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Central Asia -- Is Change Imminent?

FILE: A woman (L) dressed in national costume offers traditional local dishes during Norouz celebrations in Bishkek.
FILE: A woman (L) dressed in national costume offers traditional local dishes during Norouz celebrations in Bishkek.

Central Asia experts have recently voiced a consensus view: A leadership change in the region won't translate into real changes.

The verdict is logical. Yet a look at known trends suggests changes might come sooner than anticipated.

The pressure for change is likely to grow, especially, in Uzbekistan, as several forces are working against the status quo. Some of them are beyond the authorities' control, at least, in the short-to-medium term.

One obvious factor: The Russian economy, having entered what looks like a long-term recession, is unlikely to serve as a safety valve for Uzbekistan's unemployment problem. Some 2 million Uzbeks have been working in Russia, and the money they send home has propped up the Uzbek economy. As the jobs and remittances disappear, the Uzbek government will face a fiscal challenge. Already last year it was struggling to pay even the salaries of the police, a group whose loyalty is crucial. Then there are around half a million youths graduating from high school every year; they, too, need jobs.

Another risk factor is that Uzbekistan is losing its agricultural capacity. This is significant for an agrarian economy in which half of the people live in the countryside and one-third work in farming. In the decade from 1991 to 2001 alone, some provinces lost 14-15 percent of their arable land to soil degradation. Such loss almost certainly has continued apace, since there has been no discernable change in farming methods -- suggesting that today the situation is probably much worse. Adding to this, droughts appear to have become common and river flows are down: Local glaciers are losing about 5 gigatons of ice per year. (For comparison's sake, Germany consumes around 3.5 gigatons of drinking water annually)

Last but not least, civil-society activists are learning to be effective. The Cotton Campaign has been successful, and Uzbek officials can no longer ignore the calls to stop using forced labor. In Kazakhstan, rallies have compelled the government to suspend an unpopular land reform. Even Turkmenistan has seen public protests that halted bureaucrats' bizarre decisions.

Fleeting Loyalty?

With economic, demographic, and environmental trends that are clear, fairly rapid and in some cases mutually reinforcing, Uzbekistan seems to be headed toward an upheaval. And what happens there will affect the rest of Central Asia.

Recently, commentators have observed that a large number of young Uzbeks seem to genuinely mourn the passing of their country's leader Islam Karimov, who died earlier this month, and apparently don't mind the regime.

This loyalty, however, may prove fleeting, potentially echoing Egypt's experience. There, too, the majority of the population (75 percent) is under 25 and had known only one leader, Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled for almost 30 years. They had been indeed infantilized by a great leader narrative. Yet this didn't stop them from taking to Tahrir Square once a sufficient number of them realized the regime was failing to deliver jobs or opportunities.

The authorities have known of the challenges -- and ignored them for years and, in some cases, for decades, even as the problems grew deeper and wider. This makes their grip on power potentially brittle: They are fully in control until they aren't.

Thankfully, there is still time, and the new leaders might recognize they are facing forces they can't dictate to and thus choose to be pragmatic.

Potential Breathing Space

For example, Uzbekistan could replicate other dictatorships' success in agricultural reform. Back in the 1980s, both Vietnam and China solved pressing issues overnight by simply giving their farmers some breathing space. As a result, jobs were created, incomes rose, and people felt more content -- all improving political stability, a concept favored by Central Asian governments.

In the absence of such pragmatism, change could take a nonlinear path. This needn't be accompanied by bloodshed, as some might fear. The world has accumulated a treasure trove of knowledge that the regime and its opponents could use.

The experiences of other countries -- like the 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe -- offer insight on how to steer such changes down a nonviolent path that improves life for most people, including the ruling elites. Even those transitions that have failed (the Arab Spring) or struggled to succeed (Ukraine's Maidan) offer valuable lessons on mistakes to be avoided.

In the meantime, human rights defenders, civil-society activists, and independent journalists can rely on the wisdom of an earlier generation. By 1982, the Soviet dissident movement had been crushed and its prospects looked grim. Andrei Sakharov, in a letter from his internal exile in Gorky, wrote, "Fortunately, the future is unpredictable and also -- because of quantum effects -- uncertain." Six years later, he elaborated in an interview, "I believe the future is unpredictable and uncertain, it is created by all of us, step by step, in our infinitely complex interaction."

T. Kamilev is the pen name of a Central Asian blogger. These views are the author's alone and do not represent those of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.