Prague, 21 December 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Early in 2005, commentaries on Kyrgyzstan often focused on how far a country considered in the 1990s to be an island of democracy in Central Asia had become like other, authoritarian regimes in Central Asia. Over the course of a decade, the country with the largest number of opposition parties and the freest media in the region had seen the media’s freedom gradually restricted and pressure on the opposition mounting. The country’s transformation was symbolized by the jailing in 2001 of the opposition leader Feliks Kulov on charges of embezzlement and abuse of office, a case that human rights groups saw as politically motivated.
Within months, though, Kyrygzstan had reasserted its credentials as the most democratic and open country in the region. Parliamentary votes in February and March that produced a legislature overwhelmingly supportive of President Askar Akaev legislature (and including two of his children), was widely criticized as rigged, prompting protestors to come out onto the streets first in the south of the country, the hotbed of unrest, and then in the capital.
Freest Vote Ever In Central Asia
Within hours of the first protests in Bishkek, on 24 March, the Kyrgyz government had collapsed and Akaev was seeking refuge in Russia.
The uprising brought opposition leader Kurmanbek Bakiev into power and in July he was elected president in a vote considered to be the freest and most transparent in Central Asia's history.
Though still plagued by poverty and corruption, Kyrgyzstan is once again being viewed as an island of democracy in the region.
Other leaders in the region feared it could also be a beacon of democracy, and that other ‘colored revolutions’ -- after Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan -- might continue. They hastened to ensure Kyrgyzstan remained an island and to extinguish any potential spark of revolution.
"After the Kyrgyz revolution, you did have much more paranoia,” David Lewis, a London-based Central Asia, told RFE/RL. “Central Asian leaders studied very carefully not just what happened in Kyrgyzstan, but what happened in Ukraine, what happened in Georgia. And the main conclusion they took from it was not that it was a bad idea to falsify elections, or that the leadership should be less corrupt. The main lesson they took from it was that you shouldn't allow an independent media to operate. You shouldn't allow the opposition to get too strong."
That lesson was demonstrated most brutally by Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov, when, in May, his troops quelled antigovernment demonstrations by opening fire on peaceful protesters:
Officials claimed they had put down an Islamist uprising.
But the voices of ordinary demonstrators told a different story, a tale of brutality unprecedented in the region. "They fired. They were shooting at us like at sheep,” one woman told RFE/RL shortly after the crackdown. “You know how hunters shoot wolves or foxes? That's how they were shooting at us."
Human rights groups say hundreds were killed in the violence, and many more were forced to flee the country in fear for their safety. Officials put the number of dead at 178.
Silencing The Media, Opposition
The Uzbek authorities then turned their attention to the media and to prevent the opposition gaining strength from anger at the killings. The Uzbek government increased its harassment and persecution of opposition members and human rights activists. Dozens have been detained since the Andijon uprising. Among them are Sanjar Umarov, a secular opposition leader, and Mo'tabar Tojiboyeva / Mutabar Tojiboeva, a prominent human rights campaigner. They have both been in detention since October, despite deteriorating health. Dozens of Uzbeks accused of organizing the uprising have also been tried and sentenced to jail terms.
The international media were also silenced. On 12 December, Uzbek authorities refused to prolong the accreditation of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's bureau in Tashkent. A number of other prominent media organizations, including the BBC and the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, had already been forced to pull their correspondents out of the country.
For Karimov, such repressive policies were aimed at "building a just and fair society."
Not Too Rich, Not Too Poor
"Our model, our future, is a just society,” he said on the eve of Constitution Day, on 8 December. “Justice depends on many issues, but I should repeat once again what I have said thousands of times before: in our [society], no one should be too rich and no one too poor. This is the kind of society we wish to build.”
In Kazakhstan, a society less troubled by poverty, the trend was similar, though less violent. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev also clamped down on opposition groups, nongovernmental organizations, and freedom of the press. As presidential elections approached, the crackdown grew stronger. On 4 December, Nazarbaev won an overwhelming 91 percent of the vote. However, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) criticized the elections as falling short of international standards.
Tajik Oppositionists Jailed
In Tajikistan too, the government became less tolerant of dissent, with several members of Tajik opposition parties were jailed. But opponents of President Imomali Rakhmonov seemed uncertain how far to push the government. After parliamentary elections in February produced a majority for the president’s supporters, several opposition parties called for the vote to be declared invalid. But when those demands were dismissed, the opposition did not take its discontent onto the streets. Analysts say the specter of the country's 1992-97 civil war may have prompted them to hold back. In Tajikistan, both the government and the opposition have, it seems, an interest in rocking the status quo.
In Turkmenistan, the most authoritarian state in the region, political stability seems assured. For Turkmen officials, life remained predictably unpredictable, with President Saparmurat Niyazov continuing to purge top officials on corruption charges. But for ordinary Turkmen, life worsened with a further deterioration in the health and education sectors. Media freedom had long ceased to exist; religious freedom remained severely restricted.
Stability Or Liberty
If tight control is viewed as a mark of stability, rulers in Central Asia -- with the exception of Kyrgyzstan -- could feel their rule was more stable at the end of a year of turmoil than at the beginning. But David Lewis disagrees. “In many cases…the situation has become more unstable. The results of the Kyrgyz revolution are still to be seen. It still could go in any direction, I think. And, of course, you had the Andijon massacre, which has put back Uzbekistan a long way on its path of political development."
Growing discontent at economic problems and at the quality of their lives, combined with the continued suppression of dissent, make further upheaval in the region possible, Lewis believes. And the country most vulnerable to such turmoil may be the country that in 2005 made most effort to suppress unrest, Uzbekistan.