February 03, 2011
Their Own Private Egypt: Could Azerbaijan Or Central Asia Be Next?
by Farangis Najibullah, Daisy Sindelar
All along the southern tier of the former Soviet Union, people have watched with rapt attention as events in Egypt have unfolded.
In countries like Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan, people are now looking at their own autocratic leaders -- most already in power for decades -- and wondering if they might fall to the same fate as Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, whose 30-year rule is very likely to end as a result of the massive public uprising, and where resentment over poverty, corruption, and repressive rule mirror many of the ills in the southern ex-Soviet republics.
Ali Karimli, the head of the opposition Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, says the recent wave of public protests across Tunisia, Yemen, and Egypt are eye-opening for many people who believed the Arab world would be the last place to witness people-power movements forcing concessions from their leaders.
He says Aliyev -- who has erected a statue of Mubarak in Baku and nurtured close ties with a number of Arab leaders -- should take note:
"All of Azerbaijan saw how comfortable Ilham Aliyev felt when he met with Arab dictators. He established good contacts with them, and he saw these countries as a model for Azerbaijan,” Karimli said. “Now everybody who looked to those countries as a model is probably disappointed. Looking at these developments, you can conclude that global democracy-building can now speed up, so that there will be no asylum country for dictators."
Did Nazarbaev Learn A Lesson?
In Kazakhstan, the country's longstanding leader, Nursultan Nazarbaev, this week appeared to draw a lesson from Egypt when he suddenly scrapped a referendum on prolonging his rule for another decade, calling instead for early presidential elections.
But advisers to Nazarbaev have rejected the notion that echoes of the Egypt scenario would ever be felt in Kazakhstan, which they say has managed to address the question of living standards and poverty in a way that Egypt has not.
Rustem Lebekov, the director of the Eurasian Center for Political Studies in Almaty, says that while events in the Middle East may not have an impact on ordinary Kazakhs, they have definitely set off alarm bells in the halls of power.
"Our people are largely apolitical -- they're not particularly interested in politics, especially in political events abroad,” Lebekov said. “[What's going on in the Middle East] has more impact on the local elite. These events frighten those in power, because people start drawing parallels."
Nazarbaev is one of the longest-ruling autocrats in Central Asia. The other is Islam Karimov, whose rule over Uzbekistan is considered one of the most repressive in the world.
Specter Of Radical Islam
There, state-run media have given only summary coverage of the events in Egypt. And the few newspaper commentaries that have appeared on the topic have warned that ousting Middle Eastern leaders would create a void that could only be filled by radical Islam, citing the current reemergence of the banned Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
The specter of militant Islam is a favored bogeyman among Central Asian autocrats -- and even authorities in the more democratic Kyrgyzstan -- who suggest their regimes are the only bulwark between stability and violent mayhem at the hands of groups like the IMU, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
But Central Asia experts like Eric McGlinchey, a professor of political science at George Mason University in the United States, says Karimov and others are playing the Islamist card as a way of tamping down public anger over corruption and poverty.
How Long Can They Live?
Besides, he says, there's a far greater threat to the Central Asian regimes than either spillover from Egypt or rising radical Islam -- and it's something that neither 72-year-old Karimov nor 70-year-old Nazarbaev can do anything about.
"There's also another thing that's coinciding with this at the same time, and that is that, in Nazarbaev and Karimov's case in particular, these guys are getting old!,” McGlinchey said. “They're getting older and older and older. Now, they might not die tomorrow, but what happens when these guys keep getting older is the expectation of some kind of transfer of power increases, and that injects uncertainty into the situation that hadn't existed before."
It's this situation, McGlinchey says, that's the ultimate destabilizer -- an aging leader attempting to hold onto power as the political elite around him jockey for position in whatever regime comes next.
In Azerbaijan, 49-year-old Ilham Aliyev may feel the problems of his autocratic elders are some ways off. Aliyev inherited the presidency from his father, Heydar, and has shown every intention of passing it on to his son, also named Heydar. His control over the country and its ample resources are nearly complete.
But ordinary Azerbaijanis in Baku suggest that events in Egypt may fuel calls for an end to Azerbaijan's political dynasty.
"[Mubarak] has been in power for 30 years. That's enough,” said an Azerbaijani man on the street who declined to be identified. “Let another man come and rule the nation. The same is taking place in our country. [One dynasty] will spend 30, 40 years in power -- but in the end they'll be overthrown."
In the meantime, a statue of Mubarak in a central Baku park and songs like "Building Our Peace," written by Mubarak's wife Suzanne and performed by a popular Azerbaijani singer, may serve as increasingly uncomfortable reminders that even firm friendships and firm leaders may not be enough to prevent change from coming to Egypt, Azerbaijan, or Central Asia.
RFE/RL's Azerbaijani and Turkmen services contributed to this report