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Central Asia Report: March 2, 2005

2 March 2005, Volume 5, Number 8

WEEK AT A GLANCE (21-27 FEBRUARY). Parliamentary elections in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan on 27 February overshadowed all other events. The lead-up to voting in Kyrgyzstan was dramatic, with thousands of demonstrators taking to the streets and blocking roads in the Kochkor Raion of Naryn Oblast, the Tong and Tiup districts of Issyk-Kul Oblast, and elsewhere on 22 February to protest the late-breaking removal of candidates from the ballot. In the Tong district, the Central Election Commission postponed elections until 13 March and President Askar Akaev removed regional head Nurbek Aliev. Observers noted that protests took place in districts not known for civic activism and that not all of the candidates pulled from races were affiliated with the opposition. On the media front, a U.S.-funded printing house that prints a number of opposition newspapers suffered a mysterious power outage on 22-23 February. It resumed operations with the help of a generator.

Elections to Kyrgyzstan's 75-seat unicameral parliament on 27 February, with all races run in single-mandate districts, produced 31 first-round winners amid 60 percent turnout. Forty-four races, a number of them including prominent opposition figures, will go to a second round on 13 March. A group of opposition leaders gave a news conference on election day saying that numerous violations placed the legitimacy of elections in doubt. As he voted, President Akaev stated that he has no intention of changing the constitution to extend his term in office, affirming previous statements that he will not take part in October presidential elections. And finally, the Foreign Ministry announced on 27 February that it delivered an official note to the U.S. Embassy protesting remarks a few days earlier by Ambassador Stephen Young in which the envoy said that "difficulties in the development of democracy will have a significant influence on [Kyrgyz-U.S.] relations."

Tajikistan's elections followed a different script, with the initial results indicating that the ruling People's Democratic Party garnered a commanding majority in the 63-seat lower chamber of parliament amid 90 percent turnout. But a number of opposition leaders cried foul, alleging that the elections took place with many violations. In the lead-up to elections, opposition leaders had complained of intimidation and harassment.

Foreign ministers from the member states in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO; China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan) met in Kazakhstan on 25 February, paving the way for a summit of SCO heads of state in Kazakhstan in July. Kazakhstan's Audit Committee announced that its check of the 2004 budget revealed violations totaling 15.3 billion ($118 million). The committee also noted that it has given the Prosecutor-General's Office the results of a review the Russian Audit Chamber conducted on Russia's $65 million payment for the use of the Baikonur launch site in 1999. The audit details alleged misuse of the funds, which Russia provided in the form of a credit, in a series of deals involving Kazakhstan's national rail company and Russian manufacturers.

Finally, Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov underwent a successful operation on his left eye on 22 February. Official Turkmen news agencies noted that the German doctors who carried out the procedure gave the president a clean bill of health.


By Daniel Kimmage

Viewed purely within the context of Central Asia's uneven engagement with democracy, parliamentary elections in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan on 27 February did not mark a radical departure from years past. Foreign observers and the domestic opposition pointed to the authorities' use of administrative resources and manipulation of the media environment.

In Kyrgyzstan, where the political environment has conventionally been viewed as more open than in neighboring countries, pro-government candidates failed to score a knockout blow, and more than half of the seats will be contested in a second round. In Tajikistan, where President Imomali Rakhmonov has been shoring up his power base of late, the ruling People's Democratic Party swept to a crushing victory.

But something new is in the air. The elections in Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004 that produced revolutionary change in those two countries marked a broader shift in the post-Soviet world. For those in power and out, the ballot box has become a Pandora's box of political peril and promise. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan confirmed this, but also served up a reminder that regional narratives always have a local telling.

Tajikistan held elections to its 63-seat Majlisi Namoyandagon, or lower chamber of parliament, with 22 members elected through party slates and 41 through single-mandate districts. The ruling People's Democratic Party dominated, winning a total of 49 seats, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported on 1 March. Kyrgyzstan saw elections to a new, unicameral parliament with all 75 members elected through single-mandate districts. Only 31 candidates scored first-round victories, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported on 28 February. A number of prominent opposition figures, who are increasingly united in their opposition to President Askar Akaev but affiliated with a welter of parties and blocs, will go into the second round on 13 March. Many of the first-round winners are pro-government, and, as noted in a 1 March analysis, "it remains unlikely that the opposition will enjoy a strong presence in the next parliament." Yet this is not a foregone conclusion, and the second round could still hold a number of surprises.

This summary of the results fails to convey a crucial factor that set these elections apart from earlier ballots -- the context of Georgia's Rose Revolution and Ukraine's Orange Revolution. In Kyrgyzstan, where many observers noted that prerequisites for such change are more numerous than in other Central Asian countries, the specter of revolution was ubiquitous. It dominated pre-election analyses, with observers vying to gauge the odds of a Kyrgyz revolution and guess its color. It haunted President Akaev, who claimed in numerous public statements that political change in Georgia and Ukraine was a well-funded put-up job by outside forces and insisted that nothing of the sort would happen in Kyrgyzstan. And it dogged the opposition, which found itself caught between the expectations of observers and the fears of the authorities. In Tajikistan, where a president firmly in control and bitter memories of the 1992-97 civil war militated against any revolutionary scenarios, the very unlikelihood of another Georgia or Ukraine set the stage for a lackluster race.

Election assessments in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan provided a vivid illustration of the long shadow cast by Georgia and Ukraine, where election improprieties documented by outside observers sparked popular outrage. In its reports on 28 February, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said that Kyrgyzstan's elections, "while more competitive than earlier elections, fell short of OSCE commitments and other international standards for democratic elections in a number of areas," and that Tajikistan's elections "failed to meet many key OSCE commitments and other international standards on democratic elections."

Both reports enumerated significant violations of democratic practice. But the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) observer mission served as a counterweight to the negative findings of OSCE observers, pointing out minor flaws while pronouncing the Kyrgyz elections "transparent, open, and legitimate" and the Tajik elections "free and transparent," RFE/RL reported.

The Kyrgyz government was quick to seize on the disparity. The official news agency Kabar devoted the bulk of a 28 February story on election assessments to positive findings by CIS observers, as well as by missions from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan) and the "London International Democracy Institute" (an Internet search on various permutations of the organization's title turned up no information). The report mentioned the OSCE report last, saving its negative findings for the penultimate paragraph.

Moreover, in a 1 March statement, the Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry disputed the OSCE's critical assessment, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. While the conflicting assessments point to a rift on what constitutes accepted democratic practice, the official Kyrgyz response underscores an increasingly contentious attitude among "first-generation" post-Soviet states toward the OSCE's emphasis on democracy in the wake of election-related upheaval in Georgia and Ukraine.

With Tajikistan's elections completed and Kyrgyzstan's awaiting the second round, the outlines of their political futures are coming into clearer focus. Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov seems more secure than ever, and the country's opposition now faces the prospect of reestablishing itself. Rahmatullo Zoirov, the head of the Social Democratic Party, indicated one possible path when he said on 1 March that he does not rule out protest demonstrations, ITAR-TASS reported.

The situation is more fluid in Kyrgyzstan, where the opposition is still fighting for seats in parliament. The lead-up to the 13 March runoffs will test individual opposition candidates' ability to get their message across and marshal the protest electorate. They face an uphill battle on the information front, with nationwide television in pro-government hands and a leading independent newspaper facing a slew of defamation lawsuits. Protest potential is unclear.

Kyrgyzstan witnessed large-scale demonstrations in the lead-up to elections, when several candidates were removed from the ballot in provincial constituencies. But the protests confounded conventional wisdom: they did not take place along a clear opposition/authority divide and they occurred in regions not traditionally associated with political activism. Thus far, the opposition has not managed to muster more than a few hundred demonstrators in the capital.

And parliamentary elections are only the beginning of the political marathon in Kyrgyzstan. President Akaev recently reiterated that he will leave the race to others in the October presidential election, although he and his allies are sure to select a successor before then. The opposition also has its work cut out for it. Whatever its eventual showing in parliamentary elections, it faces the task of unifying around a single viable candidate and message. If it succeeds, the opposition will face a battle that promises to be even tougher than the fight for parliament.

The terms of engagement have not changed. All of the classic post-Soviet political dilemmas remain, from the dichotomy between opposition and authorities to the debate over the authorities' use of administrative resources and media control. What has changed is that the democratic process itself is increasingly at issue. For the common thread in Georgia and Ukraine was that when protests against the abuse of that process reached a critical mass, long-standing grievances found expression through a suddenly, and perhaps momentarily, united opposition. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are moving along their own paths, but through territory that has been marked in advance by the fact that the democratic process in other post-Soviet countries has shown that under the right circumstances it can produce momentous changes.


By Gulnoza Saidazimova

The Kyrgyz opposition held demonstrations in central Bishkek and in the south of the country on 28 February ahead of the first preliminary results to be released by the Central Election Commission from the previous day's parliamentary elections. Some 500 people in the capital holding yellow and pink signs protested against alleged election fraud as well as the harassment of media outlets such as the daily "Moya stolitsa-novosti" and RFE/RL's Radio Azattyk. Several thousand more rallied in southern regions.

The Democratic Movement of Kyrgyzstan, leaders from the Ata-Jurt (Fatherland) and Ar-Namys (Dignity) parties, along with members of the KelKel youth organization and representatives of independent media demonstrated in the Kyrgyz capital holding signs that read: "A Fair Vote is A Bright Future," "We Want To Know," "For Freedom of Speech," "You Can't Shut Everyone's Mouth!" and "Azattyk is the People's Voice."

Roza Otunbaeva, a co-leader of Ata-Jurt who was not allowed to register as a candidate for the election, spoke at the rally. "All of us have the same point of view. We stand for a new Kyrgyzstan, for changes in this country," Otunbaeva said.

Nurlan Motuyev, one of the leaders of the People's Patriotic Movement of Kyrgyzstan, told RFE/RL that the purpose of the meeting was to protest against election fraud. He said, "In Kyrgyzstan, at present, there are all the right conditions for KelKel to become a powerful and respected youth organization before [October's] presidential election. [KelKel] will defend the rights of the youth and students. We gathered in order to explain to people what is going on in the country, what happened during elections."

Emil Aliev, one of the leaders of Ar-Namys, who ran against Bermet Akaeva -- President Askar Akaev's daughter -- for a seat in the parliament, also spoke about alleged election fraud. "People gathered here to express their opinion on elections, because the elections were marred by fraud. Fraud was planned in advance during the making of the voters' lists. The fraud continued on election day when there was mass bribery [of voters]. Bribes were not only big, they were huge, because [the candidates] collected a lot of money over the last 15 years. In most of the districts candidates who spent $200,000-$250,000 on the election campaign won their seats. Money played a big role in these elections," Aliev said. According to the Kyrgyz Electoral Code, a candidate can spend 500,000 soms (about $12,300) during the election campaign.

The Kyrgyz opposition's goal was to gain one-third of the 75 seats in the parliament. Aliev said the goal now is to work for opposition candidates in the second round of elections that are expected be held on 13 March. "The next step is to help [opposition] candidates in the districts where they will run in the second round in order to get few more seats," Aliev said.

The KelKel youth organization, which is an opposition group trying to get young people more involved in politics, also protested against alleged fraud. Alisher Mamasaliev, the main leader of KelKel, told RFE/RL that the 27 February elections showed the need for greater youth participation in politics and for more political awareness. He said KelKel plans to continue its work. "In Kyrgyzstan, at present, there are all the right conditions for KelKel to become a powerful and respected youth organization before [October's] presidential election. [KelKel] will defend the rights of the youth and students."

Harassment of the independent media before the elections was the other issue that demonstrators spoke about. They particularly protested against the lawsuit that President Akaev filed against the independent "Moya stolitsa-novosti" newspaper, which wrote about the business and property holdings that the Akaev family allegedly possess.

And on 24 February, authorities ended the medium-wave transmission of the broadcasts by Radio Azattyk, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz-language broadcasts. Otunbaeva added: "Here in Bishkek, Azattyk still in heard [via a private radio broadcaster and on shortwave]. But 'Moya stolitsa' and 'Res Publica' face enormous pressure. Our president couldn't stand it and so he filed a lawsuit [against 'MSN']. It is not because the problems of the country are being solved, but because his family was a subject of the [criticism]. This is the country we live in."

Demonstrators also said postelection coverage of the voting on national TV and radio stations was limited only to reports from the Central Election Commission. Rallies were also held in Aravan Raion of Osh Oblast. Different sources reported anywhere from 1,500 to 5,000 people taking part in the protests. In Nooken Raion in Jalal-Abad Oblast, some 1,000 people rallied. (Originally published on 28 February)


By Gulnoza Saidazimova

KelKel (New Epoch) is a youth organization in Kyrgyzstan that was established before the 27 February parliamentary elections. Many observers, particularly those who know what role Otpor, Kmara, and Pora played in Serbia, Georgia, and Ukraine, respectively, say KelKel will become a driving force behind political changes in this Central Asian country, where the opposition is weak and fragmented but is the most active compared to other countries in the region. Alisher Mamasaliev, the main leader of KelKel, spoke about the organization, its political positions, and its collaboration with Ukrainian and other Central Asian youth organizations in an exclusive interview with RFE/RL.

KelKel organized its first public event on 11 January after Roza Otunbaeva, leader of the Ata-Jurt (Fatherland) opposition party, was not allowed to register as a candidate for parliament. A group of young people from Bishkek went to a protest meeting organized in Otunbaeva's defense and distributed lemons to all attendees. They simply said that the lemons would help keep protesters healthy during a flu epidemic. "For the first time for 15 years of independence," said 30-year-old KelKel leader Alisher Mamasaliev, "the Kyrgyz youth made an initiative and created a precedent of attempt to change the situation."

Mamasaliev told RFE/RL that the young people who make up the largest part of the Kyrgyz population should be more active in the political life of the country, and he said that is one of KelKel's goals. A KelKel leaflet reads: "We don't fight for power, we fight for our rights."

Despite the declaration, the political position of KelKel is very clear: they want President Askar Akaev to step down at the end of his term in October. "Yes, Akaev must step down," Mamasaliev said. "But we want it to happen peacefully in accordance with the law. This is our right under the constitution. Yes, we stand for a change of power in the [Kyrgyz] White House." Under the current constitution, Akaev cannot run for another term as president. But opposition members fear he may decide to stay in power and try to change the constitution in order to allow him to run once again.

The Kyrgyz authorities have impeded KelKel's work on several occasions, Mamasaliev said. "We had an office, but it was taken away. At the moment, we don't think about developing further, but rather about surviving."

The government attempted to stop KelKel's activity by creating its own organization, also named KelKel. Unlike Mamasaliev's KelKel, the other organization was registered by officials very quickly. The government version of KelKel does have a different slogan: "They threaten us with lemons. We simply squeeze them."

Many observers believe KelKel can play the same role as Otpor, Kmara, and Pora did in the "velvet revolutions" in Serbia, Georgia, and Ukraine, respectively.

Mamasaliev said KelKel does have contacts with Ukraine's Pora organization. "Yes, I would like to say that we contacted Pora," he said. "Our friends from Ukraine came [to Kyrgyzstan], did some training for us. They gave us recommendations on how to correctly establish an organization, so that one part of the organization is in charge of the website, the other one is in charge of security; they told us how to deal with the media, which international donors to contact. Of course, we would like to become a serious organization like Otpor, Kmara, or Ukrainian Pora. But at the moment we have a priority of tasks regarding the presidential elections."

KelKel plans to organize summer courses for young people with the purpose of raising the political awareness of a young electorate and to train election observers ahead of October's presidential ballot.

KelKel also collaborates with a youth organization in Kazakhstan. However, cooperation with organizations in Uzbekistan or Tajikistan is not possible at the moment. "At present, we collaborate with the Kazakh youth organization Kakhar, which has a very developed system because they get assistance from Kazakh businesspeople," Mamasaliev said. "As for cooperation with Tashkent, to be honest, we didn't even think about it. We know what the situation in Tashkent is like; we listened to the recent interview of [Uzbek] President Islam Karimov. I don't think it is realistic to speak of a possible partnership with the [Uzbek] youth organization. Neither do we have contacts with Tajiks."

Mamasaliev said that despite all the difficulties, KelKel continues to operate. Some 300 young people have joined the movement since the first meeting in January. It opened a new branch in Aksy a few days ahead of the elections. (Originally published on 28 February)


By Bruce Pannier

The ruling People's Democratic Party of Tajikistan (PDPT), led by President Imomali Rakhmonov, notched a convincing election victory on 27 February. The latest figures show the party took about 75 percent of the vote, giving it around 49 out of the 63 seats in the lower house of parliament, according to the head of the Central Election Commission. The pro-government Communist Party took three seats, while the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party won two. Independent candidates won six seats and the three remaining seats are to be decided in a run-off.

Observers ahead of the vote were hoping the election would mark a positive step in the country's political development, but that remains unclear. The losing parties have accused the authorities of intimidating voters and stuffing ballot boxes. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which sent about 150 observers, said the vote was flawed and that officials controlled the campaign and interfered with independent media.

The question now is -- with the results in -- where will Rakhmonov and his party take Tajikistan in the coming years, and what are the implications for hopes that the country is advancing toward a more democratic form of government? When Rakhmonov cast his vote, he all but announced his intention to run for president next year. Now that his party is set to increase its majority in parliament, it seems he will face few obstacles.

Professor Lena Jonson is a senior research fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs in Stockholm. She said she believes the result will mean little real change since the poll simply maintained the current division of power. "No, I can't see that anything would change since the regime, and the president are in command as previously," Jonson said.

One indicator of progress, Jonson said, could be in how the government deals with the complaints by the Communists and the Islamic Renaissance Party. Both parties along with two other opposition parties have signed petitions demanding the poll results in the Tajik capital Dushanbe be declared invalid. In addition, some among the opposition are already appealing to the country's Supreme Court to overturn results in some districts.

The reaction of the government to these complaints, Jonson argued, will give a good indication of its commitment to democratic reform. "It creates an interesting situation and it creates, I believe, a dilemma to the regime because it has to respond in one way or another," Jonson said. "Either it has to listen to these complaints and it has to do something about it, and seriously do something about it, or it has to just disregard it and claim the elections were fair and correct."

Use of the legal system to resolve controversial election results represents a sign the opposition is willing to challenge the government in court rather than in other, extra-legal ways. For many this in itself is a hopeful sign.

Observers say an improvement in the security situation from the previous 2000 election was also encouraging. The security situation in 2000, less than three years after the end of the civil war, prevented many people from getting involved and animosities left over from the war were visible in verbal exchanges during the that election.

Jonson noted this had changed in the recent election. "There is a development in the direction of democratic culture and democratization of the country," she said, "and I think that the very existence of the Islamic Revival Party and the fact that the Social Democratic Party was registered are important steps in that direction. The way that the opposition and the party leaders carry out the political debate and their demands and their efforts to become a constructive opposition -- that is a very good sign for the future." (Originally published on 1 March)