From COVID-19 To China: Mapping The Changing Face Of Dissent In Central Asia

From people demanding better welfare protections to demonstrators calling for lockdown measures, the COVID-19 pandemic has been the main source of recent protest in Central Asia, according to a new study.

The new report by the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs, a recently founded Washington-based research organization, mapped protests in the five former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, cataloguing 981 incidents over a 2 1/2-year span to August 2020.

In addition to showing the effects that the pandemic has already had on the region in terms of fueling dissent, the data set included in the September 28 report also shows the evolving and diversifying nature of protest in Central Asia.

Whether it is succession and calls for reform in Kazakhstan or concerns over food shortages in Turkmenistan, the region is being pulled by an array of economic and political forces that look set to define the region in the years to come.

"Each country has its own feel," Edward Lemon, the president of the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs and one of the report's authors, told RFE/RL. "In Tajikistan, many protests are not really protests at all, but [rather are] government-backed protests at foreign embassies and international organizations opposing their support for the country's exiled opposition. In Uzbekistan, many protests are related to gas supplies or to efforts to demolish people's homes, which are often resisted quite violently."

Tracking Protests

Kazakhstan leads the region in terms of total protests with 520, followed by Kyrgyzstan with 351, which the report's authors attribute to a more permissive environment for demonstrations and more active civil society relative to other Central Asian countries.

In comparison, Turkmenistan only accounted for nine protests and Tajikistan for 27 over the same period. Uzbekistan, in part due to a more liberalized environment since the death of President Islam Karimov in 2016, registered 74 protests in the survey.

In Kazakhstan, the bulk of the dissent occurred in the wake of former President Nursultan Nazarbaev's resignation in March 2019 and the election of Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev as president three months later. Not only did the succession and ensuing election set off a wave of protests in the country, it also spawned new movements and breathed new life into Kazakh activism as calls for economic and political reforms continue to mount.

Earlier this year, the Kazakh government passed a new protest law that promised to improve freedom of assembly in the country. But human rights groups have criticized the legislation for seemingly making it more difficult to organize demonstrations -- something that Lemon says could ultimately backfire for the authorities.

"As Kazakhstan continues to repress any public signs of dissent, it will likely cause more protests against such measures," he said.

An Eye On China

The Oxus Society's survey also spotted a rising trend of China-related protests in the region, with the data set cataloguing 98 anti-China demonstrations.

China is Central Asia's largest investor and a key power in the region with a growing business and security footprint that has at times inflamed tensions with local populations despite Beijing’s close ties to their governments.

Apart from one protest in Tajikistan, the rest of the anti-China protests occurred within Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, where opinion polls show that China is viewed with greater suspicion.

Concerns over Chinese labor practices, an overreliance on Chinese workers, and corruption tied to Chinese-linked business ventures have fueled protests in recent years.

Protesters have also targeted Beijing's mass internment of Muslim minorities in its western Xinjiang Province, which has included many ethnic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz.

According to Bradley Jardine, the report's lead author and a fellow at the Wilson Center's Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, the concentration of protests in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan is partly due to family links that exist across the border with Xinjiang.

"Transboundary linkages like these would have positive connotations in a free and open environment," he told RFE/RL, "but with China's growing crackdown in Xinjiang in recent years, many Kazakhs and Kyrgyz have lost contact with relatives across the border, heightening their fear."

And while anti-China feelings are most clearly on display in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, Jardine was quick to note that this may be due to more authoritarian political spaces elsewhere in the region and less tolerance by the authorities for anti-China activism.

"A curious finding of the research was a distinct lack of anti-China protests in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan -- despite evidence of anti-China sentiments being commonplace," he said. "Strict control over media and the lack of strong opposition and activist movements has kept protests like those seen in neighboring Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in check."

Pandemic Shock Waves

While the data show a growing diversity of issues motivating protests in Central Asia, they also highlight common causes that look set to grow more prominent in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic: particularly those centered around the economy and social welfare.

The virus has already taken a toll, with the World Bank forecasting that Central Asia's gross domestic product will contract by up to 5.4 percent by the end of the year. The region also faces growing headwinds in the form of falling remittances from labor migrants in Russia and decreased commodity prices, which could further strain government services and fuel more protests in the future.

The report's authors also warn that the economic pains set off by the pandemic could exacerbate anti-China feelings in the region, with fears over debts owed to Beijing, Chinese workers taking jobs from locals, and Chinese-financed investments serving as a backdoor for political leverage mounting in the face of growing financial hardship in the region. Since the onset of the pandemic, both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have asked Beijing for some form of debt relief, fueling concerns over China's growing sway in the region.

"As jobs become increasingly scarce due to COVID-19 and incomes fall, these narratives will have greater appeal," Lemon said. "People will question what benefits Chinese investment brings to them, when Chinese companies often employ their own citizens and the main benefits go to government officials in the form of kickbacks or investors in the form of dividends."