Prague, 23 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Central Asian opposition leaders are becoming increasingly vocal in their calls for change in the region as Kyrgyz voters prepare to go to the polls on 27 February.
At first glance, it might seem odd that opposition politicians from countries as diverse as Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan should be looking for encouragement from elections in still a third country, Kyrgyzstan.
But the hopes reflect a widespread perception of Kyrgyzstan as the most liberal of the post-Soviet Central states and, therefore, the ripest for political change.
Muhammad Solih, an exiled Uzbek opposition leader, told RFE/RL recently that the upcoming Kyrgyz elections are “critical.”
"New political forces [in Central Asian states] could come to power only if something like events in Georgia and Ukraine happens. And that's why elections in Kyrgyzstan are very critical for us, we put a lot of hope on it. It could be a very good example for all of Central Asia," Solih said.
Another Central Asian opposition leader in exile, former Turkmen Ambassador Nurmukhamed Khanamov, also hopes for a sign of change from the Kyrgyz elections. "Leaders of the [Central Asian] states might come to the conclusion that if [the current situation] continues, then, they would end up the same way," he said. "And they might choose a more democratic path. But, of course, this is not very likely to happen. On the other hand, it could cause a spark, people would overcome their fears, and this spark could provoke a flash, and similar events could happen in neighboring Central Asian states."
But even if the Kyrgyz election marks a victory for reformist forces -- and that result is far from certain -- how realistic is it to hope the spark could jump to elsewhere in the region? On that subject, political analysts differ widely. Maulen Ashimbaev, director of Kazakhstan’s Presidential Institute for Strategic Researchers, said he does not believe in any revolutionary scenarios in the region.
There are also some regional analysts who caution that whenever there is sudden change there are no guarantees that things will end peacefully.
"I do not believe in revolutionary events in Kyrgyzstan. And I don't believe that situation in Kyrgyzstan will have any impact on Kazakhstan; I don't know why people are so exited about it and expect something similar to the Ukrainian events to happen in Kyrgyzstan. One cannot compare Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan," Ashimbaev said.
The Presidential Institute for Strategic Researchers is close to the Kazakh government and at times reflects its views. But there are also independent observers who support the position that Central Asian states are too diverse to automatically presume one would follow suite after another in a domino-like effect.
Kazakh political analyst Azimbai Ghali said it is quite possible that any change in Kyrgyzstan would only harden government resistance to change in Kazakhstan. He said the likeliest result would be increased restrictions on Kazakh opposition parties.
"The difference is that Kyrgyzstan’s regional elite do not support the central elite in many cases. This limits the central elite's ability. This power struggle in Kyrgyzstan will unite the political elite in Kazakhstan and they will put more limits and restrictions on the Kazakh opposition," Ghali said.
There are also some regional analysts who caution that whenever there is sudden change there are no guarantees that things will end peacefully. They note that Georgia’s Rose Revolution in 2003 and Ukraine’s Orange Revolution of the past few months ended in an orderly transfer of power to reformists. But political upheavals can equally lead to violence.
Tajik political analyst Marat Mamadshoev said change is only desirable if it can be accomplished peacefully. "It would be a nice example if people in neighboring states defend their rights, especially, if it happens without bloodshed," he said.
Talk of violence is in the air in Kyrgyzstan even as opposition parties there call for peaceful change.
Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev said in an interview with Russia’s "Nezavisimaya gazeta" last month that any "velvet revolution" in his country might spark a civil war. Opposition leaders have charged him with trying to scare the electorate with the prospect of violence in order to discredit their efforts at change.For news, background, and analysis on Kyrgyzstan's 27 February parliamentary elections, see RFE/RL's webpage "Kyrgyzstan Votes 2005".
Also see:"Kyrgyzstan: Opposition Prepares For Parliamentary Elections (Part 1)"
and "Kyrgyzstan: Youth Groups Show Renewed Interest In Politics (Part 2)"