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Central Asia: Has New Alliance With West Helped Opposition Movements?

Since the independence of their respective countries, opposition movements in Central Asia have been under constant attack from the largely authoritarian governments in the region. Central Asia's relations with the West have deepened since 11 September following many of its states' cooperation with the war on terrorism. Some observers have criticized Washington for ignoring human rights abuses to gain such cooperation, while others believe increased attention to the region will bring about benefits. RFE/RL talks to opposition leaders to find out what affect, if any, they believe this increased attention has had on their movements.

Prague, 4 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Historically, there has never been an institutionalized opposition in Central Asia. Those who criticized the rulers were often either killed or forced into exile.

The Soviet period of rule and then independence for the nations of Central Asia in 1991 changed little, if anything. Being in the political opposition in Central Asia is often still a dangerous occupation.

Feliks Kulov, the leading opposition figure in the most democratic country of the region, Kyrgyzstan, was sentenced to 10 years in jail in May on embezzlement charges that his supporters say were politically motivated.

Mukhtar Abliyazov, a leader of Kazakhstan's Democratic Choice movement, is facing charges of financial corruption that his lawyers say are also politically motivated.

Last month, an appeals court in Kyrgyzstan upheld the conviction for abuse of office of opposition parliamentarian Azimbek Beknazarov. His arrest prompted violent protests in which at least five protesters were killed.

And the opposition in Kazakhstan says new rules for registering political parties are simply an attempt by the government to stifle dissent.

Much has been made about the close cooperation between the West and the nations of Central Asia in the war on terrorism. But has this new alliance with the West, particularly with the U.S., resulted in any improvements for the opposition in Central Asia?

Mohammad Solih is the chairman of the Erk democratic party of Uzbekistan. He started his opposition activities during the Soviet perestroika era. He is one of the founders of the first opposition movement Birlik, and the first political party Erk.

In 1992, Solih was the only challenger to current Uzbek President Islam Karimov in the first presidential elections. After years of harassment, Solih was forced to flee Uzbekistan in 1993. After living in Turkey and Germany, he received political refugee status in Norway in 1999.

Solih tells RFE/RL that Central Asia's new alliance with the U.S. and growing interest in the region have not changed the fate of the political opposition in Uzbekistan so far.

"Frankly, the situation of dissidents and the political opposition in Uzbekistan has not been changed a bit. The U.S. representative, Mr. [Lorne] Craner [assistant U.S. secretary for human rights] in his testimony [to the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee on 27 June] has expressed his hope that soon the opposition Birlik party would be registered in Uzbekistan. If the Uzbek government takes this step, we happily support it. But if the Uzbek government hopes that by registering the Birlik party it would get rid of the 'headache' called the opposition, it would be a big mistake. It will not mean the recognition of the political opposition at all, while the real opposition force -- which for most of population, for the government itself, and for Mr. Karimov is the Erk party -- remains out of the legal political spectrum. To say that the opposition in Uzbekistan is recognized would be a lie."

Boris Shikhmuradov is the founder of the People's Democratic Movement of Turkmenistan. Shikhmuradov was foreign minister from 1995 to 2000 and declared his opposition to President Saparmurat Niyazov in November 2001.

Shikhmuradov, who currently lives abroad, says that, so far, nothing about the political situation in Turkmenistan has changed. At the same time, he believes political conditions in the country are receiving more attention from the U.S. and the West. "I can declare that such [Western] support exists, and it has achieved a certain evolution. If at the beginning it was cautious attention, then it developed into deeper understanding. Today, we can declare the presence of strong support."

Akezhan Kazhegeldin is a founder and chairman of the Republican People's Party of Kazakhstan, which has become one of the leading opposition organizations in the country. He served as prime minister of Kazakhstan from 1994 to 1997.

Kazhegeldin believes that during the last five years, opposition groups in Central Asia have been trying to enlighten Western society about what's been happening in the region.

Kazhegeldin says developments since 11 September have sped up this process, and that once the U.S. got directly involved in the situation by locating thousands of its troops in Central Asia, the situation "fundamentally changed."

"Leading Western countries, which are fighting for freedom, are interested in democratic reforms, in seeing the region with liberal economies and civil societies. They want to understand that in each country of the region there are democratic political opposition organizations, with whom they can work and who are offering a different vector, a different way of developing these states."

Kazhegeldin and Shikhmuradov both believe that Western interest in their cases is genuine and that support for democratic forces in the region will gradually increase.

These leading opposition figures of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan say that all they want is for the West to defend the ideals of democracy and freedom, and for its political leaders to stand behind their statements. Solih: "When we asked for help from the West, we never asked anything impossible. We asked what the West itself was repeating at every step -- to make the Central Asian rulers give their people the rights guaranteed by their constitutions. We are in opposition not because we want to please the West or the U.S. What we are doing is for our people, for their escape from repression and for their freedom. In this ordeal, we rely first of all on the help of our people. Of course, we need Western support, too, but it should be genuine."

All three of these Central Asian opposition leaders agree that now is the time to coordinate their efforts. On 8 July, Central Asian opposition groups are organizing an event in Berlin in conjunction with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. They believe it can be the first serious united step by the opposition to attract more attention to the fate of democracy and human rights in the region.