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Central Asia: Opposition Movements Crippled By Failure To Cooperate (Part 2)

  • Bruce Pannier

The Central Asian states have been independent for more than 10 years now. But it remains difficult to see what influence, if any, those countries' opposition movements have had on political life, which is largely dominated by autocratic leaders and the rigid repression of dissent. In the second of a two-part series, RFE/RL looks at the failure of opposition groups to coordinate or cooperate their actions to oppose the region's regimes.

Prague, 26 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- One of the biggest problems for Central Asia's opposition movements is their inability to coordinate. Cooperation does occur, but infrequently.

Saule Mukhametrakhimova, the Central Asia project manager at the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting, said it has not happened enough even in Kyrgyzstan, although the situation is better there than in Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan. Tajikistan ended its five-year civil war in 1997 with an agreement to guarantee the rights of some opposition parties. "I think more important right now is how the opposition groups and movements and parties are united inside each particular country, and I think that is what is not happening, particularly in Kyrgyzstan."

In Kyrgyzstan, there was evidence of cooperation between opposition political parties and movements during the 2000 parliamentary elections. The second- and third-largest political parties in the country -- El (Bei-Bechara) and Ar-Namys, respectively -- were barred from the race by the Constitutional Court on technicalities.

Djypar Djeksheev, the chairman of the Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan, suggested a merger of the two with his already-registered party. He put Ar-Namys leader Feliks Kulov at the top of its list of candidates.

While the newly merged party helped point out to foreign observers some serious problems in the Kyrgyz electoral system, it was not powerful enough to tip the balance in parliament, although the opposition took one seat in the upper house and more than 10 seats in the lower house.

Kyrgyzstan has some 30 officially registered political parties and movements. Two or three of them forming a bloc does not represent a significant challenge to the current government.

In Kazakhstan, the formation of blocs may be the only way for many of the 19 registered parties and movements to survive until this time next year. According to a law that recently came into effect, each party will need not merely the previous 3,000 but 50,000 members to register. Analysts say that only three parties -- all pro-government -- are likely to meet that criteria.

The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights held a two-day conference last month in Vienna on human rights in Turkmenistan, which was attended by members of the Turkmen opposition. Former Turkmen Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov told the Russian daily "Novaya gazeta" at the end of May that the Vienna meeting would show everyone the ability of Turkmen opposition forces to effect change in Turkmenistan. In the end, Shikhmuradov did not attend, and the event received little publicity.

The director of Harvard University's program on Central Asia and the Caucasus, John Schoeberlein, said there are opposition figures who are known more for their character than their policies, and that they often do not seek to share their influence with other leaders or parties. "There is an awful lot of rivalry and bitterness among opposition groups in many of these countries. Many opposition figures are operating not so much on the basis of having built an institution and a set of policies, but on their own individual charisma or their ability to mobilize support through patronage networks and that sort of thing. They see themselves as in opposition to each other. There's sort of a limited supply of opposition support, and each one wants to tap into that support."

That has been a problem between Uzbekistan's Birlik party and its offshoot party, Erk. Since the parties' split there has been little contact between the two, and the founders of both movements are now living in exile. Turkmenistan's Shikhmuradov and former Turkmen Foreign Minister Avdy Kuliev have not hurried to consult each other on tactics.

A majority of Central Asia's best-known opposition leaders were once part of the governments they now say they oppose. Akezhan Kazhegeldin was Kazakhstan's prime minister during the golden years of privatization in the 1990s. Kazhegeldin, who does not deny his wealth, says he made his money as a businessman before he became prime minister. The government tried him in absentia after he joined the opposition. Kazhegeldin was found guilty of embezzlement and abuse of power.

The Turkmen government accuses Shikhmuradov of being involved in $30 million of illegal arms sales.

Kyrgyzstan's Feliks Kulov is in jail for abuse of power and embezzlement when he was governor of the Chu Oblast in the mid-1990s.

These opposition figures may be correct in saying they are victims of politically motivated proceedings, but questions remain: Why would the people of Central Asia, the vast majority of whom live in poverty, support them in their darkest hours? What did these opposition leaders do for the people when they had the chance?

There are two opposition groups that are enjoying growing support in Central Asia, and they are exactly the sort that none of the governments in the region wants to see exert influence. Harvard's Schoeberlein says, "The only opposition that's been able to mobilize a broad constituency is that which is operating underground and outside of the view of the government, and the Islamists have been, by far, the most effective in that kind of organization."

The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), an armed group seeking the creation of an Islamic state in Central Asia, and Hizb ut-Tahrir, which seeks the same goal, have been successful in gaining supporters. The Security Ministry in Kyrgyzstan claimed the IMU numbered as many as 7,000 armed fighters in 2000. The Hizb ut-Tahrir movement is equally feared, though the group publicly preaches a peaceful path to the creation of an Islamic state.

Like the secular opposition, the messages these Islamic groups disseminate to the people of Central Asia are difficult to decipher -- except that Islamic Sharia law will be imposed if they come to power and that life will be better. It is this vague agenda that has enabled some governments in the region to tie the Islamic and secular opposition groups together.

For example, demonstrations were held in March in southern Kyrgyzstan in support of Azimbek Beknazarov, a local member of parliament and popular opposition figure who was facing charges of abuse of power. Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev called the demonstrators "extremists," a term in Central Asia that is usually applied to radical Islamic groups. Akaev later backed off from this statement, saying the organizers of the demonstrations "could" be extremists.

In another instance, the leader of Uzbekistan's Erk party, Mohammad Solih, was tried in absentia and found guilty of planning to kill President Islam Karimov in the Tashkent bombings of February 1999. All of the other suspects were members of the IMU or Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Human rights organizations and advocacy groups for democracy frequently point to abuses, both alleged and substantiated, by the governments in the region. But opposition groups in Central Asia could also be said to be guilty -- of not offering a viable alternative to the current regimes.

As Abdumannob Polat, one of the founders of Uzbekistan's Birlik party says, the activities of Central Asia's opposition movement often do not resemble "a real fight for freedom and democracy."

(RFE/RL's Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, Turkmen, and Uzbek services contributed to this report.)

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