Russian default position in Central Asia is to have less Islam in the public sphere. Thus, the secular Kyrgyz government can count on Moscow’s assistance in containing the limited Islamic revival within Kyrgyz society.
Tajikistan has always been the pioneer of Islamic revival in the post-Soviet era, a perspective confirmed by facts and even by the detractors of Islamic revival. However, overall, the track record of the most successful Islamic organization in Central Asia, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) should serve as a lesson for all Islamic movements about how not to behave with despotic regimes and be defeated by them.
Currently, the regime of Emomali Rahmonov has successfully eliminated all challengers in Tajikistan and is promoting his son, Rustam to succeed him. The regime’s primary advantage is that it maintains a Russian military base in the country and can count on Moscow’s unequivocal support to sustain itself in power.
In Central Asia, every regime’s survival depends on how friendly it stays with Russia. The US might be powerful worldwide, but it is Russia that decides who rules in the post-Soviet space. Washington can destabilize situations and create headaches for Moscow in the post-Soviet regions, but its clout is limited and cannot establish functioning governments there. It failed in Georgia and Ukraine with Russia successfully aborting Washington’s plans in both locales.
One of the primary challenges for grassroots Islamic movements in Central Asia is that the Wahhabi narrative is gaining traction in the region, something Crescent International has discussed in-depth. This phenomenon is cultivated artificially by the regimes to justify the use of force against grassroots Islamic organizations. Another key obstacle is the regimes’ brutality and how easily they resort to force against even mild dissent. The two phenomena combined make a deadly mixture as it opens numerous manipulation mechanisms for the regimes.
Today Central Asia is fertile battleground for global powers. The only thing that can deter this from evolving into something very brutal and nasty is that all powers involved — NATO, China, and Russia — will suffer from regional destabilization instigated by whichever side.