BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — For Omurbek Tekebayev, it will all come down to the weather.
Tekebayev, an opposition leader in this ex-Soviet republic of five million, says that a long, bitter winter could trigger social unrest. While no one hopes for suffering, cold weather may present just the opportunity that the opposition is waiting for.
Many analysts and diplomats working here agree: The country is facing a collection of winter challenges unprecedented in scale and diversity. Electricity, heating, food, water — all are in dangerously short supply, they say. Each sector could explode into an emergency of its own. And all this is taking place as the country feels the sting of the world economic crisis.
Neighboring Tajikistan experienced a similar calamity last winter, and is now gearing up for even worse. Hospitals last year were reportedly forced to use hot water bottles to incubate newborn babies, while the capital, Dushanbe, was plunged into darkness.
Although they are located far from the halls of influence — both are impoverished, small, mountainous nations on China’s far Western border — the fate of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan is worrisome to planners in Washington.
Kyrgyzstan hosts both a Russian airbase and major NATO supply hub for nearby Afghanistan. The NATO base, staffed predominantly by Americans, has seen its importance amplified recently, with Taliban attacks threatening the security of a southern supply route through Pakistan.
Officials formerly viewed Tajikistan’s relative security as contributing stability to Afghanistan, with which it shares an extensive border. NATO has also used Tajikistan as a supply route against the Taliban. Today much of the traffic goes the other way, with a significant portion of Europe's heroin supply transiting through the country
By early January, rolling blackouts were sweeping both countries — a circumstance brought on by the dangerously low level of their water reservoirs, the main source of power. This in turn has resulted in a heating shortage, as most homes use electricity and not gas.
In Kyrgyzstan, many schools are scheduled to be closed in January and February, the worst months. Hospitals are stocking up on generators so that they can function when the power is suddenly cut. Kyrgyz officials contend that even with austerity measures now being introduced, energy supplies may completely run out in February.
"It's the first time in the history of the country that the political situation depends on the weather," said Tekebayev.
If the winter is short and relatively warm, he said, the current government may just manage to cling to power. But if it is harsher than usual, as many are predicting, President Kurmanbek Bakiev's political future may be at stake.
If the crisis meets their expectations, Tekebayev and other members of the opposition promise mass protests in March. Demonstrators would most likely demand Bakiev's resignation. This is no idle threat. Kyrgyzstan witnessed a violent transfer of power in 2004, the so-called Tulip Revolution, which swept Bakiev to the top post and deposed former President Askar Akayev.
"The parallels with the last days of Akayev are eerie," said one western official who spoke on condition of anonymity. He cited rising public anger, key officials in the government breaking ranks with Bakiev, and the widely-held belief that the presidential family controls the main levers of the economy.
In both countries the level of public dissatisfaction has spiked sharply. In Kyrgyzstan Bakiev has cracked down on the opposition and installed a one-party parliament. Corruption has thrived. Paradoxically, many observers say, he has succeeded in installing the type of authoritarian regime he accused his predecessor Akayev of attempting.
In Tajikistan, the situation is potentially worse. The republic threatens to become a failed state. President Emomali Rakhmon is viewed as leading a government rife with dysfunction and graft and incapable of providing basic services to the population.
"This is a state that has no logical basis of being called a state. There is no rational reason for it to continue to exist," said Paul Quinn-Judge, the Central Asia director for the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based security think tank and political consultancy.
"The government is only getting by because it has left people to fend for themselves," he added.
Despite this, there are factors working against an outbreak of mass demonstrations, analysts say. The bitter memory of Tajikistan's blood-soaked civil war in the 1990s, which left possibly more than 40,000 dead, has served as a brake on public anger. In both countries the political opposition is weak and divided, and until now the population has been sullenly passive.
But the lack of a viable, credible opposition to organize protests also raises concerns that if demonstrations do take place, they will be spontaneous and possibly violent.
Quinn-Judge and a number of others believe that spring unrest is very likely a foregone conclusion: "If the regimes get through this without a serious crisis, it's pure luck and nothing more," he said.