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Ukraine: Neighbors Watch Election Protests With Keen Interest

Could the Ukrainian events have an impact on leaders like Lukashenka? The images from Kyiv of tens of thousands of flag-waving demonstrators, ready to defend democracy and stand up to a government they feel no longer represents them, brings to mind the revolutions that swept Eastern Europe in 1989. They also recall last year’s Rose Revolution in Georgia that swept the regime of Eduard Shevardnadze from power. What kind of impact are events in Ukraine likely to have on countries such as Belarus, Azerbaijan, or the Central Asian states -- where pro-democracy movements have also long existed, but remain repressed by authoritarian governments?

Prague, 24 November 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The dramatic events in Ukraine are still unfolding and no one is predicting how they will turn out. Will Kremlin-backed Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych survive the wave of demonstrations and Western condemnation and ascend to the presidency he claims is his? Or will Viktor Yushchenko’s protest movement mushroom into a popular revolution that sweeps the old guard from office, in a victory for representative democracy?

However things turn out, every move is being closely watched around the CIS. Some suggest a Yushchenko triumph could provide a boost to pro-democracy movements in countries such as Belarus and Azerbaijan. While others say that even a successful revolution in Ukraine has little chance of being repeated anywhere else.

Belarus is perhaps the biggest question mark. Last month, the world watched as police in Minsk beat back and arrested demonstrators protesting the outcome of a referendum vote that ostensibly will allow President Alyaksandr Lukashenka to hold on to power. The police showed their willingness to use violence and the pro-democracy protestors their inability to muster broad support from the population.
"A Yushchenko victory, which would be a victory with broad support from the population, could inspire the Belarusian electorate, the democratic electorate. It could give them strength and renewed confidence."

Would a Yushchenko win in neighboring Ukraine change the equation -- emboldening demonstrators and a population that has remained largely passive up to now? Opposition leader Mikola Statkevich seems to believe so, as he tells RFE/RL. But he warns that if Yanukovych emerges as the victor, with Moscow’s backing, then the democracy movement in Belarus will have been further weakened.

“If the democratic opposition comes to power in Ukraine as the result of the elections, it would mean that the things happening in Belarus are an anomaly. And any anomaly, so to say, dissolves rather quickly. But if they work in Ukraine according to the ‘Belarusian scenario,’ it would mean that our country only leads a sad trend,” Statkevich says.

Independent sociologist Valery Karbalevitch, also speaking from Minsk, agrees. He notes that aside from Georgia, there has not been a change in the post-communist old guard in any of the CIS countries since the fall of communism, so a Ukrainian “revolution” could serve as an important example.

"A Yushchenko victory, which would be a victory with broad support from the population, could inspire the Belarusian electorate, the democratic electorate. It could give them strength and renewed confidence. Up to now, across the CIS, the political forces or clans that came to power have not given up their power. I am talking about Russia, Central Asia -- where the rulers are in office for life -- Azerbaijan where there has been a father to son succession," Karbalevitch said.

But Karbalevitch says there is an interesting twist. Lukashenka, unlike Russian President Vladimir Putin, has been careful not to ally himself too closely with Yanukovych. This is reflected in Belarusian television’s coverage of the story, which has been at times more balanced than Russian state-controlled broadcasts.

And that is because, paradoxically, a Yushchenko win might carry some advantages for the Minsk regime, according to Karbalevitch. If Moscow’s relations with Kyiv were to suffer, Russia would almost certainly draw closer to Lukashenka. Conversely, if Moscow and Kyiv become even closer allies, Russia is likely to be less generous in its subsidies to Minsk.

"Ideologically, Yanukovych is closer to Lukashenka and his regime, because Yushchenko is a pro-Western politician etc.... But Lukashenka understands that if Yanukovych emerges as the victor, relations between Belarus and Russia will be worse. But if Yushchenko triumphs, Moscow will stay close to him, to Lukashenka. He understands this and that is why he has tried not to put all his eggs in one basket and has kept his distance and neutrality," Karbalevitch says.

Over the next three months, all of the Central Asian countries -- except for Kazakhstan -- will hold legislative elections that will once again focus attention on the imperfect state of democracy in the region. Could a triumph for Yushchenko’s forces in Ukraine inspire change? Regional expert Alex Vatanka, editor of “Jane’s Sentinel Security Assessments” does not think this is likely.

He notes that Ukraine’s democratic forces have been building up to this week’s events for several years, gaining local representation and parliamentary seats that allowed them to form a powerful bloc. The overwhelming support for these parties in western Ukraine combined with the government’s apparent reluctance to unleash massive force against its opponents, gives Yushchenko and his allies a chance at pulling off their revolution. None of those factors exist in Central Asia.

"You don`t have the kind of internal momentum as you had in Ukraine and at the same time, whatever momentum there might be, you can bet your money that the response from the state will be very harsh," Vatanka says.

Geography also plays an important role. Vatanka argues that the United States and Europe feel they cannot sit back and allow democracy to be so obviously repressed in Ukraine -- a large European country of key strategic importance -- which also represents a counterweight to Russia.

That is unfortunately not the case in Central Asia. There, alliances with governments that promise to cooperate in the fight against terrorism, appear to take precedence over support for dissident democrats.

"Following the enlargement of the European Union, it's bordering places like Slovakia and Poland. They're next door and there are huge issues you've got to worry about -- security issues. You need Ukraine to cooperate on a number of big issues such as security, border control, immigration, transnational crime. Therefore, [for Europe] to sit back and say 'let's just see how things unfold' isn't really an option," Vatanka says.

Despite the long odds for democracy advocates in Central Asia, opposition representatives say the events in Ukraine are giving them hope. Exiled Uzbek opposition leader Muhammed Solih, had this message, which he conveyed to RFE/RL by telephone.

"We support the struggle of the Ukrainian opposition for democracy, under the leadership of Viktor Yushchenko. Ukraine's democratic forces have come through the first stage of this struggle with honor. We wish them a final victory. This victory will be a victory for those who still believe in, and have not lost their faith in freedom," Solih says.

As Ukrainians determine the fate of their nation, the eyes of the world -- and their neighbors are focused on them.

(RFE/RL’s Belarus and Uzbek services contributed to this report)

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