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Kyrgyzstan: Youth Groups Show Renewed Interest In Politics (Part 2)

  • Bruce Pannier

http://gdb.rferl.org/CB80056F-DCAD-42DA-B4EC-CC8DAC3AF00C_w203.jpg --> http://gdb.rferl.org/CB80056F-DCAD-42DA-B4EC-CC8DAC3AF00C_mw800_mh600.jpg President Askar Akaev (file photo) Kyrgyzstan holds parliamentary elections on 27 February and the country’s youth have never been so politically active. Previously, common wisdom held that young people in Kyrgyzstan were apathetic when it came to politics. But the number of youth groups making their voices heard shows the young people of Kyrgyzstan -- perhaps inspired by groups and events abroad -- are feeling a new strength. They have become a force that political parties are now trying to win over to their side.

Prague, 23 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- "The wave has risen. The thunder has awoken. The time has come, a time for celebration of the victory of good over evil...."

That’s the campaign song of KelKel, a youthful political movement that is making waves in Kyrgyzstan. Loosely translated, KelKel means “new epoch” in Kyrgyz and the group -- using adapted lyrics to a popular movie tune -- is appealing to youth across the country to vote on 27 February against a government it accuses of corruption and authoritarian practices.

KelKel is one of many youth groups and parties that have sprung up recently in Kyrgyzstan, representing the full political spectrum from pro-government to neutral, to resolutely antigovernment.

It should be no surprise that the youth factor is playing an important role in the poll. Kyrgyzstan’s population, like that of many of its neighbors, is young. Some 55 percent of its inhabitants are under the age of 35. But up until now, democracy advocates say young people have been too passive and let themselves be manipulated by the government.

This time, they are hoping things will be different, although they admit it is an uphill battle.

KelKel’s leader, Alisher Mamasaliev, faces a court case over an allegedly unsanctioned rally. He has been accused by officials of trying to import revolution from Ukraine and Georgia -- a charge he resolutely denies. Mamasaliev told RFE/RL that KelKel was founded after numerous complaints by university students over rights violations. He stressed that it is a homegrown movement responding to local needs.

"After they told us about the pressures they faced during voting, about how university rectors force students living in dormitories to vote for a particular candidate or face expulsion from university, we decided to create an independent youth organization to defend the rights of students and also give them information about their voting rights," Mamasaliev said.

RFE/RL contacted the Kyiv offices of the Ukrainian youth movement Pora, to ask them to comment on the Kyrgyz government’s accusations of foreign interference in the elections. Pora coordinator Vladyslav Kaskiv said his group is working to establish contacts with youth organizations throughout the region and has found partners in Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, for example. But he stresses that everything is transparent. And as of now, he emphasized, Pora has had no contacts with Kyrgyz youth groups.

"We are working out very clear criteria based on the legislation of these countries and based on international law about possible cooperation with local partners, since we want to clearly define our mission and want to avoid possible accusations of interference in the domestic affairs of these countries," Kaskiv said.

In addition to harassment by the authorities and court cases, KelKel in particular faces another obstacle. Just days after it was founded, a pro-government group also calling itself KelKel obtained official registration. At its rallies, it uses the same yellow color and lemon symbol as its antigovernment rival -- an obvious confusion to potential voters.

Kerim Makeev is the leader of another youth opposition group called Uyghun, which means “those who have awoken” in Kyrgyz. He confirmed that students are being pressured to vote for government candidates and he said this is breeding widespread opposition.

“You see that the young people, especially those who just finished university or are unemployed, are working to get [President Askar] Akaev out of office. Students say it is unfair that teachers order us to attend forums where suddenly they force us to sign petitions supporting Akaev. We’re against bloodshed or conflicts between people,” Makeev said.

A survey on the streets of Bishkek conducted by RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service appears to support what Makeev and others claim about students being pressured to support incumbent and pro-government candidates in parliamentary elections, as two young women recounted.

First young woman: “Everyone should vote for who they want but it doesn’t work out like that.”

Second young woman: "As it is now, we’re being forced to vote for people.”

Aside from civic groups and political parties representing young people, another interesting feature of this election is that several children of well-known political figures are running for office.

On the pro-government side, 32-year-old Bermet Akaeva and 29-year-old Aydar Akaev, the children of President Askar Akaev, are both running for seats in parliament, as is Aleksei Tanaev, son of the prime minister.

But the offspring of several former politicians who have now gone into opposition are also hoping for seats in parliament, including the son of former parliament speaker Medetkan Sherimkulov and the brothers of former Prime Minister Kurmanbek Bakiev.

These races will be closely watched for indications about which direction the next generation of Kyrgyz politicians will head.

(RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service and correspondent Jeremy Brasten contributed to this report.)

For news, background, and analysis on Kyrgyzstan's 27 February parliamentary elections, see RFE/RL's webpage "Kyrgyzstan Votes 2005".

Also see:

"Kyrgyzstan: Opposition Prepares For Parliamentary Elections (Part 1)"

and

"Kyrgyzstan: Would Reformist Gains Spark Change In Other Central Asian States? (Part 3)"
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