In the last six months, three countries in Central Asia—Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan—have undergone major crises. All three cases developed along similar lines: growing tension and protests, an armed response by the security services, a harsh crackdown, and a politically motivated investigation. The consequences for each country, however, are far from identical.

The first crisis to unfold was in Kazakhstan in January 2022, when protests by oil workers turned violent and spread to the country’s biggest city, Almaty. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev used the opportunity to shake off the dominance of the old elites once and for all, and by the time the dust had settled, the processes had begun of removing the country’s powerful former president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, from Kazakhstan’s corridors of power, and of constitutional reform.

After Tokayev called in troops from the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to help quash the unrest, there were fears the crisis signaled an end to the country’s multi-vector foreign policy, and that Kazakhstan would now be beholden to Moscow in exchange for the help it had received from the CSTO. Those fears appear to have been unfounded: in an interview with Russian TV ahead of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in June, Tokayev made it quite clear that his country did not consider itself “saved” by Russia in any way. Now Kazakhstan is threatening to end Russia’s right to use the Central Asian country’s ship, the Zhibek Zholy (Silk Road), which is allegedly being used by the Russians to transport stolen grain out of Ukraine.

This was the backdrop to—and, in a way, something of an example for—the events that occurred at the start of this month in Karakalpakstan, a region fiercely protective of its status as an “autonomous republic” within Uzbekistan, when protests broke out over plans to limit its right to secede. Eighteen people were killed and dozens more injured when the protesters clashed with security forces. 

The roots of the crisis had nothing at all to do with Karakalpakstan. It all began when, less than a year after being reelected for a second term, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev started thinking about how he could stay on for a third term (the constitution limits presidents to two terms). Legal formalities were not something that ever bothered his predecessor Islam Karimov, who ruled Uzbekistan from 1991 until his death in 2016, but Mirziyoyev looked for inspiration from other quarters: Russia, where Putin managed to reset the clock on his own presidential terms by amending the constitution. Since Uzbekistan’s existing constitution afforded Karakalpakstan a whole range of rights, including the right to secede if its people voted to do so in a referendum, this seemed like an easy place to start: by replacing the right to secession with some vague phrasing about how the region is governed in accordance with the constitutions and laws of both Uzbekistan and the republic of Karakalpakstan.

The proposals did not go unnoticed by the public, and Dauletmurat Tazhimuratov, a blogger and activist in Karakalpakstan’s main city Nukus, organized a protest meeting for July 5 against the proposed amendments. On July 1, he was arrested and then released when a crowd started to gather near the city’s central market. The next day, crowds of people assembled near the parliament building to hear him speak, and the event descended into chaos. It was reported by local media that the security services had started throwing smoke grenades, which protesters promptly threw back at them. The violence continued all night amid an information blackout: internet access was cut off in the region, while state media ignored what was happening. President Mirziyoyev ended up flying to Nukus to reassure residents that the region’s status would not change. Both he and the local authorities later blamed Uzbek opposition figures in exile for provoking the crisis, while criminal cases have been opened against Tazhimuratov and hundreds of others.

It was already being said during the last presidential election in October that the liberal reform of Uzbekistan would drastically slow down, if not stop altogether. Now that trend has been laid bare, and 2017–2019 are looked back upon as the “golden age” of freedom of speech in Uzbekistan.

The rulings in the court cases opened against 516 people detained in Nukus will give some indication of things to come. It’s entirely possible that Tashkent will conclude that nothing good can come of playing at democracy in Central Asia, and that behind any public dissatisfaction must lie foreign interference, which must be stamped out. In that case, we may well see a slow rollback of the reforms undertaken by the current regime since Karimov’s death.

The third crisis to hit Central Asia in recent months took place in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan region, was much more protracted, and attracted a lot less attention than the events in neighboring countries. Like Uzbekistan’s Karakalpakstan, Gorno-Badakhshan is a huge but sparsely populated region. Isolated, poor, and ethnically and linguistically distinct from the rest of the country, it also has autonomous status. 

Conflict had been brewing for a long time, but the chain of events that eventually led to the recent “anti-terrorist operation” began back at the start of 2021, when a deputy prosecutor from Dushanbe was accused of sexually harassing a local young woman. Locals took matters into their own hands, and the prosecutor was apparently beaten and subsequently recalled to the capital. In November 2021, a twenty-nine-year-old man who had been involved in the assault on the prosecutor was shot dead for allegedly resisting arrest. His funeral turned into a protest rally, prompting the authorities to block internet access for the entire region for the next few months.

The government decided to use the opportunity to double down and deal with the informal local leaders who had sprung up, including members of crime gangs. Independent-minded Badakhshan has long been mistrustful of figures sent from Dushanbe, which has given rise to a group of influential people who could quickly assemble 200 armed men to back them at any time. 

In May, new protests broke out against the checkpoints that the security services had erected all around the region’s administrative center, Khorugh. The protest organizers were then accused of jeopardizing public safety and trying to gain illegal influence. In the massive crackdown that followed, dozens of people were killed, including Mahmadboqir Mahmadboqirov, whom police described as the leader of an organized crime gang, adding that his death was “the result of infighting between criminal groups.”

While there were similarities in what happened in Badakhshan, Almaty, and Karakalpakstan, such as ruthless crackdowns and information blackouts (though Tajikistan broke the record in this respect by keeping an entire region offline for several months), there were major differences too. By insisting that the authorities were battling organized crime gangs in Badakhshan, President Emomali Rahmon moved the problem out of the political sphere, and made it clear that he is the only authority in his country. Having purged the region’s most dangerous crime bosses will also be a weight off his mind as he prepares for his son Rustam to take over from him.

Yet Rahmon’s plan to do all the dirty work for his son before he hands over power is not without flaws. Anger is mounting in Badakhshan, where people are calling for the autonomy that the constitution nominally guarantees them, as well as demanding an end to the police state in place. As soon as any prominent resistance figures are removed from the picture, others emerge to take their place.

All the crises that have erupted in Central Asia this year have the same underlying causes: weak political institutions, and governments that dismiss public frustration until it erupts into bloodshed on the streets. Yet in modernizing Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, proponents of the “firm hand” approach will no doubt draw the conclusion that making concessions to protesters only encourages them to make new demands. Tajikistan, meanwhile—unlike Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan—isn’t even trying to present itself as a modernizing country in the process of becoming a democracy. Its main partner is China, which is currently constructing new government buildings in Dushanbe, and whose attitude to human rights is well known. 

The ability of Central Asian nations to democratize is therefore very limited, and periods of a relative thaw may give way to regression. In this situation, the best that can be hoped for is that during this process, previous achievements will not be obliterated entirely.

  • Kirill Krivosheev