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Central Asia Report: January 12, 2005

12 January 2005, Volume 5, Number 1

WEEK AT A GLANCE. Political tensions came to a head in Kazakhstan on 6 January, when an Almaty court ruled in favor of prosecutors' request to liquidate the opposition party Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK). Prosecutors had argued that a DVK appeal on 11 December branding President Nursultan Nazarbaev's government "illegitimate" and calling for civil disobedience amounted to impermissible incitement. The opposition responded angrily, warning that the move is part of a crackdown on dissent and an attempt to forestall Georgian- and Ukrainian-style political change in Kazakhstan. Opposition figures noted that prosecutors recently filed tax charges against the Soros-Kazakhstan Foundation and opened a criminal case against former Emergency Situations Agency head and current Nazarbaev critic Zamanbek Nurkadilov for allegedly defaming the president. Human Rights Watch called on the Kazakh president to reverse the decision to liquidate DVK. DVK now has 15 days to appeal, and has vowed to do so. In Iraq, a Kazakh peacekeeper was killed, along with eight Ukrainian servicemen, during a munitions-clearing operation.

Political tensions were also on the rise in Kyrgyzstan, where a district election commission first approved, then rejected, former Foreign Minister Roza Otunbaeva's application to run in the 27 February parliamentary elections. Otunbaeva is the co-chairwoman of the opposition movement Ata-Jurt, and she and her supporters took to the streets even as she promised to appeal the commission's decision. Up to 200 demonstrators, clad in yellow to symbolize imminent political change, massed on a square near parliament on 8-10 January, vowing to stay until Otunbaeva is allowed to run. For his part, President Askar Akaev seems resolved to nip any nefarious revolutionary fervor in the bud. He said, "We are concerned about the existence of made-to-order movements with the financial support of international organizations that specialize in organizing 'Velvet Revolutions.' Social movements that have emerged in this country are preparing such revolutions as ordered up by a Clandestine International."

Political change of the top-down variety was the order of the day in Tajikistan, where President Imomali Rakhmonov shook up the upper echelons of government with a series of dismissals and appointments. Qozidavlat Qoimdodov left the post of deputy prime minister and became ambassador to Turkmenistan. Abdumannon Ghoziev replaced Habibulloh Yusufov as the commander of Interior Ministry troops. And Fayzullo Abdulloev replaced Rahim Karimov as first deputy director of the Drug Control Agency. On the drug front, Russia's Federal Security Service announced that Russian guards seized 3,750 kilograms of narcotics, including 2,440 kilograms of heroin, along the Tajik-Afghan border in 2004. Ten alleged members of the extremist group Bayat went on trial in Khujand. And a Tajik inmate freed from the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, recounted his story to a Tajik newspaper, saying that while he was in U.S. custody he was humiliated and subjected to extreme psychological pressure, but not beaten.

Turkmenistan's new gas deal with Ukraine, which has Ukraine paying $58 per 1,000 cubic meters in 2005 as against $44 in 2004, elicited grumbles in Kyiv, where acting Prime Minister Mykola Azarov suggested that Yuriy Boyko, chairman of national oil and gas company Naftohaz Ukrayiny, may have exceeded his authority when he signed the new contract in early January. Unperturbed, Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov tended to his own affairs, dismissing two deputy prime ministers for shortcomings in their work. And on 9 January, Turkmenistan held a parliamentary runoff; the authorities chose not to invite international observers, most of whom dismissed the elections as a farce.

Uzbekistan also held a second round of parliamentary elections on 9 January, with international observers, although Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) monitors criticized the first round of voting on 26 December as falling short of democratic standards. Iranian First Vice President Mohammad Reza Aref-Yazdi visited as Iran allocated a 50 million-euro ($66 million) credit to support Iranian investment in Uzbekistan's private sector. Against the backdrop of the visit, the interstate council for a planned trans-Afghan transportation corridor to link Afghanistan, Iran, and Uzbekistan held its inaugural session in Tashkent. The U.S.-based NGO Freedom House called for an independent investigation into the alleged torture death of Samandar Umarov, a prisoner serving a 17-year sentence for membership in the banned Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir. Umarov died on 2 January, and his relatives reported that his body showed signs of torture, although Uzbek officials maintain that he died from a stroke. (Daniel Kimmage)

UZBEKISTAN FACES NEW ALLEGATIONS OF TORTURE DEATH. Torture has long been the bane of Uzbekistan's international reputation, especially after a 2002 report by Theo van Boven, the United Nations' special rapporteur against torture, dubbed the practice "widespread and systematic." Since then, Uzbek authorities have admitted to the existence of a problem and, they stress, taken measures to improve the situation. But the results have not impressed human rights advocates, who have continued to call attention to torture allegations.

In May 2004, Human Rights Watch (HRW) called for an independent investigation into the suspicious death of Andrei Shelkovenko in police custody. A commission of international experts found no evidence of torture, prompting a retraction from HRW. But now, with new allegations of a death under torture and continuing accounts of pervasive physical abuse in Uzbekistan's prisons, Uzbek authorities may find that the precedent of an independent investigation is a double-edged sword.

The body of Samandar Umarov was delivered to his relatives in Tashkent on 3 January, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported. Found guilty of membership in the banned Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir in 2000, Umarov had been serving a 17-year prison sentence in Navoiy. Tabassum Umarova, Samandar's elder sister, said that family members learned of her brother's death on 2 January. They received the body at 4 a.m. on 3 January from officials who demanded immediate burial.

A stroke was listed as the official cause of death. But Umarov's relatives said that the body bore signs of torture, including missing fingernails and toenails, bruises, and a shattered jawbone. Uzbek human rights organizations took up the case, and Ezgulik and the Initiative Group of Human Rights Defenders of Uzbekistan quickly issued press releases describing the details of the case and calling for an independent investigation. Meanwhile, Prosecutor-General's Office spokeswoman Svetlana Ortiqova told AP that a preliminary autopsy had shown that Umarov died from a stroke. She added that an "additional" investigation was under way, but provided no further details.

On 5 January, Freedom House issued a press release urging the Uzbek government to allow an independent inquiry. In a reference to the precedent of the Shelkovenko investigation, the appeal quoted Freedom House Executive Director Jennifer Windsor as saying: "We encourage the government of Uzbekistan to follow its own positive example...and to conduct an immediate, open, and transparent investigation according to international standards. Uzbek society needs to know the truth about Umarov's death."

Although the Umarov case is ongoing, it already differs from the Shelkovenko case in one crucial aspect. Shelkovenko was arrested on a murder charge in a case devoid of political implications; Umarov was convicted of membership in Hizb ut-Tahrir, a group the Uzbek authorities describe as a terrorist organization bent on the violent overthrow of the existing government. Moreover, the most specific and detailed accounts of torture in Uzbek prisons focus on mistreatment of individuals charged with membership in Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Ruslan Sharipov, an opposition journalist who was recently granted political asylum in the United States, published "A Survivor's Guide" to Uzbek prisons on the website of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting on 10 December. Sharipov wrote that he spent "13 months in various detention centers and penal institutions," where he "witnessed numerous cases of physical mistreatment of detainees." He added, "Prisoners singled out for the most severe torture are those detained for alleged or real adherence to banned Islamic groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir." He quoted Marat Izzatulin, an agent from the counterterrorism department of Uzbekistan's Interior Ministry, as saying that Interior Ministry staff "regard it as prestigious to have killed 'hizbutchiks' -- short for Hizb ut-Tahrir member -- and keep a tally among themselves. [Izzatulin] claims he has killed six Islamists, both in the police building and in Tashkent prison. 'Unfortunately, our administration does not always let us do this,' he said with a hint of regret."

Craig Murray, Britain's former envoy to Uzbekistan and a harsh critic of President Islam Karimov and his government, also addressed the issue of torture in a widely publicized address at Chatham House on 8 November. Calling "torture and brutality...the instruments by which the regime maintains its fierce grip," Murray called on the West to curtail its official cooperation with Uzbekistan.

"Finally, we should break off our relationship with the Uzbek intelligence services," Murray said. "I have no doubt that we are receiving information that has been obtained under torture. Where you are receiving such information systematically, under an established procedure, I also believe that you are acting illegally. This is complicity under Article IV of the UN Convention against Torture. It has been argued that it would be irresponsible to ignore useful intelligence in the war against terror. I have two responses: firstly, I deny that this material is useful. [Secondly,] it is provided by the Uzbek regime with the object of exaggerating their role in the war on terror, the strength of the IMU [Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan] and the linkage of the threat against them to Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden."

The allegations of torture in the death of Samandar Umarov bring the Uzbek authorities face to face with an existing precedent of independent investigation that strengthens calls like the one Robert Freedman, the senior program officer in Freedom House's Uzbekistan Torture Prevention Project, issued to Deutsche Welle on 6 January. Freedman said: "On the death of Umarov, we are working with a rapid-reaction group that includes medical specialists, lawyers, and human rights advocates. This group strongly urges the government and the Prosecutor-General's Office to conduct an additional investigation in the most transparent and open possible manner, so that it will be possible to monitor the investigation's progress."

The investigation of the Shelkovenko case largely confirmed the official version of events. But if the Uzbek authorities hope to bolster their credibility in the face of continuing and troubling accounts of abuses in prisons, they will have to accept the necessity of further independent investigations, along with the possibility of findings that may not be to their liking. (Daniel Kimmage)

KYRGYZ PROTESTERS DEMAND FREE ELECTIONS. Around 200 demonstrators held a third day of protests on 10 January in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, demanding free and fair elections and an end to President Askar Akaev's rule. "Akaev out of office" protesters chanted, demanding a free and fair vote on 27 February. They also called on authorities to allow former ambassadors, many of whom are now part of the opposition, to run for office.

The rally started on 8 January as opposition members gathered to protest a decision to prevent opposition leader and former Foreign Minister Roza Otunbaeva from running in the election. Otunbaeva, one of the leaders of the Ata-Jurt (Fatherland) party, was initially granted permission to run, but that permission was later revoked because of restrictions on former ambassadors. The opposition says the denial is politically motivated.

Otunbaeva, wearing a trademark yellow scarf recalling the vivid orange of Ukraine's opposition, told the rally she believes Kyrgyzstan needs radical changes. "We will vote for real genuine changes," she said.

Another opposition bloc, the People's Movement, joined the protests on 10 January. Former Education Minister Ishengul Boljurova told the protesters: "You are witnessing that the situation is getting grave, because the White House has been organizing closed-door sessions in all the seven regions giving orders [to local authorities] and saying, 'You should elect these people [in the approved list] and you should not elect those [in the black list.]'"

The movement's color is pink, evoking memories of Georgia's "Rose Revolution."

Some 100 pro-government supporters also rallied in the same square.

Omurbek Tekebaev, leader of the opposition Atameken (Motherland) Socialist Party, one of the antigovernment organizers, said it was not clear if the pro-government support was genuine. "Of course, the authorities have the right to bring their supporters to a rally," Tekebaev said. "But we will see now if the [pro-government] participants really have faith in the government. It is snowing and quite cold. If they will stay until evening, then they are staunch defenders of the government. If they just show up and go, it means they were brought to rally by the authorities."

Correspondents say the authorities may fear a Ukrainian- or Georgian-style popular "revolution" in the run-up to the vote amid widespread dissatisfaction with Akaev's government.

The Russian news agency ITAR-TASS quoted Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Askar Aitmatov as saying there were no conditions that would justify what he called a "Velvet Revolution." He said officials are taking measures to eliminate any possible defects in the electoral process that could threaten its legitimacy. He also urged the opposition to refrain from calling for civil disobedience.

Akaev criticized the opposition on 8 January. "I think this is unruly, irresponsible [behavior] and overall libel," he said. "I understand when the opposition and their criticisms are constructive, but [now] there are lies in the [opposition] newspapers. I try to be patient because progress in my country is important for me."

The issue of whether former ambassadors can run in the election is important to the opposition. The Kyrgyz Constitution and Electoral Code say citizens who have not lived in Kyrgyzstan for five years before an election cannot register as candidates. This would effectively deny ambassadors serving outside the country.

Presidential spokesman Abdil Segizbaev and Central Election Commission Chairman Sulaiman Imanbaev told RFE/RL they believed the protests were illegal.

The former ambassadors say they will appeal to the Supreme and Constitutional courts. Organizers say they will continue the protests. (Gulnoza Saidazimova, with contributions from RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service Director Tyntchtykbek Tchoroev and correspondents in Bishkek)

KYRGYZ OPPOSITION LEADER SAYS REJECTION OF ELECTION REGISTRATION POLITICALLY MOTIVATED. Electoral authorities in Bishkek, have rejected the registration of former Foreign Minister and current opposition leader Roza Otunbaeva as a candidate in February's parliamentary elections. The registration forms for Otunbaeva, a leader of the Ata-Jurt (Fatherland) opposition movement, were initially accepted on 6 January. Later, however, district election officials in Bishkek withdrew her registration. Opposition members say the decision appears to be politically motivated.

On the afternoon of 6 January, influential opposition leader Otunbaeva received a registration certificate from Inna Kim, an electoral official in Bishkek. The document certified Otunbaeva's official registration as a candidate for parliamentary elections, scheduled for 27 February.

A few hours later, however, the same electoral officials who had initially approved Otunbaeva's candidacy gathered for a second meeting and voted to rescind her registration. Among the reasons cited, they claim that a quorum had not been present at the first meeting.

But the facts appear to prove otherwise. Eleven of the 15 members of the district election commission attended the first meeting, with seven of them initially voting in favor of Otunbaeva. Six of those seven reportedly changed their votes at the second meeting.

In a press conference the next day, Otunbaeva accused the election commission of acting on orders from the government. "It seems to me the case is politically motivated, [that] it was ordered [by President Askar Akaev's government]," she said.

Otunbaeva is not alone in her sentiments. Other opposition figures say the decision was illegal and that they, too, believe the case is politically motivated. Mambetjunus Abylov, a former Kyrgyz ambassador to Malaysia, spoke to RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service in Bishkek about Otunbaeva's case. "In accordance with the law, the local election commission does not have the right to withdraw its previous decision," Abylov said. "If there was a wrong decision by the local commission, then only a court and the upper-level election commission can reject such a decision."

Zamira Sydykova, editor in chief of the Kyrgyz opposition daily "Res Publica," told RFE/RL: "It's absolutely illegal because only an upper body like the city or the Central Election Commission or a court has a right to reverse a decision by the district election commission," Sydykova said. "According to the Electoral Code, the [district] election commission cannot reverse its own decision."

The Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, a nonpartisan coalition of NGOs that is monitoring the election campaign, issued a statement today objecting to the withdrawal of Otunbaeva's registration. It also accused Kyrgyz authorities of pressuring members of the district election commission to make the decision.

President Akaev's daughter Bermet plans to run for a seat in parliament as a candidate from the pro-government party Alga, Kyrgyzstan! Observers note that she plans to run from the same electoral district in which Otunbaeva initially received her registration and that a campaign to collect signatures for her candidacy has been ongoing there.

"I don't understand this hysteria," said Sydykova of "Res Publica." "I don't understand why [the authorities] decided to throw out Otunbaeva from a competition with Bermet, because Bermet already has a huge administrative resource. As they say, 'the eyes of fear see danger everywhere.' I think, through this case, the authorities gave themselves away completely."

Officials say Bermet Akaeva has not yet applied for registration.

As further defense of their decision, Kyrgyz electoral authorities also note that the Kyrgyz Electoral Code, amended in 2003, prohibits Otunbaeva, a former diplomat, from running for parliament or the presidency. The code says former diplomats who have not lived in Kyrgyzstan for up to five years before an election cannot be registered as candidates.

In December, three former Kyrgyz diplomats -- including Abylov; Medetkan Sherimkulov, an ex-ambassador to Turkey; and Usen Sydykov, a former envoy to the Commonwealth of Independent States -- were refused the right to register as opposition candidates in the election.

Suleiman Imanbaev, the head of the Central Election Commission, explained the decision: "The Central Election Commission does not write the constitution. It does not adopt any law. The Central Election Commission carries out the law," Imanbaev said. "The Kyrgyz Constitution says that only a citizen who has been permanently living in Kyrgyzstan in the last five years [before an election] has the right to be registered as a candidate for a deputy of the Kyrgyz parliament. It did not give any legal priority to anybody. The constitution did not mention any word such as ambassador or scholar and so on."

Sherimkulov, the former ambassador to Turkey, was one of the signatories of a petition objecting to the December ruling. "I handed in my application to the No. 64 Shopokov constituency Election Commission in the Sokuluk District [of Chui region]," Sherimkulov said. "The local election commission issued a decision [on 31 December] that says I don't have a right to be registered as a candidate. I appealed to a court against the decision. I think all the people see and understand that this kind of decision was made at the top levels of power."

At a press conference today, Otunbaeva said Ata-Jurt intends to fight for her rights. "Undoubtedly, we will adequately respond to every action of the government," Otunbaeva said. "They should not blacken and slander us. We are going to act within legal frameworks, the frameworks of the constitution."

Otunbaeva served as Kyrgyzstan's ambassador to the United States and Britain and was foreign minister from 1994 to 1997. (Gulnoza Saidazimova, with contributions from RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service Director Tyntchtykbek Tchoroev and correspondents in Bishkek)

CAN KULOV UNITE OPPOSITION FROM BEHIND BARS? Kyrgyzstan is holding parliamentary and presidential elections this year, and the stakes are high. Incumbent President Akaev has repeatedly said he intends to step down in October after the end of his second term, as required, meaning Kyrgyzstan might become the first Central Asian nation to see a change in power through a popular vote since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The opposition is aiming to obtain a majority in parliament in February in the hopes that such a showing will influence the outcome of the presidential race in October.

In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, Feliks Kulov, the imprisoned founder of Kyrgyzstan's leading opposition party, Ar-Namys (Dignity), discussed efforts to unite the opposition ahead of the polls.

Kulov is among the most influential politicians in post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan. He leads the country's most popular opposition party, Ar-Namys (Dignity), but he does so from his jail cell.

In March 2000, Kulov was arrested and charged with abuse of power. An initial acquittal was reversed, and in 2001 Kulov was sentenced to seven years in jail. At another trial in 2002, he was sentenced to 10 years in jail, this time for embezzlement.

International right groups, including New York-based Human Rights Watch, insist Kulov is in prison because he intended to challenge President Akaev in the 2000 elections. The group has called on Kyrgyz authorities to release him.

Described as Kyrgyzstan's only political prisoner, Kulov has remained politically active while in prison. In November 2001, while in prison, Kulov was elected chairman of an opposition movement called the People's Congress of Kyrgyzstan, which unites several political parties, such as Ar-Namys, Ata Meken (Fatherland), and the People's Party. The People's Congress will be participating in parliamentary elections on 27 February and a presidential poll due in late October.

Observers say Kulov's influence enables him to unite the Kyrgyz opposition. The question, they say, is whether he wants to.

Recently, the People's Congress of Kyrgyzstan held negotiations with another opposition movement called the People's Movement of Kyrgyzstan. The two groups discussed possible unification ahead of the elections.

Kulov spoke about the negotiations from prison in an interview with RFE/RL: "We had preliminary negotiations with the People's Movement of Kyrgyzstan, which was recently established by former Prime Minister Kurmanbek Bakiev. We said we support unification. But there must be certain tactics. At this stage, only those with similar political positions must be united."

Recently, several other Kyrgyz opposition groups announced a plan to work together. Leaders from the People's Movement of Kyrgyzstan, the social movement Ata-Jurt, Jany Bagyt (New Direction), and the For Fair Elections movement signed a memorandum, pledging to work together to ensure that February's parliamentary elections are free and fair.

The leader of the People's Movement of Kyrgyzstan, former Prime Minister Bakiev, explained the group's intentions: "These five movements that had five different directions before have been united. [We united], first of all, in order to prevent any fraud during the parliamentary elections. If there were any illegal activities, then we would jointly fight them."

The People's Congress of Kyrgyzstan is among the signatories of the new grouping. Kulov told RFE/RL that his bloc is ready to join any effort aimed at ensuring elections are open and fair. But he said it is too early to unite with Bakiev's bloc on other issues, since the People's Movement does not yet have a clear political program: "In order to avoid accusations that we support only a person [Bakiev] but not a policy, a platform, we decided to wait until their political and economic program is announced. Then we can discuss unification."

Observers say Bakiev's popularity and influence might be one reason for Kulov's reluctance to collaborate. Bakiev, who has been able to unite communists and so-called radical liberals under his centrist group, has announced his intention to run for president and has already received the backing of some opposition parties.

International pressure has led to reports that Kulov might be released from prison ahead of schedule. But even if he is freed before October, Kulov's prison record means he is constitutionally prohibited from running for president.

Muratbek Imanaliev is a former Kyrgyz foreign minister and a leader of Jany-Bagyt. He told RFE/RL that Kulov might throw his support behind another candidate. "Feliks Kulov is one of the most influential and prominent politicians in Kyrgyzstan, despite his current status -- that is, limited," Imanaliev said. "During parliamentary and presidential elections, he can run political groups under his leadership through existing political mechanisms. It's difficult to say if he would personally choose and support one candidate, but I assume that if Mr. Kulov would decide to do so, his support would play a significant role."

But Imanaliev said Kulov will likely have to wield his influence from behind bars. "For the authorities, Feliks Kulov is a serious political threat. Therefore, I don't believe the government will release him before the presidential election," Imanaliev said. (Gulnoza Saidazimova, with contributions from RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service)

FRAGMENTED KYRGYZ OPPOSITION UP AGAINST ENTRENCHED INTERESTS. Could Kyrgyzstan witness its own "Orange," "Rose" or -- as President Askar Akaev put it -- "Tulip" revolution? Following on the heels of last month's opposition victory in Ukraine's rerun election, it's a question being discussed by both sides of the political divide in Kyrgyzstan.

Akaev voiced concern about "foreign-funded" revolutions during a televised speech on 25 December. He said Kyrgyzstan will not follow the path of Ukraine or Georgia: "Is it really possible that we would sacrifice all these achievements in our economy, the achievements of our nation, in order to fulfill the interests of the 'international Internationalism' [Western political groups] -- of those who want to carry out a 'Tulip Revolution' in Kyrgyzstan? I think we have to strive for a consensus in the country."

Akaev said such a revolution would not serve the "core interests of the Kyrgyz people."

Parliamentary elections are scheduled for 27 February, and Akaev aims to have a parliament loyal to him. The pro-government Alga, Kyrgyzstan! (Forward, Kyrgyzstan!) party, which currently has a majority in the Jogorku Kenesh, or lower house of parliament, will try to maintain it.

To further this goal, Zamira Sydykova of the opposition daily "Res Publica" has reported that Akaev's wife, Mayram, his daughter Bermet, and son Aydar -- as well as several other relatives -- plan to take part in the election as candidates from Alga, Kyrgyzstan!, which some in Kyrgyzstan have taken to calling the "family party."

Other reports suggest that 32-year-old Bermet Akaeva plans to establish a new party that will formally compete with Alga, Kyrgyzstan! The new party may try to unite forces that have not yet joined with either pro-government or opposition parties. The opposition daily "Moya stolitsa" reported on 3 January that a campaign to collect signatures for Akaeva has already started.

Last week, five opposition parties -- the People's Movement of Kyrgyzstan, the Ata-Jurt (Fatherland) party, Jany Bagyt (New Direction), the People's Congress of Kyrgyzstan, and the For Fair Elections movement -- united in an effort to prevent fraud during the upcoming polls. They signed a memorandum of understanding and cooperation, pledging to work together to ensure that the February elections are free and fair.

But a fair vote is not the opposition's only goal. They are also aiming for a majority in parliament.

Roza Otunbaeva is a former Kyrgyz ambassador to Britain and a former foreign minister. She spoke to RFE/RL about the election plans of her Ata-Jurt party, which was established in December: "The core of our political activities today is to participate in both parliamentary and presidential elections. We intend to fight together with all the constructive forces for a majority in the future [Kyrgyz] parliament. Our task is to win two-thirds of the seats in the new parliament."

The results of the February poll are seen as crucial, since they will set the stage for presidential elections in late October.

Despite their common goals, competition among Kyrgyzstan's opposition parties is strong. Muratbek Imanaliev, a former Kyrgyz foreign minister and a leader of Jany Bagyt, told RFE/RL: "Despite the cooperation, there is competition for seats in parliament because different parties have their candidates nominated in the same election districts. We will see this kind of political competition during the presidential race, as well, because I think almost all political parties will nominate their candidates for president."

But with some 40 parties, the Kyrgyz opposition is viewed as fragmented and weak. The Brussels-based International Crisis Group concluded in a report in August that the Kyrgyz opposition is seriously divided and in many cases actually depends on the regime, with whom its members make implicit deals over parliamentary representation and other issues.

Meanwhile, several opposition parties, including Jany Bagyt and the People's Movement of Kyrgyzstan, have threatened massive protests if the authorities rig the elections. But other groups appear more hesitant. The AKI Press news agency quoted eight opposition leaders as saying last month that a "Rose" or "Orange" revolution would be undesirable in Kyrgyzstan since it would "lead to instability in the country's government structures."

On 17 December, Akaev warned that the political situation in Kyrgyzstan might deteriorate amid what he called the "alarming rise of terrorism in the region." He emphasized the government's role in preserving stability.

The opposition perceived this statement as an attempt to tighten the government's grip on power. Topchubek Turgunaliev, the leader of the opposition Erkindik (Freedom) party, said: "This is just a fantasy of Akaev's team. This is their attempt to blacken the opposition's reputation. There are no radical forces in Kyrgyzstan in the meaning that was put forward by Akaev."

Imanaliev of Jany Bagyt said Akaev's warning is groundless and shows that the authorities are "in hysteria."

Kyrgyz youth appear ready to join their Georgian and Ukrainian contemporaries in saying "kmara" (enough) or "pora" (it's time). On 29 December, several Kyrgyz student organizations, including Aliko, New Kyrgyzstan, and New Century, issued a declaration. They praised the role of youth in the "Rose" and "Orange" revolutions and said Kyrgyz students must become more involved in politics.

The same day, President Akaev announced a 60 percent increase in student scholarships in 2005.

On 4 January, the Assembly of the People criticized the U.S. ambassador in Bishkek, Stephen Young, for what they said is interference in Kyrgyzstan's internal affairs. Young has repeatedly voiced his support for Akaev's oft-stated intention to step down. Akaev is now serving what is understood to be his second -- and according to the constitution -- final five-year term. He has been in power since 1991. Young also said Washington supports efforts to hold fair and open elections. The Assembly of the People accused the United States of trying to instigate a "velvet revolution" in Kyrgyzstan. (Gulnoza Saidazimova)