Spring: coming soon to Central Asia?


All across the world, authoritarian governments are crashing, and new forms of democratic and term-limited regimes are arriving in their place. Sooner or later this wave will reach Central Asia. When it does, the Kyrgyz model of slow political and economic reform might be the most effective way to achieve change, write Alexey Semyonov and Baktybek Abdrisaev.

Alexey Semyonov Baktybek Abdrisaev
21 February 2012

Victorious popular uprisings against authoritarian regimes tend to inspire people in other countries to strive for democratic changes. It seems the Arab Spring provided a powerful example to the people in the former Soviet Union. The growing protests against election fraud in Russia show the same patterns of Internet-based self-organisation — especially of young people — as the political protests in the Middle East a year ago. And, possibly inspired by their northern neighbours, the people of former Soviet republics in Central Asia are also growing impatient with the authoritarian regimes that replaced Soviet rule twenty years ago.

The US administration, along with other Western governments, needs to be prepared for sudden changes like the ones that took place in the Arab world (which incidentally caught them completely off-guard). Yet Washington is currently concerned primarily with securing support from Central Asian regimes for its military campaign in Afghanistan; and the January 18th decision of the State Department to sign a waiver to provide nonlethal defensive equipment to Uzbekistan is the latest evidence of that policy. 

Cracks in the ‘Kazakh model’?

Kazakhstan, praised by many as the most economically reformed of the Central Asian countries, is experiencing serious political challenges, and victory of the ruling party in the tightly-controlled parliamentary elections last month is unlikely to resolve the tensions.

'...inspired by their northern neighbours, the people of former Soviet republics in Central Asia are also growing impatient with the authoritarian regimes that replaced Soviet rule twenty years ago.'

The unease manifested itself last December during the violent clashes between security forces and oil workers in Zhanaozen  (an impoverished town near oil-rich Caspian) and by a series of terrorist attacks in Aktobe, Astana and Taraz, allegedly by Islamic radicals. Considering that regimes in the other Central Asian countries have far less impressive economic and political records, with high levels of poverty, unemployment, and rampant corruption, the question of ‘whether’ this strategically important region will experience its own ‘Central Asia Spring’ is rapidly changing into ‘when’ and ‘how’ will the transformation happen.


Kazakhstan opposition activists gathered in Almaty Court to show suport to their colleagues Igor Vinyavsky, Vladimir Kozlov and Serik Sapargali, who were arrested in connection with the Zhanaozen December protests.

The ‘Kazakh model’, based on mercantilist economic and authoritarian political systems with little or no room for dissenting views, was over several years promoted as the only one capable of delivering stability, security and development in the region. Today, that model is cracking, unable to withstand internal pressure and winds of changes from outside of the region. Cosmetic repairs, such as allowing a couple of pocket-size opposition parties in the Parliament otherwise dominated by President Nazarbayev’s ‘Otan’ party, will not help. Kazakhstan needs to progress further in its development as a strong democratic nation, which includes free and fair elections with orderly and legitimate transfer of power.

The recent events – the wave of revolts in the Middle East, demonstrations in Russia, coming change of power in China, and even the introduction of two term limits for leaders in communist Cuba – demonstrate that a new norm of a modern sovereign nation is emerging, a norm that imposes hard limitations on the ability of nations’ leaders to stay in power. The absence of such limits undermines the legitimacy of the regimes to the point that they can no longer be sustained.


‘Russia without Putin’ is one of the most popular slogans of the Russian protest movement.  Will ‘Kazakhstan without Nazarbayev’ soon unite critics of the Kazakhstan authoritarian regime in similar fashion?

President Nazarbayev, ruler of Kazakhstan for the past 20 years, along with other regional autocrats, have to recognise this change. (Though, in fact, all the signs are that they already understand it even if unwilling yet to accept it). The international community has to prepare for inevitable political changes in the region and assist to the people of Central Asia in accomplishing a change of government based on popular will and in accordance with the laws and the Constitution —  that important feature of a true democratic society.

Kyrgyzstan: peaceful transfer of power

Within the five Central Asian countries, Kyrgyzstan, a small nation of five million people, demonstrates that it is possible to move away from the authoritarian development. Since independence in 1991, this mountainous country experienced three changes of regime, including twice through violence and disorder. But last year President Almazbek Atambayev assumed office following democractic elections. It was a peaceful and legitimate transfer of power from Roza Otunbayeva, who herself was the first woman-president among post-Soviet states (not counting the Baltic states). The new Kyrgyz Constitution allows only one six year term for the President.

Not having the oil or gas riches of its neighbours, Kyrgyzstan’s development was uneven, with many ups and downs during the twenty years of independence. It continues to struggle even now with instability, ethnic tensions and deep disappointment of both its own citizens and international community.


Last year, Kyrgyzstan experienced a peaceful and legitmate transfer of power — from Roza Otunbayeva to Almazbek Atambayev. It is as yet unclear whether this will set an example for other rulers of the Central Asian countries.

Changes have been slow, but Kyrgyzstan’s model is the exact opposite of the Kazakh one in that it looks to pursue political and economic changes in parallel. It became a source of additional ideological confrontation and economic and political pressure its powerful and richer neighbour. In 2010, after the introduction of the new Parliamentary model and the change of power in Bishkek, Kazakhstan closed borders with Kyrgyzstan for several months, causing significant economic difficulties to the nation.

Yet even with all its shortcomings the Kyrgyz model already provides an effective and attractive example of orderly and lawful transition in power in Central Asia. The newly elected President Almazbek Atambayev is a co-author of the Constitution and actively promotes both the one term limit for President and the Parliamentary system of political power sharing.

'Within the five Central Asian countries, Kyrgyzstan, a small nation of five million people, demonstrates that it is possible to move away from the authoritarian development.'

One of the benefits for Kyrgyzstan from the Arab Spring was a significant reduction of pressure from Nazarbayev and Putin in their demands that Bishkek abandons a Parliamentary system and restores the Presidential one. The United States and wider international community must help President Atambayev and the Kyrgyz people to implement the new system and to obey the Constitutional rules. His success in that endeavour will strengthen the rule of law and serve as a foundation for stability, economic development and resolution of ethnic tensions in Kyrgyzstan. It will also restore Kyrgyzstan as a true model of democratic development in Central Asia.

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