But a ruler cannot always trust his subordinates. One concern is that they might grow too close to the populations they serve, thus working for their constituents' interests instead of the government's. The ruler's first line of defense against this risk is to frequently rotate local officials. (Lest we think this practice is unfair, the United States, like other democracies, limits the terms of its diplomats' overseas tours for the same reason.) But a dictator may also fear that his underlings are growing so rich or powerful from their position that they can become a potential threat to his rule. Dictators may indeed face real threats, but they also tend to overreact by using heavy handed methods, alienating allies and creating new enemies in the process.
Thus, we see a picture of dictatorship that is far from the orderly, meticulous image dictators seek to project. Central Asia's leaders have distinguished themselves as expert managers of greed and graft, but because this system rests on informal agreements and depends on the personality of the ruler, it is also fragile. The episodes above hint at possible troubles, but the possibilities are more alarming when we consider historical examples of how apparent stability can suddenly give way to instability on a massive scale. What could cause such a breakdown in Central Asia?
While forecasting is difficult, there are two plausible risks on the horizon. One is if there is not enough loot to go around, and elites have to compete over fewer resources. This is not likely to happen any time soon in Kazakhstan or Turkmenistan, where petroleum reserves are projected to last decades, and Chinese buyers are willing to pay top dollar. But it is a more serious concern in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, which have struggled to regain their economic footing since the 2008 financial crisis.
More likely to cause a stir are presidential successions. Foremost on the list of soon-to-be-ex-presidents are Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, 71, and Karimov of Uzbekistan, 74, who have been in power since 1991. (Emomali Rahmon of Tajikistan has been in power for 17 years but is only 60.) None has a known plan for succession.
Karimov has no sons but has two daughters, the eldest of which was described in a WikiLeaks cable as "the single most hated person in Uzbekistan." Nazarbayev has three daughters and no sons; his family problems are well known.
Given the lack of a reliable mechanism to transfer power, all bets are off when the leaders eventually pass on. For two decades, the informal rules have worked effectively to safeguard the interests of ruling elites. But these elites have no experience in dealing with major changes, so they may not be able to resolve their differences peacefully when the old man is no longer around to enforce the old rules.
If elite struggles spill out onto the streets in a Central Asian country, the consequences could mirror the darker side of the Arab Spring, as in Syria or Yemen. On the other hand, the elites might be able to work together to ensure a smooth transfer of power, as happened in Turkmenistan after President Niyazov's death in 2006.
In either case, democracy is not the most likely outcome. Sadly, Central Asia's Tahrir Square moment may still be a long way off.