Trouble in the Stans: which is the next country to blow up?

The revolution in Kyrgyzstan last week has sparked fears of similar unrest and bloodshed in the secretive and dictatorial former Soviet republics of Central Asia

The revolution in Bishkek last week, which left dozens dead, the president ousted, and an uncertain future for Kyrgyzstan, has set off warning bells across Central Asia, one of the world's least known yet most strategically important regions.

The five Central Asian "Stans", all of which were formerly part of the Soviet Union, have been run as dictatorships since their independence, mostly by the local communist bosses who simply switched from Marxist to nationalist rhetoric when Moscow's authority collapsed at the beginning of the 1990s. Most of the region's people live in poverty, but the elites have been courted by the West for their strategic location close to Afghanistan, and the vast oil and gas reserves in the Caspian Sea.

It is a region of eccentric dictators, eye-watering corruption and international intrigue, with the US, Russia and China all keen to get involved in the race for the economic and strategic benefits. It is this same combination of corruption, autocracy and geopolitical significance that also makes analysts fear that the countries in the region are at risk of major uprisings. In the Kyrgyz unrest, many have seen a Russian hand, while grating poverty and fury at President Kurmanbek Bakiyev's corrupt and nepotistic rule also played their parts.

Kyrgyzstan has now seen two revolutions in the past five years. The "Tulip Revolution" of 2005 ousted the former president Askar Akayev, and last week's bloodshed appears to have removed his successor, Mr Bakiyev, for good. The question now is whether the uprising in Bishkek will be followed by revolts in other "Stans".

The country most likely to experience turmoil, and where if turmoil does come it is likely to be the bloodiest, is Uzbekistan, Central Asia's most populous nation. Under the rule of Islam Karimov, who has been president ever since the break-up of the Soviet Union, the country has become one of the most unpleasant dictatorships in the world. The population lives in fear, with ordinary people terrified to speak out or criticise the regime, and reports of torture and intimidation from the authorities. The controversial former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, was relieved from his duties after speaking too openly about the abuse of human rights in the country.

Many of the complaints that Kyrgyz have against Mr Bakiyev are also present in Uzbekistan, but in an even more exaggerated form. In Kyrgyzstan, Mr Bakiyev was hated by many for the catapulting of his 32-year-old son Maxim into a top government post, as well as the high-ranking positions given to other family members. Maxim Bakiyev became the second most powerful person in Kyrgyzstan and many thought he was being groomed to succeed his father.

In Uzbekistan, a similar process has been under way. The president's daughter, Gulnara Karimova, is a glamorous, Harvard-educated socialite based in Geneva, and, according to Mr Murray and others, controls the regime's billions of dollars of assets through the Zeromax company. She has her own jewellery and fashion lines, and occasionally releases saccharine pop songs. She is also said to have provided the money for one of the regime's biggest vanity projects – the Bunyodkor football club, based in the capital Tashkent. The side, which plays in the obscure Uzbek League, has paid millions to lure stars such as the Brazilian Rivaldo to play for them, and last year recruited former Brazil and Chelsea boss Luis Felipe Scolari to manage the team, giving him the highest salary of any football manager in the world.

Amid all of this, ordinary Uzbeks live in crushing poverty, with no free press and in fear of the rapacious security services. The country's border with Kyrgyzstan has been shut off since the unrest began last week, and the Uzbek authorities have ensured that local media do not cover the uprising. Nevertheless, the fear for the Uzbek regime will be that news of the collapse of the Kyrgyz regime may put thoughts of revolution into the heads of Uzbeks.

In May 2005, roughly two months after the Tulip Revolution that brought Mr Bakiyev to power in Kyrgyzstan, protests erupted in the Uzbek town of Andijan, not far from the border with Kyrgyzstan. Uzbek troops fired into the crowds, and it is estimated that several hundred people died. The government refused to hold an independent inquiry into the events at Andijan, and claimed that the uprising was organised by terrorists, but those who were there speak of unarmed civilians being sprayed with machine gun fire and later buried in mass graves.

Now, with revolution again in the air in Kyrgyzstan, the Uzbek regime will be hoping that there is no repeat. "If the situation in Kyrgyzstan spirals out of control, with Bakiyev mobilising forces in the south and more violence ensuing, then things could become really dangerous," said Fyodor Lukyanov, a Russian foreign policy expert. "There would be extremely unpredictable consequences not only for Kyrgyzstan but for all the neighbouring countries, especially Uzbekistan."

Analysts in Central Asia have long warned that a revolution in Uzbekistan could be exceedingly bloody, and also suspect serious instability when Mr Karimov, who is 72, dies. The problem of succession has reared its head in all five Central Asian republics, three of which are still ruled by ageing former communist party bosses. In addition to Maxim Bakiyev and Gulnara Karimova, in Kazakhstan, President Nursultan Nazarbayev appears to be grooming one of his own daughters for the presidency. But these men have built up such vast reserves of power in their hands that when they leave the scene, the resulting power vacuum could cause serious instability.

The one country where a sitting president has died is Turkmenistan, the most opaque of the five countries and one of the world's most isolated and closed states. Saparmurat Niyazov, the local party boss who took charge when the country became independent, renamed himself Turkmenbashi – Father of all the Turkmen – and as his rule went on, more and more bizarre laws came into place.

The names for the days of the week and months of the year were changed. Monday was now Turkmenbashi, while a month was named after the president's mother. Gold statues of the leader were erected all over the country, including one in the centre of the capital, Ashgabat, which revolved to follow the sun each day. University education was dumbed down, with students forced to study the president's book, Ruhnama, a tedious set of ramblings on life, spirituality and the essence of being Turkmen. Ashgabat became one of the most surreal cities in the world, as the billions of dollars that flowed in from the sale of the country's vast gas resources went on building marble and gold palaces.

Despite all the wealth, the people were not treated well. The city shimmers like a mirage in the middle of the desert, but in order to make way for the new marble blocks, whole residential neighbourhoods were knocked down, and many people received no compensation at all. There was no access to the outside world, as almost nobody had internet access, and while the majority of people were not starving, few did well.

Everyone expected that when Mr Niyazov died, chaos would reign. No other politician had any kind of profile in the country and various analysts expected either a protracted power struggle within the elites or a popular uprising on the streets. In the event, when he died in late 2006, neither happened. Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, Mr Niyazov's personal dentist, and later minister of health, managed to take the reins of power in a relatively smooth transition, and the Turkmen people proved so docile after years of brainwashing that they accepted the changes. Mr Berdymukhammedov has promised a gradual liberalisation, but reforms are moving at snail's pace, and while the new leader has not yet erected any golden statues of himself, vast portraits of his pudgy face now adorn almost every building in Ashgabat. Ordinary Turkmens, in an echo of the Soviet experience, criticise the regime when at home, in trusted company, but don't dare make their grievances public.

In each of the five countries, the local specifics and the style of government are different. In Kyrgyzstan, the revolution appears to have been caused by a number of factors: the relatively liberal political climate where protesting was perhaps not the norm but still did not seem like an immediate death sentence, together with a worsening economic situation, and, quite possibly, some co-ordination from Russia.

What it would take to spark revolts in the other Central Asian states remains unclear. Kazakhstan, for example, is much more developed economically, has at least some small semblance of a free press, and a population that is well educated and often well travelled. Nevertheless, Mr Nazarbayev, the president, keeps a tight grip on power, and serious dissent is crushed ruthlessly. There have been cases of opposition politicians dying in suspicious circumstances. But it is uncertain whether this kind of system makes chances of an uprising more or less likely than in a country such as Turkmenistan, where conditions are much harsher and the very idea of an opposition politician would be unthinkable, and where people have less access to outside information.

"Everyone thought that when Niyazov died, there would be utter chaos, and there was nothing of the sort," says Mr Lukyanov. "But nobody knows if the apparent stability in Turkmenistan is temporary or there to stay. Nobody knows if the smooth handover of power after his death will prove to be the rule for the region or the exception. Really, nobody knows anything for certain. It's a very unpredictable region."

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