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."

Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Sport
The Pipes and Drums of The Scottish Regiments perform during the Opening Ceremony for the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park on July 23, 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland.
Commonwealth GamesThe actor encouraged the one billion viewers of the event to donate to the children's charity
Sport
Karen Dunbar performs
Entertainers showcase local wit, talent and irrepressible spirit
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
News
Very tasty: Vladimir Putin dining alone, perhaps sensibly
news
Life and Style
Listen here: Apple EarPods offer an alternative
techAre custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?
News
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
Arts and Entertainment
The nomination of 'The Wake' by Paul Kingsnorth has caused a stir
books
News
Joining forces: young British men feature in an Isis video in which they urge Islamists in the West to join them in Iraq and Syria
newsWill the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?
News
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
News
i100
Life and Style
food + drinkZebra meat is exotic and lean - but does it taste good?
News
Bey can do it: Beyoncé re-enacts Rosie the Riveter's pose
newsRosie the Riveter started out as an American wartime poster girl and has become a feminist pin-up. With Beyoncé channeling her look, Gillian Orr tells her story
Life and Style
Donna and Paul Wheatley at their wedding
healthShould emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?
Arts and Entertainment
Residents of Derby Road in Southampton oppose filming of Channel 4 documentary Immigration Street in their community
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

BI Manager - £50,000

£49000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

BI Project Manager - £48,000 - £54,000 - Midlands

£48000 - £54000 per annum + Benefits package: Progressive Recruitment: My clie...

VB.Net Developer

£35000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: If you're pa...

SAP Business Consultant (SD, MM and FICO), £55,000, Wakefield

£45000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP Business...

Day In a Page

Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements