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Central Asia: Expert Talks About Different Paths Taken By Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan

Kazakhstan's Nazarbaev rarely sees much dissent In the first years after the Soviet Union disintegrated, the newly independent Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan were considered the West's greatest hopes for democracy in Central Asia. Both countries contained political opposition that, if not always appreciated by the authorities, was at least tolerated. Opposition newspapers were distributed. People felt free to protest. Events of the past week illustrate how differently the two countries have evolved in the past decade, however. Dr. Bhavna Dave, a specialist in Central Asian affairs who teaches at the London-based School of Oriental and African Studies, spoke to RFE/RL about why these two countries ended up taking such different paths.

Prague, 21 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- If you had been downtown in Kyrgyzstan's capital, Bishkek, yesterday, you might have seen or heard a crowd of people chanting against President Askar Akaev.

"Akaev, go away! Akaev, go away!"

The protesters were voicing their displeasure over the disqualification of several opposition candidates from upcoming parliamentary elections.

If you had been outside the appellate court in Kazakhstan's former capital, Almaty, on 17 January, where the country's biggest opposition party was trying to overturn a ban on its activities, you would have heard nothing.

The examples are symbolic of how different the political climates are in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan today.

But it was not always so. Ten years ago, the sounds heard in Bishkek would have been just as common in Kazakhstan.

In March 1995, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev dissolved parliament, ruled by decree until the following December and, in between, held a referendum that extended his term in office. Another referendum drastically changed the country's constitution, concentrating more powers in the presidency.

Opposition politicians and organizations in Kazakhstan protested every one of these events. There were clashes between demonstrators and police. Independent newspapers were vandalized. Opposition political figures were beaten or jailed on flimsy charges.
Upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections in Kyrgyzstan may go far in determining how long the political climate there retains its more liberal nature.

So why was it so quiet in Almaty this week when the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan moved one step closer to being officially banned?

Dr. Bhavna Dave is a specialist in Central Asian affairs who teaches at the London-based School of Oriental and African Studies. She described what has happened in the last 10 years to change the situation in Kazakhstan: "In 1994 and '95, it seemed that Kazakhstan would move toward some kind of a genuine participatory government. But since the new constitution was adopted in 1995, there has been a downward trend as far as democracy is concerned, and a concentration of power in the presidency."

Several laws enacted since 1995 in Kazakhstan have placed strict limitations on the ability of citizens to demonstrate. Organizers of public rallies must inform the authorities well in advance. Usually, if the planned action is antigovernment or pro-opposition, permission is not given.

In Kyrgyzstan, Dave described an entirely different situation: "As far as public participation, civic activism is concerned, there is certainly, I think, more involvement on the part of ordinary people. Not just in Bishkek, but also in southern parts of Kyrgyzstan, in these political processes. Also, there is a more active network of NGOs which are supporting these civic rights issues and electoral participation issues."

Kyrgyzstan has loosened its laws on public protests in the last few years. People generally are allowed to hold protests by giving only minimal advance notice to authorities. They are permitted to conduct political rallies as long as they do not block the free movement of people and vehicles.

Dave notes it is also much easier to organize political demonstrations in Kyrgyzstan because of its size. "Kazakhstan is a huge country and it is a dispersed country, so to organize these kinds of events in Kazakhstan requires a lot more effort and coordination," she said.

Dave notes a paradox in the situations between the two countries. The government in Kazakhstan is more authoritarian and seems able to keep social unrest to a minimum because the people there enjoy a higher standard of living. Kyrgyzstan, by contrast, is much poorer, but the government is much more relaxed in allowing freedom of speech, such as public demonstrations, perhaps as an outlet to economic frustration:

"Given the nature of the Kyrgyz economy, people are quite discontent with what's happening. Kazakhstan -- in the major cities -- we find that the middle classes are, on the whole, satisfied with the oil revenues coming in. So certainly there is currently a somewhat more liberal climate in Kyrgyzstan," Dave said.

Upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections in Kyrgyzstan may go far in determining how long the political climate there retains its more liberal nature.

Though Kyrgyzstan still remains the best hope for real democracy in Central Asia, authorities have indicated they will not tolerate demonstrations and protests that cross the line. Kyrgyz Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev said earlier this month that the Kyrgyz government will not let the situation destabilize during election campaigning.

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