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Central Asia: Where Georgians See Roses, Regional Leaders May See Thorns

  • Bruce Pannier

The ouster of Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze is being praised as an example of a popular uprising that was accomplished without bloodshed. But such approbation is unlikely to be heard from governments in Central Asia. Parliamentary elections are due in all five Central Asian countries within the next 15 months, and beleaguered opposition groups may derive new inspiration from the events in Tbilisi.

Prague, 25 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The peaceful uprising in Georgia is being called the "Revolution of Roses" by the Georgian opposition, whose demonstrations against disputed parliamentary elections led to the resignation of President Eduard Shevardnadze on 23 November.

Across the Caspian Sea, however, the presidents of the five Central Asian nations may be focusing not on the revolution's petals but its thorns. The problems that sparked the dramatic events in Georgia -- corruption, disputed elections, restricted access to the political process, widespread poverty -- are all present in Central Asia, and parliamentary polls are just around the corner.

For Central Asia's opposition groups, the events in Georgia are proof that simmering discontent can topple a government that had seemed unassailable just a short time ago.

Tolen Toktasynov is a leader of the opposition Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan movement. He said what many in Central Asia are no doubt thinking. "I think from now on, all elections in Georgia -- [but] not only in that country -- will be fairer. Those who are in power in [Kazakhstan] should take that into account, as well," he said. "One cannot get away with cheating a nation for a long time. It simply does not work."

Hikmatullo Sayfullozoda of Tajikistan's opposition Islamic Renaissance Party voiced similar sentiments: "Currently, the hard life in Tajikistan, the concentration of power that has increased, especially during the last years, and people who wish to change the situation -- all these factors can pave the way for confrontation in the next Tajik elections."

The leader of Kyrgyzstan's Communist Party, Absamat Masaliev, also spoke of the possibilities presented by the situation in Georgia. "Elections must be held in a democratic way. The elections [in Kyrgyzstan] have been held with violations of the law occurring all the time," he said. "If our [national] leadership does not take into consideration the developments [in Georgia], and if we don't learn the lessons from Georgia's situation, then these kinds of events might happen [in Kyrgyzstan], too."

All but one of Central Asia's leaders have been in power since the last days of the Soviet Union, and most have presided as their nations have plunged further into poverty. The two states that are arguably the most repressive in the region -- Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan -- probably have the least to worry about.

Turkmenistan has only one officially registered political party, and that is headed by the country's president, Saparmurat Niyazov. All other Turkmen opposition leaders have fled the country, are in jail, or are under house arrest. Demonstrations are broken up quickly and organizers usually imprisoned. Turkmenistan's media, predictably, has not been covering the events in Georgia.

Uzbekistan currently has four officially registered political parties, all of which trace their roots back to the Communist Party of the Uzbek Soviet republic. But there are at least three active opposition parties attempting to register in time to participate in the December 2004 parliamentary elections.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov said yesterday that Shevardnadze had resigned to preserve stability in Georgia and the entire region. "I think [Shevardnadze's] actions were dictated by just one thing -- to preserve stability, to preserve peace, and to shield his people from any possible escalation that could have led to unforeseeable, serious consequences -- not only for the country but for the region," he said.

Uzbek media commented briefly on the "dark forces" that had taken over the Georgian parliament on 23 November but, despite Karimov's comments, has kept quiet about events in Georgia since then. As in Turkmenistan, protests in Uzbekistan are rare, and the authorities usually deal quickly with antigovernment demonstrations.

For the governments in the other three Central Asian countries -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan -- the events in Georgia could be cause for concern.

Kazakhstan reacted to the developments in Georgia with cautious praise. President Nursultan Nazarbaev's press office released a statement yesterday in which Nazarbaev said the tough economic situation and complicated internal political conditions in Georgia had led to the change of power. The statement also expressed satisfaction with what it called the "wise stand of the Georgian people, who have made a peaceful settlement," and praised the "civic responsibility" of Shevardnadze, "who has saved Georgia from bloodshed and disturbances."

Nazarbaev pointed out that, economically, Kazakhstan is much better off than Georgia. But the Kazakh president did not mention the issue of corruption, which helped fuel Georgia's uprising, probably because Nazarbaev is currently trying to distance himself from charges of malfeasance involving foreign oil companies.

In Kyrgyzstan, where the economic situation is as bad -- if not worse -- than in Georgia, the Foreign Ministry yesterday expressed hope that the "political forces of Georgia would refrain from taking any steps that would lead to a destabilization of the situation in the country."

Tajikistan did not comment officially, but the country's media did report on the events in Georgia. Tajik officials are no doubt closely monitoring developments in Tbilisi. In 1992, similar rallies and calls for replacing top government figures heralded the start of Tajikistan's five-year civil war.

Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan all have active political opposition movements. In the case of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, the opposition has regularly been thwarted in its attempts to get a foot in the door of power. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, as well as other election monitors, have routinely reported bias against the opposition in campaigning and at the polls on election day.

Tokon Shailieva is chairwoman of the pro-government Democratic Party of Kyrgyz Women. She does not believe that what happened in Georgia could happen in Kyrgyzstan. "It is impossible to compare these two presidents," she said, in reference to Kyrgyzstan's President Askar Akaev and Shevardnadze. "The differences [between them] are like between the sky and the Earth. It will not happen to us. Reforms in our country are being carried out better than in the other states [of the CIS]. I think it would not be possible for anything like this to happen [in Kyrgyzstan], and we must not allow it to happen."

In Kazakhstan, Burkhan Nurmukhammedov of the Aq Zhol opposition party says the events in Georgia show that the old generation of politicians must move aside and allow younger leaders to take up the reins of power. "This means that politicians of the old system are leaving the stage and a new generation of young politicians is coming," he said. "Look, for example, in Russia. Young [Vladimir] Putin replaced the old politician, [Russian President Boris Yeltsin]. In Azerbaijan, even though he is a son of the old president, Ilham Aliyev is also a representative of the young generation of politicians. And now in Georgia. I am confident that in the next five or six years, all of the old Soviet-era politicians will be replaced by young politicians on the former Soviet territory."

Tajik political analyst Kosimshoh Iskandarov says what must be on the minds of many Central Asian government officials and pro-government parties who have profited by their relations with those in power. "Governments can deceive people once, twice, or even three times. But in cases of systematic cheating, people can start activities that are not in favor of peace and the stability of the country," he said. "I think the Georgian events should be a good lesson for everybody."

The first of Central Asia's five parliamentary elections is due to be held in Kazakhstan in October 2004, the last in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in February 2005.

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