In the January issue of The Diplomat Magazine, we asked our authors what to expect in Asia in the coming year. As the magazine (which puts the “special” in my title), is now in its third year we have our past words to hold us accountable. As I wrote this year’s Central Asia outlook, I peeked back at what I’d written in December 2015 as I contemplated 2016.
Did what I expect come to be? What surprised me? Plenty in equal measure. I divided my outlook last year into three parts: economics, politics and security. In all three areas, I touched on trends I thought would dominate 2016.
“Economic gloom, political stagnation, and Islamist boogeymen, welcome to 2016 Central Asia,” the tagline of my 2016 outlook read. Indeed, economic gloom certainly pervaded 2016 in Central Asia and Russia remained at the center of that storm.
At the G20 summit in September, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the Russian economy had “stabilized.” However, an economist with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), categorized the Russian economy as merely moving from recession into stagnation. Sergei Guriyev, a self-exiled former Kremlin adviser who is now the chief economist of the EBRD, told RFE/RL, “The situation, to put it mildly, is not easy.”
The real story of 2016 was at the intersection of economics, politics, and security. Nowhere was this more obvious than in Kazakhstan.
Last year, I wrote that “[t]he harshness of regional crackdowns tend to be in proportion to the country’s economic woes.” Kazakhstan has felt the economic downturn most acutely, in part because its people had experienced the greatest economic growth in the region’s independent history. As the power ballad goes, “You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone.” Though I did not anticipate the spring Land Code protests to grow as they did, the protests, the crackdown and the concerted effort throughout the year on the part of Kazakh authorities to tamp sources of dissent — from troublesome businessmen to bloggers — underscores the calculation linking economic turmoil to political restriction.
Furthermore, I noted that “[t]he rush to label every form of opposition as terrorism will mask the potential emergence of actual violent movements in the region.” In Kazakhstan this came to the fore in violent fashion, with attacks in Aktobe (June 5) and Almaty (July 18), after a spring which the Kazakh security services spent rounding up nonviolent protesters. The conflation of alleged coup-plots, foreign influencers, protests, and terrorism is a dangerously confusing mix.
Kyrgyzstan, in late 2015, was contemplating widely controversial “foreign agents” and “gay propaganda” bills. Neither were passed, but the constitutional changes I noted as being “in the works” sailed through by referendum earlier this month. Kyrgyzstan, as I noted last year, is “approaching a turning point” with the expected presidential elections in fall 2017. The political seeds planted in 2016 will be up for harvest next year.
As expected, ISIS (and “terrorism” more broadly) remained a regional buzzword, “slapped on Muslims outside the state’s prescribed level of piety, annoying human rights advocates and pesky journalists alike.” This was most obvious in Tajikistan, which followed 2015’s crackdowns with closed-door trials in kangaroo courts that sent the country’s former opposition to prison and then their lawyers, too.
The death of Uzbekistan’s erstwhile president, Islam Karimov, was not necessarily surprising, though the timing was symbolic If the state’s account is to be believed (take that as you wish), he died a day after Uzbekistan’s 25th independent anniversary. Inasmuch as his death was expected — the end comes for us all, eventually — the aftermath was calmer than those who always feared the worst predicted.
For my 2017 outlook, check out the January issue of the magazine.