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Central Asia: Opposition Groups Seek Strength In Unity

Ak Zhol (Bright Way) was the only opposition party to win a seat in parliament in September's elections in Kazakhstan. The poll was widely criticized as rigged, yet the results failed to generate much of a public outcry. In an effort to increase their chances in future elections, three opposition parties the following month founded the Coordinating Council of Democratic Forces of Kazakhstan. Some opposition parties have also come together in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which will both hold parliamentary elections later this month.

Prague, 8 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Kazakhstan's opposition Coordinating Council of Democratic Forces said last week it is setting up a working group to devise the principles of a new national movement, For a Just Kazakhstan.

Ak Zhol party co-Chairman Altynbek Sarsenbaev is a member of the council. He explained to RFE/RL that it is necessary to step up efforts to consolidate and unite what he calls "all the progressive forces" in Kazakhstan.

"First, we created our coordinating council. The main purpose of the council was to prepare a package of documents for our big program. The council successfully finished the document in just a short time. This document is a draft for our country's new constitution. One of our main aims is to create a common democratic movement, so that the country's democratic forces will have more influence on society," Sarsenbaev said.

The council includes Ak Zhol, the Communist Party, and the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK). Their leaders have also said they were ready to choose a single candidate to run in the 2007 presidential election.

Professor Bhavna Dave is a specialist in Central Asian affairs who teaches at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. She said that in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, both of which are due to hold parliamentary elections on 27 February, opposition groups have also realized they have to come together in order to gain strength.

"There's certainly a realization, after having seen what happened in Ukraine and earlier in Georgia, that the opposition has to pull together its resources and people to fight against the regimes. And there are some efforts being made in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to gear up for elections," Dave said.

Late last year, peaceful protests in Ukraine led to opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko being elected president. In 2003, Georgia's bloodless Rose Revolution toppled former President Eduard Shevardnadze.

In Kyrgyzstan, the opposition is aiming to obtain a majority of seats in parliament this month, in the hopes of influencing the outcome of the presidential race in October, from which the incumbent, Askar Akaev, is constitutionally barred.

In order to raise the opposition’s public profile in Kyrgyzstan, three blocs appeared on the country’ political scene last fall -- the People's Movement of Kyrgyzstan, Jany Bagyt (New Direction), and Ata-Jurt (Fatherland).

Natalia Ablova is the director of the Kyrgyz-American Bureau for Humans Rights and Rule of Law in Bishkek. She said leaders from the three movements earlier this year signed a memorandum pledging to work together to ensure that parliamentary elections are free and fair.

"The opposition is very diverse, but they all understood the necessity to get united. And they signed an agreement to support each other's candidates during the current electoral campaign. This is unprecedented, that the leaders put aside their own ambitions and decide to work together to achieve the main objective of the day: to get more seats in the parliament," Ablova said.

Four opposition parties in Tajikistan have also come together ahead of parliamentary elections. The coalition For Just and Transparent Elections comprises the Islamic Renaissance Party, the Social-Democrat Party, the Socialist Party, and the Democratic Party.

Rahmatulloh Valiev, the Democratic Party's deputy head, told: "The existing election law does not guarantee a free and fair election process. That's why the coalition will dispatch monitors in each polling station."

Dave said these moves in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are just initial steps. She said the unity and solidarity of the countries' oppositions depend on internal factors, including factional rivalry.

More fundamentally, she added, Central Asia's opposition remains fragmented and divided because of what she called "compelling systemic factors." "The ruling regimes deliberately divide the opposition, coerce them, buy off influential people to sideline them, and generally make life quite difficult for opposition leaders," Dave said.

In Kazakhstan last month, a court authorized the liquidation of the opposition DVK party for anticonstitutional activities. One of its leaders, Ghalymzhan Zhaqiyanov, has been in prison since 2002. Also in jail is Feliks Kulov, the head of Kyrgyzstan's most popular opposition party, Ar Namys (Dignity).

More recently, five former Kyrgyz diplomats had their parliamentary candidacies rejected because they had not resided continuously in the country during the last five years. Opposition supporters say the decision was politically motivated.

Tajik Democratic Party leader Mahmadruzi Iskandarov was also denied registration for the upcoming elections after a criminal case was opened against him.

The Tajik Central Election Commission has also refused to register candidates from the opposition Socialist Party. The party was split in 2003 when its Dushanbe branch elected a government official as chairman. This election was seen as an attempt to weaken the party ahead of the parliamentary polls.

Authorities in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have also regularly refused to register any genuine opposition parties or candidates.

(Farangis Najibullah of RFE/RL's Tajik Service and Yerzhan Karabekov of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)