Accessibility links

Central Asia Report: March 17, 2005


17 March 2005, Volume 5, Number 10

WEEK AT A GLANCE (7-13 MARCH) The uneasy interim between Kyrgyzstan's first-round parliamentary elections on 27 February and runoffs on 13 March remained the top story in the region. As the week began, election-related protests roiled a number of regions -- including Jalal-Abad, Osh, and Uzgen -- and the opposition called for an emergency session of parliament. Lacking a quorum for the session, 20 opposition deputies issued an appeal calling for the resignation of President Askar Akaev, a presidential election in July (instead of October), and the extension of the current parliament's powers through November. Meanwhile, the OSCE voiced concern at some opposition methods, noting that "flaws in the election process cannot give cause to occupy government buildings and block roads." For his part, presidential spokesman Abdil Segizbaev warned that all the protests could force the president to confirm his power through a referendum. Finally, on 13 March runoff elections took place in 39 districts, producing 37 winners. Protests continued in Jalal-Abad, Osh, and elsewhere even as initial results indicated that the opposition only managed to win about 10 percent of seats in parliament. Further elections remain to be held in four districts.

Away from the elections, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf visited Kyrgyzstan on 8 March to discuss bilateral relations and trade issues. The commander of Russia's 5th Air and Air Defense Army announced that Russia plans to extend the runway at its base in Kant, Kyrgyzstan and deploy more aircraft at the base. And in a bit of welcome relief for a debt-strapped nation, the Paris Club announced that it will write off $124 million of Kyrgyzstan's sovereign debt and reschedule an additional $431 million.

Kazakhstan's beleaguered Ak Zhol opposition party held two rival party conferences on 12 and 13 March, underscoring a rift that broke out in the party in mid-February. The opposition newspaper "Soz" lost its appeal on a libel ruling, and it will now have to pay $38,500 and apologize to the National Security Committee (KNB) for an article claiming that KNB officers shadowed opposition members. And Robert Simmons, NATO special representative to the Caucasus and Central Asia, met with Kazakh Foreign Minister Qasymzhomart Toqaev to discuss the possibility of an agreement to ship supplies to NATO forces in Afghanistan through Kazakhstan.

Tajikistan also held runoff parliamentary elections on 13 March, although they took place in only three districts and cemented what was already a landslide victory for the ruling People's Democratic Party. Meanwhile, the Communist Party, Democratic Party, Islamic Renaissance Party, and Social-Democratic Party continued to wait for the Central Election Commission to respond to their 85-page report on election violations in Dushanbe, where they want to see elections rerun.

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov stripped Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov of the post of deputy prime minister, suggesting an uncertain future for his representative to the outside world. The president also appointed three new ministers -- for the economy and finance, justice, and the environment -- and a new director for the National Institute of Statistics. And official statistics notched a 12-percent year-on-year drop in natural gas exports in January-February 2005 amid a price dispute between Turkmenistan and Gazprom that has seen Turkmenistan temporarily halt gas shipments to Russia.

ELECTIONS IN KYRGYZSTAN, TAJIKISTAN -- ANTIDOTE TO REVOLUTION?

By Daniel Kimmage

As Kyrgyz voters cast their ballots in second-round parliamentary elections on 13 March, President Askar Akaev confidently explained to Russia's RTR television network that a "vaccine" exists to prevent Georgian- and Ukrainian-style revolutions.

While the situation in Kyrgyzstan remains fluid in the wake of the 13 March runoffs, with protests still roiling a number of regions, preliminary elections results suggest that the opposition, which had hoped to control up to one-third of a new, unicameral parliament with expanded powers, will instead occupy a maximum of 10 percent of the legislature's 75 seats. In neighboring Tajikistan, the ruling People's Democratic Party emerged as the decisive victor after 27 February first-round elections, with a two-thirds majority in the lower chamber of parliament.

Is there really a "vaccine" against the revolutionary wave that some observers had predicted could sweep across the post-Soviet expanse after election-related unrest in Georgia and Ukraine brought down long-standing rulers? President Akaev's confidence that he has found an antidote to revolutionary fervor is grounded in more than bravado.

President Akaev was coy in his comments to RTR, a state-run network that has provided friendly coverage to the Kyrgyz president throughout first-round and second-round elections on 27 February and 13 March, respectively. In a reference to events in Ukraine, correspondent Andrei Kondrashov asked Akaev, "Why didn't the Orange Revolution, which so many spoke of as a threat, succeed in Kyrgyzstan?" Akaev replied, "We carefully studied and drew appropriate lessons from the Orange and Rose revolutions. I'll tell you right now that we've developed our own vaccine, an antivirus, so to speak. I can't reveal its essence today, since there are still presidential elections in October. If I reveal it, the opposition could use it. But I feel that we've discovered an antidote to the 'tulip' revolution that they planned in our country."

Even as the president was talking up his secret weapon, conditions on the ground suggested that it has not been entirely effective. First-round elections on 27 February, which produced only 32 clear winners out of 75 races, had sparked protests in a number of districts. Second-round races on 13 March set off further waves of discontent, with demonstrators numbering up to several thousand in some instances protesting, blocking roads, and seizing government offices in Uzgen. Their demands were both local and national. Supporters of defeated candidates in some districts alleged fraud. Demonstrators also seized on the program the opposition adopted after first-round elections, calling for the resignation of President Akaev, preterm presidential elections in July instead of October, an extension of the current parliament's powers, and new parliamentary elections after presidential elections.

The opposition, which runs an organizational gamut of parties and blocs, has done its best to put forward an increasingly united front in the standoff with the authorities. Although opposition delegates in the outgoing parliament failed to gain a quorum for an emergency session on 10 March and police denied them entry to parliament itself, they have hewed to their demands since then. All of the main opposition blocs gathered in Jalal-Abad, a hotbed of protest during the election period, for a rally and congress on 15 March, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported.

With several hundred delegates in attendance, the opposition repeated its call for President Akaev's resignation, an extension of the outgoing parliament's term until November, and presidential elections in July. Former Prime Minister Kurmanbek Bakiev addressed the congress, condemning official interference in the parliamentary elections, akipress.org reported. Bakiev is the leader of the People's Movement of Kyrgyzstan and has declared his intention to seek the presidency, although he failed to win a seat in parliament in a 13 March runoff (a result he disputes). The congress also selected a "people's governor" for Jalal-Abad Oblast and made plans for similar conferences in Talas on 17 March and Osh on 19 March.

RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported on 15 March that a reinforced police presence was evident in Jalal-Abad during the opposition congress, although police took no action even when protestors removed a large portrait of Akaev that stood near the provincial administration, the building that protesters have held since 4 March. Against this backdrop, however, Akaev issued a warning. In televised remarks on 15 March, he said, "Those guilty of organizing unrest and destabilizing the situation in certain regions will definitely be held responsible for this," Interfax reported. Akaev continued: "These actions are impermissible and extremely dangerous for the country. We will not allow such events to undermine peace and harmony in the country."

Considerably more peace and harmony have been in evidence in neighboring Tajikistan, where the ruling People's Democratic Party easily smothered its opponents in 27 February elections. Nevertheless, four parties -- the Communist Party, the Democratic Party, the Social Democratic Party, and the Islamic Renaissance Party -- have filed a complaint with the Central Election Commission detailing numerous violations, demanding new elections in Dushanbe, and threatening to reject the election results across the country unless their complaints receive a fair hearing. For its part, the Central Election Commission has been taking its time.

Meanwhile, some opposition parties have complained that the authorities are putting on a postelection press. On 14 March, Social Democratic Party head Rahmatullo Zoyirov gave a news conference in Dushanbe to condemn the recent arrest of two party members, one of them a candidate in parliamentary elections, in Sughd Province. The two men face charges of defamation and hooliganism, but Zoyirov dismissed the accusations as a put-up job, called the case part of a government-sponsored intimidation campaign, and demanded the men's release, Avesta reported. Zoyirov said that his party, which found itself out of parliament when it failed to clear the 5 percent hurdle, will apply for a permit to hold a rally in Dushanbe "if our complaints are not dealt with in accordance with the law."

As Zoyirov's insistence that his party will ask for permission before holding a demonstration indicates, the tenor of political discourse in Tajikistan remains rather restrained. In fact, a number of factors conspire to produce a seemingly potent antidote to sudden political change in Tajikistan. For one, the very conditions that observers often cite as evidence of fertile ground for social upheaval -- primarily economic hardship -- may actually contribute to political quiescence. As Kazakhstan's "Kontinent" (No. 5, 9-22 March) noted, up to 1 million Tajiks are currently seeking better fortunes abroad as migrant workers, most of them able-bodied young men who would normally be part of the most socially and politically active segment of the population.

Further dampening political passions, many influential figures are kingpins of dubious repute who cut their teeth in the rough-and-tumble years of the 1992-97 civil war. And lately, President Imomali Rakhmonov has sought to limit their power. For example, Ghaffor Mirzoev, who once headed the National Guard, is now in jail facing criminal charges. Alternative political parties like the Communist Party and Islamic Renaissance Party seem to have accepted that they have a stable, albeit limited, electorate and circumscribed role to play. Bitter memories of the civil war serve to limit the potential appeal of any would-be hotheads. And finally, the powers-that-be possess a full array of ways and means to ensure their continued influence, from administrative resources to a near-monopoly on broadcast media.

As the demonstrations described above suggest, the situation is different in Kyrgyzstan. But President Akaev's confidence that he has found an antidote to revolutionary fervor is grounded in more than bravado. Since protests began, the authorities have largely ceded the initiative to the opposition in its demonstrations outside the capital, allowing them to gauge its strength and depth. At the same time, the president's warning that organizers will be "held responsible" indicates that the authorities are watching carefully. The implication is that the president's men will let the current round of protests run its course and then move in to file charges against the ringleaders. Faced with looming legal troubles in the event of a pause, the opposition could find itself drawn into a game of brinksmanship over parliamentary elections that are, for all their importance, still the prelude to presidential elections in the fall.

In forcing the opposition into a decisive confrontation before it has readied itself for what it thought would be the main struggle -- for the presidency in the fall -- the president may feel that he has found an antidote to plans for a "tulip" revolution. But by introducing an element of brinksmanship amid protests and demonstrations, he also raises the prospect that the cure could be worse than the disease.

KYRGYZSTAN'S FRAGMENTED OPPOSITION PONDERS NEXT MOVE AFTER ELECTION DEFEAT.

By Gulnoza Saidazimova

The Kyrgyz opposition set two major goals for the 13 March parliamentary election runoff. To ensure they were open, fair, and free. And to win at least one-third of seats in the Jogorku Kenesh. It failed to achieve either goal.

Opposition candidates won just a handful of seats, while local independent observers reported massive fraud. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), as well as the U.S. Embassy, said the elections fell short of international democratic standards. So, what's next for Kyrgyzstan's opposition?

Opposition parties gathered in the southern city of Jalal-Abad on 15 March in an attempt to answer that question and work out some common tactics. RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported the congress was attended by more than 1,000 delegates and some 10,000 supporters.

But while the congress ended with a joint call for President Askar Akaev's resignation, opposition leaders failed to agree on a joint candidate for the presidency. They did agree to meet again -- in Osh on 16 March and in Talas on 17 March, both in the south.

In Jalal-Abad, thousands of opposition supporters rallied on 15 March. "The nation's foe, Akaev! Go away! Akaev, who sold out his land [to China]! Go away!" they shouted. "Akaev, who betrayed his people! Go away! Akaev! Go away!"

Opposition leaders believe the 13 March parliamentary polls should be declared invalid and that the outgoing parliament should continue to function until new elections can be held. They also say a new presidential election should be held in July.

Dosym Satpaev, the director of the Kazakhstan-based Political Risks Assessment Group, spoke to RFE/RL from the Kyrgyz capital, where he has been observing the elections. He believes the opposition's demands are unrealistic. "These goals are quite ambitious, and I believe they are unrealistic," Satpaev said. "Why was this declaration made? I believe, after the first and second round of elections to the Jogorku Kenesh, the opposition realized its defeat and therefore decided to stake everything and put out radical demands, because it knows there is no other way."

Edil Baisalov is the head of a coalition of Kyrgyz NGOs called For Democracy and Civil Society. He agreed with Satpaev, telling RFE/RL that the opposition appears to be trying to force the authorities into making a misstep.

"It seems the opposition is provoking the government to take some steps to add oil to the fire. Many believe that [parliamentary candidate] Kurmanbek Bakiev, who didn't get elected because of massive election fraud and who does not have parliamentary immunity anymore, could be arrested for his appeals to overthrow the government," Baisalov said. Bakiev is seen as a top opposition contender for the presidency.

Baisalov said one tactic appears to be to try to limit Akaev's power to the capital. Demonstrations continued on 15 March in Talas, where people have also occupied the local governor's building and are not allowing the governor to leave his office. Other protest rallies took place in Osh, Toktogul, Kurshab, Alai, and Bakai-Ata. Bishkek has remained relatively calm.

But analysts say the Kyrgyz opposition remains fragmented. "The [Kyrgyz] opposition is an active but fragmented mass that consists of many political organizations and very ambitious leaders," Satpaev said. "Prospects of the Kyrgyz opposition depend on its ability to unite. If they manage to unite, it will become a real political force that will be taken into account -- not just a virtual political force. I believe after the second round of elections, the process of unification will start, partly because several prominent opposition members lost [the election]."

Satpaev said the Kyrgyz opposition faces a serious test. If it fails to unite, he said the opposition movement could die out, following the fates of other opposition movements in Central Asia. Citing sources in Kyrgyz law enforcement, Russia's "Vremya novostei" daily wrote today that law-enforcement agencies are preparing for the antigovernment demonstration to grow.

But Satpaev said he's skeptical about such prospects. "At present, it's questionable if the protests will become massive and will be held in all parts of the country," he said. "We are witnessing the weakness of the Kyrgyz opposition, which is regionalism. Pickets and demonstrations are held mainly in the south and only in constituencies where opposition candidates were running. Even if there is some cooperation among them, it's very limited. Interestingly, those opposition members who won their elections and got elected told their supporters to stop their protests. So, they have short-term opportunistic tactics."

Satpaev said the opposition runs the risk of losing the major battle, which is to ensure that the Kyrgyz Constitution is not breached and that power is transferred peacefully once Akaev's term ends. Under current legislation, Akaev -- who has been in power for 15 years -- is ineligible to run for the presidency again.

(Tyntchtykbek Tchoroev, director of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, contributed to this report. Originally published on 15 March 2005.)

INTERVIEW WITH POLITICAL CARTOONIST TED RALL.

By Khiromon Bakoeva and Golnaz Esfandiari

Ted Rall, a widely syndicated American cartoonist, is among the small number of people who draw political cartoons about Central Asia. His cartoons are regularly published in eurasianet.org, an NGO-run information provider on Central Asia and the Caucasus. In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL, Rall discussed his interest in the region and his latest cartoon -- about Turkmenistan's plans to shut down regional hospitals.

Ted Rall has traveled extensively throughout Central Asia over the past several years. But he insists his interest in the region goes back to his childhood. Rall told RFE/RL that when he was 12 years old, he saw an article in "National Geographic" magazine about what was then called the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic. It was a world apart from suburban Ohio, where Rall grew up.

"It just seemed like the most interesting place and so different from where I grew up: big, empty spaces; so open, wild, and clean. So I was always interested in it. I wrote about Central Asia before I ever drew cartoons about it," Rall said.

Rall said that after gaining notoriety in the United States for his articles, eurasianet.org asked him to draw cartoons about politics in Central Asia. He said he was thrilled at the prospect. Political cartooning remains uncommon in Central Asia, and Rall said he has the field all to himself.

"There is really no tradition of editorial cartooning in Central Asia," he said. "I have met political cartoonists from Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, but for the most part they are not really permitted to work by their governments. So these people, they do work for themselves, but they don't get to be published."

Rall published "To Afghanistan and Back" in 2002 -- a graphic travelogue about his experiences during the U.S.-led attack on Afghanistan. Coming within months of the fall of the hard-line Taliban regime, it was among the first books to be published about that war in Afghanistan.

The 41-year-old Rall, who also works as an illustrator and is an outspoken columnist, said political cartooning is the hardest job he's ever had. He said synthesizing a complex political issue in four panels presents major challenges.

Rall said cartoons can draw unique attention to a story that might otherwise be ignored. "In some extreme cases, they [cartoons] can even break news," he said. "I think that more often, at their best, what they do is they call attention to stories that might otherwise be ignored. Many people, if they see a cartoon on a page in the newspaper, will read the cartoon and perhaps nothing else."

In his cartoons, Rall covers issues ranging from the political opposition in the five Central Asian republics to attacks on the press. He also covers developments in nearby countries, including Afghanistan and Azerbaijan.

Rall said Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan provide a treasure trove of news that is of interest to an American audience: Turkmenistan because of its eccentric president, and Uzbekistan because of its role on the war on terror. His latest cartoon concerns a proposal by Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov to close down all hospitals outside the Turkmen capital Ashgabat.

"In the first panel, I showed president Niyazov announcing his new policy," Rall explained. "And he says, 'From now on, if you get sick and live outside of Ashgabat, come to Ashgabat.' And there is an arrow pointing to his eyes that says he just got his eyes operated on in Germany."

Rall said he is highlighting the fact that while Niyazov can get medical care anywhere in the world, he is telling Turkmen citizens to travel to Ashgabat for medical care. The move has been widely criticized as restricting citizens' right to health care.

In the second panel, there is a map of Turkmenistan that shows the size of the country and how traveling can be difficult.

"In the third panel, there is a sick man being checked by a doctor. And the doctor says, 'Nice knowing you pal.' In other words, 'You're going to die.' In the fourth panel, there's President Niyazov again saying that if anybody needs any advice about medical care, they can find it all in his book, 'The Rukhnama,' which is his little red book that all Turkmen [citizens] are required to read in school," Rall said.

Despite such critical cartoons, Rall said so far he hasn't received any responses from Central Asian authorities. "Well I guess I'll find out when I start applying for visas whether anyone has noticed," he said. "I certainly heard that other journalists had problems as a result of doing this kind of work."

Rall's advice to young people who would like to become cartoonist? Be questioning, look for the truth, and don't be afraid.

"Some of the best cartoons I've ever done have been cartoons where I was nervous about sending them out because I thought they were so powerful," Rall said. "And I thought people would become really angry. And in fact, maybe some people did. But if a cartoon has that kind of power, the odds are it's a good cartoon."

(Originally published on 14 March 2005.)

XS
SM
MD
LG