25 January 2005, Volume 5, Number 3
WEEK AT A GLANCE. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev visited Moscow, where on 18 January he and Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a border-delimitation treaty. The event showcased warm Kazakh-Russian relations, with Putin dubbing the frontier between the two countries a "border of friendship" and Nazarbaev intoning, "God has given us to each other." Reports also indicated that the two countries will now be able to set about the joint exploitation of a gas field that straddles Kazakhstan's Atyrau Province and Russia's Astrakhan Oblast. Back in Almaty, the embattled opposition party Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) lost an appeal to overturn a 6 January ruling to dissolve the party. Even as they readied their next appeal, DVK officials alleged that regional officials are already tightening the screws on members, asking them "why they joined DVK, who persuaded them to do so, and why they oppose the president." Abroad, a Kazakh diplomat was shot and killed at his residence in Pakistan in an apparent robbery attempt.
Moscow also hosted Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev, who met with Vladimir Putin on 23 January. The official topics for talks were tried-and-true issues like trade ties and cooperation within the CIS and Shanghai Cooperation Organization. But Russia's "Kommersant-Daily" suggested that in closed-door discussions the Kyrgyz president looked to secure Russian support in the face of upcoming 27 February parliamentary elections amid an increasingly heated domestic political situation. On that front, Kyrgyzstan's opposition held its largest demonstration to date in Bishkek on 19 January, gathering 500 people to call for an end to official hounding of opposition candidates. Several opposition figures now face administrative charges in connection with the unsanctioned demonstration. A point of contention between government and opposition has been the right of ex-diplomats to run in elections, and parliament voted on 20 January to allow former diplomats to run whether or not they meet the five-year in-country residency requirement. Even if President Akaev signs the bill into law, it will not help would-be candidates in 27 February elections, however, since the registration deadline has passed. Other events included a brief visit to Pakistan by Akaev and an extension of Kyrgyzstan's moratorium on the death penalty through the end of the year.
Major General Nuralisho Nazarov, first deputy chairman of Tajikistan's Border Protection Committee, told a meeting of the Paris Pact's group on Tajikistan in Dushanbe that his country will need $100 million to shore up its borders in the face of a growing drug threat from Afghanistan. Representatives of security services from the Central Asian Cooperation Organization (CACO; Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan) also met in Dushanbe, where they discussed the need for a common list of terrorist and extremist organizations and their known members in the CACO region.
Members of a working group that included foreign experts and Uzbek human rights activists found no evidence of torture in the death of Salmandar Umarov, an Uzbek prisoner who died in custody on 2 January while serving a 17-year sentence for membership in the banned Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir. But Umarov's family did not give permission for the body to be exhumed, and some Uzbek rights defenders rejected the investigation's conclusions. Elsewhere, elections were completed to Uzbekistan's 100-member Senate (upper chamber of parliament).
NIPPING ORANGE ROSES IN THE BUD -- POST-SOVIET ELITES AGAINST REVOLUTION
By Daniel Kimmage
In the aftermath of Georgia's Rose Revolution and Ukraine's Orange Revolution, speculation has largely focused on a logical question: Who's next, or which county in the post-Soviet world is the likely candidate for the next revolution? Nervous ruling elites from Moscow to Bishkek surely wondered as they followed events in Tbilisi and Kyiv, but the real question for them is how to prevent such unwelcome developments at home.
Central Asia has already witnessed a number of official actions apparently inspired by events in Ukraine. In Kazakhstan, for example, where the 19 September parliamentary elections took place amid opposition allegations of unfair practices, the authorities have dissolved a prominent opposition party, filed tax charges against the Soros Foundation-Kazakhstan, and initiated a defamation lawsuit against Zamanbek Nurkadilov, a former high-ranking official turned harsh critic of President Nursultan Nazarbaev.
The court ruling to dissolve Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK), a prominent opposition party, is one of the clearest examples of a link between events in Ukraine and seemingly preemptive government action elsewhere. Top figures from DVK traveled to Kyiv in late November and party leader Asylbek Qojakhmetov even addressed demonstrators supporting presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko, as Qojakhmetov recounted to "Navigator" in a 29 November interview.
Perhaps emboldened by this experience, the DVK adopted a strongly worded statement at a party conference on 11 December. It read, in part: "Not recognizing this president [Nursultan Nazarbaev] and this parliament as lawful, we thus deny the legitimacy of the entire power structure. In our actions, we will base ourselves not on the decisions of thieving governors and kangaroo courts, but on how human rights and freedoms are understood in free countries.... We call on all healthy forces in society to take decisive actions, including actions of civil disobedience. Only by uniting forces will it be possible to free ourselves from the family clan that has usurped power."
On 6 January, an Almaty court cited this passage when it ruled that the DVK must be dissolved for incitement to unlawful action. Though Kazakhstan's opposition and international rights groups such as Human Rights Watch and Freedom House have called on President Nazarbaev's government to review the decision, DVK has already lost one appeal, and future appeals appear likely to meet the same fate.
In Kyrgyzstan, which many observers have named as a possible candidate for the next revolution and where parliamentary elections on 27 February are fast approaching, a prominent opposition figure has found herself barred from participation in the upcoming election. On 6 January, a district election commission refused to allow former Foreign Minister Roza Otunbaeva, co-chairperson of the opposition bloc Ata-Jurt, to run in Bishkek's University District, arguing that Otunbaeva has resided abroad during the last five years. Otunbaeva, who was working abroad as a diplomat, has argued that the extraterritoriality principle should allow her to run. The in-country residency requirement has also prevented three former ambassadors from running for parliament.
Ata-Jurt and other opposition groups have organized protests in Bishkek, gathering as many as 500 people on 19 January, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. In a nod to Ukraine's Orange Revolution, the protestors decked themselves out in yellow to symbolize coming change. Demonstrators' demands have gone beyond participation for Otunbaeva and the ex-envoys, extending to calls for an end to the rule of President Askar Akaev and his family (two of Akaev's children are running for parliament, one of them in the same district where Otunbaeva's candidacy was blocked).
President Akaev has already said that he will not run for another term in the October presidential elections. While he has not anointed a successor, he has emerged as a staunch foe of all "rose" and "orange" revolutions. In an article in Russia's official "Rossiiskaya gazeta" on 8 June, months before demonstrations convulsed Kyiv, Akaev pointedly compared Western efforts to export democracy with the Bolshevik export of revolution. In early January, the Kyrgyz president decried Ukraine's Orange Revolution for splitting the country in two and nearly igniting a civil war. And when Kyrgyzstan's opposition demonstrated in Bishkek to protest Otunbaeva's exclusion from elections, Akaev was scornful, saying, "Our homegrown provocateurs now have skilled coaches."
In his statements condemning the Georgian and Ukrainian models of revolutionary change, Akaev has provided a guide to sentiments that are common among uneasy defenders of the post-Soviet status quo. His mention of the Bolsheviks is particularly apt, with its implication of blind faith, conspiratorial politics, and a drive for control. In this view, events in Georgia and Ukraine represent the cunning manipulation of domestic dissatisfaction by outside forces -- usually seen as the United States -- that disregard local traditions as they attempt to impose their vision on other societies (blind faith), work by funding democracy-promotion organizations to support local intermediaries (conspiratorial politics), and aim to extend their influence through the installation of more pliant and pro-Western -- usually understood as pro-American -- regimes (drive for control).
The importance of this view lies not in its arguable analytical insights, but rather in its power to determine the future actions of post-Soviet ruling elites with a vested interest in preventing what they see as dangerous political change. Russian political analyst Stanislav Belkovskii, for example, has stressed that this particular understanding of events in Georgia and Ukraine has a firm hold on the Kremlin's political imagination. In an interview with RosBalt on 6 January, Belkovskii noted that the Kremlin is now miffed at the United States because it feels that "Washington didn't let them install Viktor Yanukovych as president of Ukraine (although the outbreak of revolution in Kyiv was not Washington's doing, but you can't convince the Kremlin of this, so what can you do)." Later, in an interview with "Novye izvestiya" on 14 January, Belkovskii was asked whom the Kremlin would blame for its "defeat" in Ukraine. He replied: "The Kremlin doesn't recognize its defeat. They feel that they did everything right.... It's just that America interfered, and an 800-pound gorilla does what it wants."
How, then, to prevent further outbreaks of revolutionary fervor? Russian political strategist Gleb Pavlovskii, one of the architects of the Russian effort to support Ukrainian presidential candidate Yanukovych, gave perhaps the clearest indication in a widely quoted 7 December interview with "Nezavisimaya gazeta." Asked whether the involvement of Russian strategists harmed the Yanukovych campaign, Pavlovskii replied, "The harm to [Yanukovych's] election campaign was done by a revolution that didn't get punched in the face in time."
Taken together, the conspiratorial understanding of revolutionary political change and the need to "punch the revolution in the face" before it gets off the ground imply a strategy of preemptive strikes against opposition politicians and perceived conduits of malign outside influence. Pavlovskii's colorful phrase should not be taken too literally; overly aggressive moves could provoke international censure and domestic disgruntlement. Decisions by courts and election commissions to trim opposition prospects in elections, along with efforts to bring to heel Western-funded democracy-promotion organizations and NGOs are more likely to prove the weapon of choice.
Moreover, worried elites will surely look to not only to the negative -- from their perspective -- experience of Tbilisi and Kyiv, but also to the positive -- once again, from their perspective -- experiences of such places as Uzbekistan, where December parliamentary elections went off quietly without the participation of any opposition parties.
A strategy of preemptive punches involves at least one significant risk, however. It presumes that nothing really revolutionary is afoot, that politics is first and foremost about manipulation, and that the best way to maintain political stability is to seek out conspiracies and head them off at the pass. This runs the risk of reducing politics to a game of cat and mouse that leaves real concerns to fester unattended, which could eventually prove a far greater threat to stability than any "rose" or "orange" revolution.
RIVETED BY ELECTIONS IN GEORGIA AND UKRAINE, WEST LARGELY OVERLOOKS CENTRAL ASIAN ELECTIONS
By Farangis Najibullah
To some politicians and political observers, Kyrgyzstan is starting to look a lot like Ukraine. The Central Asian republic, due to hold parliamentary elections on 27 February, has seen a rise in political dissent. Opposition rallies have been held in the capital Bishkek demanding free and fair elections. Activists have threatened mass demonstrations if authorities attempt to rig the ballot. Government leaders, in turn, have warned the opposition may attempt to forcibly seize power if the election outcome is not in their favor.
The situation was much the same during the past several months in Ukraine, where allegations of widespread voter fraud in the country's presidential election sparked massive public protests, Supreme Court intervention, and ultimately the victory of the opposition candidate, Viktor Yushchenko.
Georgia's Rose Revolution, similarly, saw President Eduard Shevardnadze ousted and replaced by pro-Western politician Mikheil Saakashvili following voter scandals and public demonstrations.
But observers see one key difference between Kyrgyzstan and those other countries -- one that may prevent a similar outcome in the Kyrgyz parliamentary vote next month. It is the comparatively low level of interest and attention from the West.
Michael Hall works with the International Crisis Group (ICG), a nonprofit organization seeking to prevent and resolve conflicts in many of the world's troubled regions. Hall, who is based in the Tajik capital Dushanbe, said geography is to blame for the lack of Western engagement in the region's electoral politics. "I don't think they are paying nearly as much attention to [Central Asia] they did to Ukraine," he told RFE/RL. "I think geography has to play a part of this. Quite naturally, the European Union, for instance, is going to be much more interested in what is happening right next-door than things that are happening in a very distant -- and I guess, for them, rather obscure -- part of the world. As for the United States, I think they will be watching. The problem for the U.S., though, is that for U.S. foreign policy -- especially as far as parts of the Islamic world are concerned -- I think Iraq is going to occupy all of their attention."
Tajikistan, like Kyrgyzstan, is holding parliamentary elections on 27 February. But the opposition movement there has been more muted, with activists saying the country's five-year civil war (1992-97) makes it unlikely Tajiks would be drawn in large numbers to pro-democracy demonstrations.
But Tajik opposition leaders say they need support from the West all the same. Rahmattuloh Valiev, deputy head of the Tajik Democratic Party, told RFE/RL: "I think Western nations should support the democratic process in all countries, through international bodies such as the United Nations, the OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe], and other financial and democratic institutions." Valiev stressed, "It is absolutely important that international and Western groups provide support in increasing our people’s political awareness."
OSCE officials in Europe and Central Asia say they devote equal attention to each of their member states. And the OSCE and Central Asian opposition leaders are in agreement that the international community can aid political reform in the region by supporting civil society and democratic institutions.
But Sanya Sagnaeva, a political expert in Bishkek, told RFE/RL that Western countries don't always give the kind of support that is needed. "Most of the time, Western participation simply repeats itself," she said. "For instance, seminars and training by the [U.S.] National Democratic Institute or the [U.S.] International Republican Institute or the OSCE -- these things are all the same. Some of the people who participate in their election-related seminars and training say the sessions just repeat each other, and that they don't have much effect or value."
The OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights is sending observers to monitor the parliamentary votes in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, much as it did in Ukraine and elsewhere.
But observers say Western interest ends there. The election-fraud scandal in Ukraine drew international attention and warnings from U.S. President George Bush, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, and a number of EU officials. Georgia's Rose Revolution was also the focus of international attention.
The global community, by contrast, has been notably silent regarding similar setbacks to the opposition movement in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
In the past year in Tajikistan, authorities have effectively muzzled most of the country's independent newspapers. Members of the opposition Democratic and Socialist parties say changes in electoral laws -- including a $500 registration fee -- have made it virtually impossible for their candidates to participate in the ballot.
The situation is similar in Kyrgyzstan, where a number of opposition candidates, including popular favorite Roza Otunbaeva, have been barred from the election. The Kyrgyz parliament this week cleared the way for Otunbaeva's participation after demonstrations staged by her supporters. But it remains unclear whether she will ultimately be permitted to run.
Michael Hall of the ICG said the lack of Western engagement could have a negative, possibly even dangerous, effect on the political future of Central Asia. If the West is unwilling to exercise influence in the region, he said, there are a number of radical forces waiting to fill the gap.
"If all the legal avenues for dissent, all the legal avenues for protest or even for debate are being shut down, then that opens up other avenues. There are other people waiting who I think would be perfectly happy to take advantage of this. I am thinking of Islamic radical groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, which is quite influential in the region. So, the danger -- for the West and for the countries involved -- of an erosion of democracy is possible increased support for more radical groups for whom democracy also isn't part of the game plan," Hall said.
There is one outside nation watching the Central Asian elections with interest -- Russia. Moscow and Washington have wrestled for influence in the region in recent years. But, Russia's keen attention to the Central Asian ballots may give it the upper hand -- and deal a blow to the region's pro-democracy movement in the process.
FOR KYRGYZ PRESIDENT, PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS ARE A FAMILY AFFAIR
By Gulnoza Saidazimova
For Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev and other top officials, February's parliamentary elections will be a family affair. The president's daughter, son, and two sisters-in-law are all registered as candidates. Other candidates include the son of the prime minister and the son and son-in-law of a top presidential aide. The abundance of governmental offspring on the 27 February ticket, reminiscent of tactics that have been seen in other post-Soviet countries, appears to be an attempt to strengthen the current regime.
Thirty-two-year-old parliamentary candidate Bermet Akaeva was nominated recently by students from Kyrgyz National University and other residents of Bishkek's university electoral district No. 1. "Dear friends, thank you very much. It's a great honor, a great sign of trust for me," Akaeva said.
Observers say Bermet's victory is assured, particularly thanks to a decision by authorities to rescind the registration of another candidate, Roza Otunbaeva. Otunbaeva is one of the leaders of the Ata-Jurt (Fatherland) opposition movement and a well-known politician who served as foreign minister as well as ambassador to the United States and the United Kingdom. Early in January, her candidacy was registered for only a few hours before being removed without explanation. The Kyrgyz opposition charged that the case was politically motivated. On 18 January, the Kyrgyz Supreme Court upheld a district-court ruling barring Otunbaeva's participation in the election -- eliminating the likely winner and effectively clearing the way for presidential daughter Akaeva.
Electoral officials also refused to register another candidate from the same district -- Bolotbek Maripov, a well-known journalist. Inna Kim, the head of the district election commission, said Maripov was ineligible because he lived without a valid residence registration for more than half of 2003. Maripov's supporters countered that the Electoral Code bans would-be candidates who have not lived in the country for five years prior to running for office -- but says nothing about residence registration. They also provided the election commission with documents proving Maripov's unregistered period did not take place abroad, but in Bishkek as a correspondent for the "Obshestvennyi rating" and "Analitika" newspapers.
Akaev's 28-year-old son Aydar is also running -- as yet unchallenged -- in the Kemin district, the birthplace of his father. The current Kemin deputy is the president's brother, Asankul Akaev. The Kyrgyz first lady, Mayram Akaeva, has two sisters -- Oken and Ayazgul -- who are running for parliament as well. Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev's son is also running for election, as are the son and son-in-law of Toychubek Kasymov, head of the presidential administration.
The Kyrgyz president has repeatedly said he will step down from office when his term ends in October. Arkadii Dubnov, a correspondent with Russia's "Vremya novostei" daily, told RFE/RL that Akaev is looking to keep power within the family even if he is no longer president. "By nominating, permitting to be nominated, or by not prohibiting his children, the first lady's sisters or the children of the head of his administration and a prime minister to run for parliament, Akaev is doing his best to hold onto his own power and the power of his clan, which controls almost all of the major sectors of the economy," Dubnov said. "It doesn't matter whether it is Akaev himself or the 'Kyrgyz family' who will control the power."
But the political strategy could backfire. Zamira Sydykova, an editor with the Kyrgyz opposition daily "Res Publika," told RFE/RL the family election blitz is having a negative impact on the president's image. "Akaev's decision to nominate his children to the parliament worsened his position," Sydykova said. "The people didn't mind him staying in power until his presidential term ends. But his attempt to transfer power to his children had a very strong negative reaction in the society."
Until last December, Kemin district candidate Aydar Akaev was an adviser to the Kyrgyz finance minister. He was then assigned to head the Kyrgyz National Olympic Committee. Observers draw parallels between Aydar and Ilham Aliyev, the son of the late Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev. The younger Aliyev headed the Azerbaijani Olympic committee before being elected to succeed his father in 2003. Observers say the National Olympic Committee post is a natural stepping-stone for budding politicians, because of the international exposure it delivers.
Aydar Akaev is better-known than his sister Bermet, who worked with the United Nations in Geneva before returning to Bishkek in 1999. Bermet is best-known for her husband, Adil Toygonbaev. Media reports describe the presidential son-in-law as an "oligarch" who holds a Kazakh passport and controls major sectors of the Kyrgyz economy.
Some observers are puzzled by President Akaev's decision to unleash so many family members on the February parliamentary elections, particularly when it meant risking a blow to his own popularity. Zamira Sydykova said it was a choice based on desperation. "There are two reasons behind the attempt to get his children and relatives elected to parliament," Sydykova said. "The first is that, in Akaev's circle, there are few people he can trust, so he has to get his relatives' assistance. The second reason is fear. Akaev is afraid of being overthrown before his term [ends] and being punished for his conduct during his presidency."
Will President Akaev attempt to anoint one of his children as his presidential heir? Arkadii Dubnov said the remaining nine months before the October presidential election is not enough time for Akaev to mold either Bermet or Aydar into a powerful and skillful politician capable of winning election and holding onto power afterward. Two of Askar Akaev's four children are sons. If Akaev adopts a longer-term strategy for choosing an heir, it will likely go to one of them.
By contrast, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev and his Uzbek counterpart Islam Karimov have only daughters to serve as their political successors. Nazarbaev's elder daughter Darigha is actively involved in politics and ran for parliament as a leader of the Asar (Altogether) party in September. She is also known in Russia, having performed in the Bolshoi Theater as a singer. On 18 January in Moscow, President Nazarbaev introduced Darigha to President Vladimir Putin and other high-ranking Russian officials during an official visit. Listed among the Kazakh officials as simply the "Kazakh president's daughter," Darigha's presence might have been meant to gain Kremlin support for any future father-to-daughter political succession.
Uzbek President Islam Karimov's daughter, Gulnara Karimova, has no official experience in the Uzbek government. She has, however, had a chance to explore politics while serving as a diplomat with the Uzbek Embassy in Moscow.
GAYS IN CENTRAL ASIA SAY TOLERANCE IS IMPROVING, BUT STILL A LONG WAY TO GO
By Antoine Blua
Sexual relations between men were considered a crime in the Soviet Union, punishable by up to five years in jail. Of the five independent Central Asian states, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan have decriminalized homosexuality, but only Kazakh and Kyrgyz gays say their conditions have improved. But those who decide to go public say they still face discrimination at work and in society, as well as abuse from police.
In 1997, Kazakhstan became the first Central Asian republic to repeal a law prohibiting male homosexuality. Since then, a small gay scene has developed in the country's biggest city, Almaty, where there are currently two gay clubs. Nataliya owns one of the clubs. "[As customer,] we have doctors, we have psychologists, [and] we have ordinary workers starting from 19 years old up to 56 or 58," Nataliya told RFE/RL. "They are very literate and very well informed."
Roman Knyazev is the Almaty-based editor in chief of Kazakhstan's national gay website (http://www.gays.kz). He told RFE/RL that tolerance of gays has been increasing since 1997, when the International Kazakhstan Bureau for Human Rights reported the killings of eight men targeted for being homosexuals. But Knyazev stressed that any improvements are seen mostly in the bigger cities. "We have no problem with the authorities," he said. "Homophobia among the population is inherited from the Soviet education in which homosexuality was considered an illness. The youth is more tolerant than the older generation. Families increasingly accept their children as they are. But the situation is far from ideal."
In Bishkek, several gay bars have opened since 1998, when Kyrgyzstan decriminalized sexual relations between men. But the majority of gay men recently surveyed in the capital said they have been physically or psychologically abused because of their sexual orientation. Many pointed to continuing discrimination in public places, such as bars and restaurants, from where they are often asked to leave.
Aleksei Vashchenko, a gay man living in Bishkek, told RFE/RL that policemen often try to extort homosexuals. "There were cases when law-enforcement bodies have blackmailed representatives of sexual minorities, saying that they will tell [their staff members] at work, or their parents and relatives that that person is a homosexual," he said. "However, they would not have the opportunity to bring them before a criminal court, as it was before 1998."
Bishkek-based Oasis is a Kyrgyz nongovernmental organization working to protect the rights of gay men. The organization's head, Vladimir Tyupin, said Oasis is working with an increasing number of gays. But he noted that the majority of the estimated 35,000 homosexuals in Bishkek choose to keep their sexual orientation secret out of fear of public censure or isolation by friends and family. "We established an initiative group in 1995. It consisted of merely 37 people. Now it already has about 7,000 people," Tyupin said.
While lesbian relationships in the Soviet Union were not policed as strictly as relations between men, lesbians were often sent to psychiatric institutions. In Central Asia today, as in the past, laws do not refer specifically to lesbians, but they say their lives are similarly difficult. Earlier this month, lesbians in Kyrgyzstan launched a support group called Labrys. It is planning to publish a monthly magazine and open a telephone hot line and resource center to provide lesbians with psychological and legal support.
For the most part, the region's religious leaders, such as Kyrgyzstan's Mufti Murataly Ajy Jumanov, have shown little tolerance toward sexual minorities. "According to the Koran and Shari'a [Islamic law], men should marry women and nobody else. Women have to give their bodies and spirits to men. Islamic law absolutely refuses such [homosexual] connection between men and women. It is illegal and inhuman," Jumanov told RFE/RL. Igor Dronov, a senior priest of the Russian Orthodox Church in Bishkek, told the United Nations' IRIN news service that tolerance "washes out the essence of absolute moral values."
However, Roman Knyazev, from the Kazakh gay website, stressed that sexual minorities are no different from anyone else. "We are not different from straight people," he said. "We have household problems like them, the same concerns about the present and the future."
While Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have decriminalized homosexuality, the countries' legal systems have not taken firm steps to secure the rights of gays and lesbians. Donald Bisson, who works for the International Lesbian and Gay Association in Brussels, explained, "In all countries, the movement begins by individuals deciding that it's time to do something. That means starting an NGO and then interacting with the government on issues of regulations, laws or discrimination. In Central Asia, it will be more difficult because the governments have not bought into the idea that gay rights are human rights. They always say this is being forced upon them by the West. They use that argument not to move forward in a positive way."
Despite the difficulties faced by sexual minorities in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, gays and lesbians there enjoy relative tolerance when compared to neighboring states. The majority of gays in Tajikistan keep their sexual orientation hidden, although homosexual acts were decriminalized there in 1998. In 2003, a public-opinion survey revealed a particularly negative attitude toward gays. According to a local NGO that advocates gay rights, Tajik police routinely harass gays once they have revealed their sexual preferences. In Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, sex between men is still punishable by up to two and three years in prison, respectively. (RFE/RL's Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Tajik services contributed to this report.)