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Kazakhstan/Azerbaijan: Governments Try To Keep Young On Their Side

Will events in Kyrgyzstan bring change to its neighbors? In the wake of protest movements in Georgia, Ukraine and more recently in Kyrgyzstan, authorities in Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan are increasing the amount of attention they pay to their young people. The leadership in both countries is hoping to lure the youth toward pro-government support -- and away from political movements that might eventually take them to the street in search of regime change. For more on the rise of political youth groups, see RFE/RL's special website "The Power of Youth." --> /specials/youth/

Prague, 11 April 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Weeks of antigovernment protests in Kyrgyzstan culminated on 24 March as protesters stormed and occupied the presidential compound in the capital Bishkek.

The same day, Kazakh deputy Bekbolat Tleukhan, speaking at the parliament in Astana, made clear that young people were behind the ousting of Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev. Tleukhan also said they were responsible for earlier protest movements in Georgia and Ukraine.

In front of parliament, Tleukhan called for a state strategy to prevent a similar uprising orchestrated by what he called young "traitors."

"Now we are speaking about youth who have a bad attitude, those who reluctantly accept national pride. Traitors. If we ignore such tendencies, just imagine -- what we are going to have? We need a state program [on youth] to meet these challenges," Tleukhan said.

In Azerbaijan, the government has had a more proactive youth policy.

Murad Esenov is editor of the Swedish-based "Central Asia and the Caucasus" journal. He said that the Azerbaijani authorities have been more active in pushing young people into politics.

"In Azerbaijan, young people and students have been largely drawn into politics -- but on the government's side," Esenov said. "For example, the youth wing of the [ruling] party -- Yeni Azerbaycan -- has been very active. The youth wing of the party is active in all institutions of higher learning. They have meetings with students, hold discussions, even readings of [President Heidar] Aliyev's works. They know that youth are the driving force of any revolution and this pro-government party is doing its utmost to co-opt young people and bring them under their influence. And I have not seen this in Kazakhstan."

Ramil Hassanov heads the youth wing of the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan (New Azerbaijan) Party. He said he sees nothing wrong with officials holding meetings in educational institutions and emphasizes that the purpose is not propaganda.

"If any government representative or minister or committee head meets with university students, he isnít doing that as a representative of the party," Hassanov said. "He does that as a representative of the government."

The Azerbaijani and Kazakh governments are not just focusing on politics -- they are also offering economic incentives.

Sergei Zlotnikov, the executive director of the Almaty-based civic foundation Transparency Kazakhstan, said the ruling Otan (Fatherland) party fears over-policitizing youth.

"In most cases, the ruling party doesn't want to politicize youth because there is danger of revolutions, orange revolutions, and so on. [But] the ruling party has the financial resources to solve problems. It is making life better for young people -- for example, by increasing their stipends. So young people are absolutely indifferent in terms of politics," Zlotnikov said.

On 31 March, the Kazakh government finally gave in to some long-standing student demands. Education Minister Byrganym Aitimova announced that stipends for college, university, and doctorate students, as well as grants and transportation benefits, would be increased. Aitimova said the government would cover 50 percent of the transport costs.

Dosym Satpaev is the director of the Assessment Risks Group, an Almaty-based nongovernmental organization dealing with political and investment risks in the region. He said Kazakh authorities are also using their financial wealth to support local youth organizations, such as the Congress of Young People in Kazakhstan.

"The government tries to use pro-official [pro-government] youth organizations as obstacles to the activities of opposition youth organizations. Pro-presidential organizations receive a lot of money and a lot of support from all state structures," Satpaev said.

Satpaev said the Kazakh government is now likely to try to increase its control over different youth organizations, especially those connected with opposition movements.

On the other side of the Caspian Sea, the Azerbaijani authorities are gearing up for parliamentary elections, scheduled for November.

The head of the Azerbaijani president's office, Ramiz Mehdiev, has reportedly sent a directive to government agencies, calling on them to join efforts in mobilizing young people, especially students.

Ruslan Bashirli from the Yeni Fekir (New Idea) youth organization told RFE/RL: "This document is about politicizing youth and students in Azerbaijan. Among the measures, it says student and youth organizations must be created in all government and nongovernment education entities, according to the number of students. And the heads and deputies of all these organizations must be provided with appropriate salaries and work conditions to [help] prevent outsiders from campaigning in these education entities."

Bashirli said that his organization has a copy of the directive dated 15 February, and that he thinks the directive was issued to help prevent the creation of a large-scale opposition youth organization in advance of the November elections.

(RFE/RL's Gulnoza Saidazimova and Jeremy Bransten, and RFE/RL's Azerbaijani and Kazakh services contributed to this report.)