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Analysis: Elections In Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan -- Antidote To Revolution?

Does Kyrgyz President Akaev (voting above) have an elixir for "revolutions?" As Kyrgyz voters cast their ballots in second-round parliamentary elections on 13 March, President Askar Akaev confidently explained to Russia's RTR television network that a "vaccine" exists to prevent Georgian- and Ukrainian-style revolutions.

While the situation in Kyrgyzstan remains fluid in the wake of the 13 March runoffs, with protests still roiling a number of regions, preliminary elections results suggest that the opposition, which had hoped to control up to one-third of a new, unicameral parliament with expanded powers, will instead occupy a maximum of 10 percent of the legislature's 75 seats. In neighboring Tajikistan, the ruling People's Democratic Party emerged as the decisive victor after 27 February first-round elections, with a two-thirds majority in the lower chamber of parliament.

Is there really a "vaccine" against the revolutionary wave that some observers had predicted could sweep across the post-Soviet expanse after election-related unrest in Georgia and Ukraine brought down long-standing rulers?
President Akaev's confidence that he has found an antidote to revolutionary fervor is grounded in more than bravado.

President Akaev was coy in his comments to RTR, a state-run network that has provided friendly coverage to the Kyrgyz president throughout first-round and second-round elections on 27 February and 13 March, respectively. In a reference to events in Ukraine, correspondent Andrei Kondrashov asked Akaev, "Why didn't the Orange Revolution, which so many spoke of as a threat, succeed in Kyrgyzstan?" Akaev replied, "We carefully studied and drew appropriate lessons from the Orange and Rose revolutions. I'll tell you right now that we've developed our own vaccine, an antivirus, so to speak. I can't reveal its essence today, since there are still presidential elections in October. If I reveal it, the opposition could use it. But I feel that we've discovered an antidote to the 'tulip' revolution that they planned in our country."

Even as the president was talking up his secret weapon, conditions on the ground suggested that it has not been entirely effective. First-round elections on 27 February, which produced only 32 clear winners out of 75 races, had sparked protests in a number of districts. Second-round races on 13 March set off further waves of discontent, with demonstrators numbering up to several thousand in some instances protesting, blocking roads, and seizing government offices in Uzgen. Their demands were both local and national. Supporters of defeated candidates in some districts alleged fraud. Demonstrators also seized on the program the opposition adopted after first-round elections, calling for the resignation of President Akaev, preterm presidential elections in July instead of October, an extension of the current parliament's powers, and new parliamentary elections after presidential elections.

The opposition, which runs an organizational gamut of parties and blocs, has done its best to put forward an increasingly united front in the standoff with the authorities. Although opposition delegates in the outgoing parliament failed to gain a quorum for an emergency session on 10 March and police denied them entry to parliament itself, they have hewed to their demands since then. All of the main opposition blocs gathered in Jalal-Abad, a hotbed of protest during the election period, for a rally and congress on 15 March, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported.

With several hundred delegates in attendance, the opposition repeated its call for President Akaev's resignation, an extension of the outgoing parliament's term until November, and presidential elections in July. Former Prime Minister Kurmanbek Bakiev addressed the congress, condemning official interference in the parliamentary elections, reported. Bakiev is the leader of the People's Movement of Kyrgyzstan and has declared his intention to seek the presidency, although he failed to win a seat in parliament in a 13 March runoff (a result he disputes). The congress also selected a "people's governor" for Jalal-Abad Oblast and made plans for similar conferences in Talas on 17 March and Osh on 19 March.

RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported on 15 March that a reinforced police presence was evident in Jalal-Abad during the opposition congress, although police took no action even when protestors removed a large portrait of Akaev that stood near the provincial administration, the building that protesters have held since 4 March. Against this backdrop, however, Akaev issued a warning. In televised remarks on 15 March, he said, "Those guilty of organizing unrest and destabilizing the situation in certain regions will definitely be held responsible for this," Interfax reported. Akaev continued: "These actions are impermissible and extremely dangerous for the country. We will not allow such events to undermine peace and harmony in the country."

Considerably more peace and harmony have been in evidence in neighboring Tajikistan, where the ruling People's Democratic Party easily smothered its opponents in 27 February elections. Nevertheless, four parties -- the Communist Party, the Democratic Party, the Social Democratic Party, and the Islamic Renaissance Party -- have filed a complaint with the Central Election Commission detailing numerous violations, demanding new elections in Dushanbe, and threatening to reject the election results across the country unless their complaints receive a fair hearing. For its part, the Central Election Commission has been taking its time.

Meanwhile, some opposition parties have complained that the authorities are putting on a postelection press. On 14 March, Social Democratic Party head Rahmatullo Zoyirov gave a news conference in Dushanbe to condemn the recent arrest of two party members, one of them a candidate in parliamentary elections, in Sughd Province. The two men face charges of defamation and hooliganism, but Zoyirov dismissed the accusations as a put-up job, called the case part of a government-sponsored intimidation campaign, and demanded the men's release, Avesta reported. Zoyirov said that his party, which found itself out of parliament when it failed to clear the 5 percent hurdle, will apply for a permit to hold a rally in Dushanbe "if our complaints are not dealt with in accordance with the law."

As Zoyirov's insistence that his party will ask for permission before holding a demonstration indicates, the tenor of political discourse in Tajikistan remains rather restrained. In fact, a number of factors conspire to produce a seemingly potent antidote to sudden political change in Tajikistan. For one, the very conditions that observers often cite as evidence of fertile ground for social upheaval -- primarily economic hardship -- may actually contribute to political quiescence. As Kazakhstan's "Kontinent" (No. 5, 9-22 March) noted, up to 1 million Tajiks are currently seeking better fortunes abroad as migrant workers, most of them able-bodied young men who would normally be part of the most socially and politically active segment of the population.

Further dampening political passions, many influential figures are kingpins of dubious repute who cut their teeth in the rough-and-tumble years of the 1992-97 civil war. And lately, President Imomali Rakhmonov has sought to limit their power. For example, Ghaffor Mirzoev, who once headed the National Guard, is now in jail facing criminal charges. Alternative political parties like the Communist Party and Islamic Renaissance Party seem to have accepted that they have a stable, albeit limited, electorate and circumscribed role to play. Bitter memories of the civil war serve to limit the potential appeal of any would-be hotheads. And finally, the powers-that-be possess a full array of ways and means to ensure their continued influence, from administrative resources to a near-monopoly on broadcast media.

As the demonstrations described above suggest, the situation is different in Kyrgyzstan. But President Akaev's confidence that he has found an antidote to revolutionary fervor is grounded in more than bravado. Since protests began, the authorities have largely ceded the initiative to the opposition in its demonstrations outside the capital, allowing them to gauge its strength and depth. At the same time, the president's warning that organizers will be "held responsible" indicates that the authorities are watching carefully. The implication is that the president's men will let the current round of protests run its course and then move in to file charges against the ringleaders. Faced with looming legal troubles in the event of a pause, the opposition could find itself drawn into a game of brinksmanship over parliamentary elections that are, for all their importance, still the prelude to presidential elections in the fall.

In forcing the opposition into a decisive confrontation before it has readied itself for what it thought would be the main struggle -- for the presidency in the fall -- the president may feel that he has found an antidote to plans for a "tulip" revolution. But by introducing an element of brinksmanship amid protests and demonstrations, he also raises the prospect that the cure could be worse than the disease.

For news, background, and analysis on Kyrgyzstan's 27 February parliamentary elections and the demonstrations leading up to and following the 13 March runoff, see RFE/RL's webpage "Kyrgyzstan Votes 2005".