It may be the dead of winter in Central Asia and the Caucasus, but it seems like the leaders of such countries as Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have the “Arab Spring” still very much on their minds.
These states continue to implement measures designed to restrict freedom of speech and association, as well as curtail religious liberty. One visible trigger for these crackdowns is a general desire on the part of regional authorities to prevent expressions of dissent from turning into political action.
Governments are paying a lot of attention to mass communications and social networks, the engines of protest in the Middle East and North Africa. Uzbek authorities, for example, have taken steps to tighten control over cellular companies, instructing providers to report on any suspicious actions by customers, and on any massive distributions of text messages via their cellular networks. Azarbaijan has just taken similar action to keep close tabs on cell and text traffic.
Incumbent officials are also clearly concerned about the religious dimension of politics. This means all forms of religious expression – mainly Muslim, but also Christian – that are not officially sanctioned are facing more scrutiny than ever. In Kyrgyzstan, for instance, over 170 unregistered mosques have been closed down in recent months. Conversely, Tajik authorities are proceeding with plans to build a mosque that can accommodate over 100,000 worshipers. Local experts say the massive mosque would make it easier for authorities to keep track of religious affairs in the capital Dushanbe.
Efforts to control religion go beyond domestic politics. In Azerbaijan and Tajikistan, crackdowns are in part connected to suspicions about Iran’s involvement with, or ideological support for religious opposition to the ruling governments. Tension concerning perceived Iranian meddling is particularly acute in Azerbaijan. Baku took steps in 2011 to neutralize the overtly pro-Iranian Islamic Party of Azerbaijan (AIP), including arresting the party’s head Movsun Samadov. At the same time, Iranian agents are suspected of trying to intimidate secularists in Baku, and discouraging discussion about the role of Islam in public life.
In Tajikistan, President Imomali Rahmon’s administration is confronting a revival of militant Islamist activity. Shortly before the collapse of the Mubarak regime in Egypt last February, Time Magazine ranked Rahmon 8th on a list of the Top 10 autocrats in trouble. In addition to building a massive state-run mosque, the Tajik leader has taken such drastic measures as recalling students studying Islam at foreign institutions, including Al-Azhar University in Cairo.
Of late, Kazakhstan, a country that has traditionally styled itself as a bastion of religious and ethnic toleration, has taken forceful steps to increase government control of religion. The catalyst for such action appears to be a string of terrorism incidents in 2011, although in virtually all of the cases, officials seemed reluctant to pin the blame on Islamic militants.
In October, President Nursultan Nazarbayev signed legislation that imposed stringent registration requirements on religious associations. For example, all officially recognized religious groups, as well as anyone conducting “missionary activity,” were required to re-register in order to keep operating. The legislation also contained a vaguely worded provision that appears to give the state broad powers to intervene in the country’s religious life. Specifically, the provision “prohibits religious associations that are bent on the destruction of families, force the abandonment of property in favor of religious communities — and are harmful to the morals and health of the citizens.”
In general, the measures taken to curb free speech and religious expression reflect a sense of deep vulnerability on the part of regional leaders. It’s clear they feel that clamping down offers the best chance of maintaining the status quo. Yet by trying to close off all safety valves for the venting of popular frustration, officials in Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and even Kazakhstan may be raising, not lowering the odds of a Spring-like reaction happening in their own countries.