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Central Asia: Opposition Still Searching for a Platform (Part 1)

The Central Asian states have been independent for more than 10 years now. But it remains difficult to see what influence, if any, those countries' opposition movements have had on political life, which is largely dominated by autocratic leaders and the rigid repression of dissent. In a two-part series, RFE/RL looks at why the Central Asian opposition is at least partly to blame for its failure to effect change in the region. Part 1 looks at the inability of the opposition to distinguish its policies from those of the government. Part 2 looks at the inability of different opposition groups to cooperate with each other despite their common goals and adversaries.

Prague, 26 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- When two former state officials formed the Democratic Choice for Kazakhstan movement late last year, they issued a challenge to the country's president, Nursultan Nazarbaev, by calling for an investigation into his alleged foreign bank accounts.

Nazarbaev's response was unambiguous. In a speech this spring, the Kazakh president warned the country's citizens to be wary of "internal and external enemies" and to "steer clear of potential internal messes and chaos."

At the same time, criminal charges were leveled against the two Democratic Choice co-founders -- former Pavlodar Oblast Governor Ghalymzhan Zhaqiyanov and former Energy, Industry, and Trade Minister Mukhtar Abliyazov.

Zhakiyanov called on the people to resist what he and Abliyazov said were politically motivated charges: "The public declaration by the president -- with its threats against leaders of the opposition and the independent media -- has become a call to action for all police services and organs of executive power. So the fabricated accusations have resulted in a criminal case against the leaders of the democratic opposition, [myself] and Abliyazov. Our deputies and aides have been arrested. A regime of total repression has come down against the country's independent media. We appeal to all citizens of Kazakhstan, for the sake of the country, to speak as one against the arbitrary rule and violence of the authorities, to defend their right to a dignified life."

Abliyazov was sentenced last week to six years in jail after being found guilty of abuse of power and embezzlement while serving as energy minister. The trial of Zhaqiyanov, who is facing similar charges, is scheduled to end next week.

It is a typical fate for opposition figures in Central Asia. But it is not only strict government control that limits the effectiveness of opposition groups. Often it is the movements themselves that are too blame for their lack of success. More than 10 years after independence, they remain unable to formulate, or articulate, anything that would clearly distinguish their policies from those of the state and drum up popular support. Moreover, lack of cooperation among the region's disparate opposition groups has left the overall movement splintered, weak, and desperately lacking in credibility.

There were few opposition groups in Central Asia when the region's nations gained independence in 1991. But what few groups there were, such as Birlik in Uzbekistan and Agzybirlik in Turkmenistan, rejoiced at the news the Soviet Union had collapsed. Many of the values they espoused -- a return to the indigenous languages and cultural values of their traditionally Islamic societies -- clearly separated them from those in power.

Paul Bergne is the former British ambassador to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. He said in Uzbekistan, President Islam Karimov was quick to close the gap between his own agenda and that of the opposition. "I think this was one of the problems. The Uzbek government, under Karimov, did successfully take quite a large part of the platform of the opposition parties, particularly with regard to what you might call its 'national issues' -- questions of language, questions of cultural and national history, questions of cultural and national imagery. They did the sort of things that Birlik and Erk had originally proposed, like introducing new street names, new names, and generally promoting awareness of Uzbek national identity."

A similar process was seen in the other Central Asian states. The titular languages replaced Russian as the state language, street names were changed, mosques were opened, and exploration of the countries' pre-Soviet histories was encouraged.

As a result, opposition groups in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan found themselves floundering, suddenly bereft of a platform that set them apart from the regimes they opposed. The single exception in the region is Tajikistan, which ended its five-year civil war in 1997 with an agreement to guarantee the rights of some opposition parties.

Now, for the most part, the message of Central Asia's opposition groups goes unheard. The problem is complicated by the fact that many opposition leaders are former state officials -- like former Turkmen Foreign Ministers Avdy Kuliev and Boris Shikhmuradov and former Kazakh Foreign Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin -- now organizing their efforts from exile abroad. Others, like Agzybirlik co-founder Nurberdi Nurmamedov, are under house arrest. Still others -- like former Kyrgyz Security Minister Feliks Kulov, the leader of the Ar-Namys movement -- are in jail.

Even those who speak out are unable to articulate what alternative to the government they represent. In many cases, simply stating one's opposition to the regime is an end in itself. An example is Shikhmuradov, who in announcing his defection to the opposition, failed to clarify how he would be different: "The situation in my country has forced me to take a decision not only to improve it for the better, but to stand in open opposition to the policies of Turkmenistan's President Saparmurat Niyazov."

Abdumannob Polat is a founder of Uzbekistan's Birlik opposition group, and now works at the Washington-based Central Asian Human Rights Information Network of the Union of Councils. Speaking as a political observer rather than a Birlik member, he says that while opposition groups offer "good slogans" about democracy, freedom, and fighting corruption, they do very little to explain what they would do to confront unemployment, poverty, and other vital issues. He adds that there are many questions Central Asians should be asking of their opposition parties and movement. "'How do you plan to come to power? What political and social base will you create? How to build the foundations for the changes that you advocate? [What] will be your first actions once you come to power?'"

Until opposition leaders can offer clear answers to these questions, Polat says, their movements are bound to remain on the sidelines of Central Asian political life.

(The Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, Turkmen, and Uzbek services contributed to this report.)