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Central Asia Report: July 7, 2005

7 July 2005, Volume 5, Number 25


By Gulnoza Saidazimova

On 10 July, Kyrgyz voters will go to the polls to elect a new president. Among the candidates, the frontrunner is acting President Kurmanbek Bakiev. Some analysts say the question now is whether so many people regard Bakiev's victory as certain that there will be a low turnout. That could rob the next government of the popular mandate it needs to build stability or even lead to a runoff.

This time of year in Bishkek, the streets are almost empty at midday. Those people who are driving or walking about look weary and tired under the scorching sun.

The heat makes everyone seek refuge under the shade of the green trees beside the flowing streams in the aryqs -- the water canals.

Only late in the evening, do the streets and squares liven up a bit and talk turns to the presidential election -- now just five days away.

I ask some soldiers who they plan to vote for on 10 July. They refuse to talk into the microphone and at first say only that they are going to vote for "stability and security."

To the question: "Who do you mean?" one of them responds, "Bakiev, of course." Another corrects him: "the Bakiev-Kulov tandem."

They are referring to Kurmanbek Bakiev, the current acting president. He is a former prime minister and one of the most influential politicians from the south of Kyrgyzstan. His opposition group along with others took part in street protests that drove former Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev from office on 24 March.

Since then, Bakiev has formed an alliance with the man once seen as his main rival after the revolution, Feliks Kulov.

Kulov a former political prisoner under Akaev and a main opposition leader from northern Kyrgyzstan, dropped out of the presidential race so that he could join Bakiev as junior partner on a unified north-south ticket. The two have agreed that Kulov will be prime minister if Bakiev wins the presidency.

There are five other candidates still competing against the Bakiev. The two strongest are another former opposition leader, Jypar Jeksheev, and Tursunbai Bakir uulu, the country's ombudsman. Also running are Keneshbek Duyshebaev, a former official in Akaev's government, and Toktaiym Umetalieva, the first woman candidate for president. So too, is Akbarali Aitikeev, president of the union of industrial workers and entrepreneurs.

But here on the street, many people seem to regard the race as already decided.

Zamir is a 42-year-old construction worker. Speaking while his colleague continues welding, he says the winner has been well known long before the election. "In our Kyrgyzstan, at present there is no other person to vote for. There is only one person, I'm not going to name him, but you know whom I mean. If there were other people, we could vote for them, but there are no choices, no alternatives in economy or politics. So, we have only one man in mind, we are going to vote for him," Zamir said.

He means his candidate is Kurmanbek Bakiev. But why is Bakiev seen so widely as the frontrunner? Some people say Bakiev became the only possible candidate for them to vote for after Kulov stepped aside.

Tamerlan, 28, tells it this way. "I wanted to vote for Kulov, but he withdrew his candidacy from the race. Now he runs with Bakiev on a joint ticket. It means I am going to vote for Bakiev," Tamerlan said.

Others say they think Bakiev and Kulov have the experience needed to establish order and stabilize the economy. Like an ethnic Russian woman who introduces herself as Tatyana, and is in her late 30s. "For Bakiev. I like the alliance of Bakiev and Kulov because one is an economist, the other one is a lawyer. Maybe they could manage to do something good," Tatyana said.

But not everyone on the street is so convinced. I also meet an entrepreneur who says he is disillusioned with the whole list of candidates and will vote for no one. He gives his name as Marat and is 43. "I'm going to cross out all [the names in ballots], I'm against all. Because I think there are no worthy ones. What are the new authorities going to do tomorrow? Where are we heading in politics, in economy? We don't know it because they [candidates for president] didn't tell us what they are going to do. That's why no one knows what future our country has. I think we should have other, more worthy, candidates," Marat said.

His remarks underline the fact that Kyrgyzstan has seen considerable political turmoil since former longtime ruler Akaev was ousted.

The unrest has included an attack by several hundred protesters on government buildings in Bishkek on 17 June by supporters of one of the candidates disqualified from the presidential race, Urmatbek Baryktabasov.

That attack highlighted fears that some Kyrgyz politicians will continue to try to use street power to influence events in the country after the election -- something that could undermine prospects for future stability.

Some observers hope that an overwhelming victory for any one of the presidential hopefuls could provide enough of a popular mandate to guarantee the next government protection from street actions.

But as Bakiev now appears to many people so clearly the frontrunner, a new danger has set in. That is a possible low turnout by voters who already are convinced Bakiev will win, with or without them.

Michael Hall, the director in Bishkek of the International Crisis Group's Central Asia Project, says a low turnout on 10 July is very probable. "The reason, part of it, is that in many cases in the parliamentary elections, there was a sense that this was going to be a real contest, this was going to be a real fight, it was a going to be a showdown between the forces of reform and the forces of conservatism. There was a sense that there was a great deal at stake and the outcome was not clear. For better or for worse, with the presidential election, I don't think many people are going to dispute the outcome, [it] seems to be pretty clear," Hall said.

Analysts say that beyond robbing the next government of the popular mandate it needs to help create stability, a very low turnout could also send the election into a second round.

Then it would remain to be seen whether the Bakiev-Kulov team could keep its frontrunner position or whether a new, stronger challenger might arise from the failure of the first round. (Originally published on 6 July.)


By Robert McMahon

A leading Uzbek opposition figure, Muhammad Solih, is urging the United States and the European Union to expand their support for democracy activists in Uzbekistan. Solih says the events in Andijon in May demonstrate that democratization is the only way to ensure a peaceful transition in power from the regime of President Islam Karimov. But a U.S. State Department official says Washington does not want to be seen as an agent for revolutionary change in the region and is working with all parties to bring about gradual reforms.

Solih, the exiled leader of the Erk party, told a briefing at RFE/RL on 30 June that the violent events in Andijon last month underscore the erosion in patience of the Uzbek people toward the government.

Hundreds of mostly unarmed people are believed to have been killed after an uprising triggered by a trial of businessmen in Andijon. Solih said he hoped those events will move the West closer to embracing the democracy movement in Uzbekistan as the only path toward a stable transition of power.

"We do not ask for a lot from the West," Solih said. "We want the West to aid the legalization of political parties in Uzbekistan. We would like the West to aid the leaders of the opposition to function in Uzbekistan, to ensure the conduct of fair elections in Uzbekistan and the participation of the opposition in those elections and to ensure the existence of a free press. This in and of itself is enough to ensure the peaceful removal of this anti-democratic regime."

Solih announced that some key Uzbek opposition leaders have united and formed a new group -- the United Uzbek Democratic Coalition -- to press their cause. Solih was named their head.

Solih, who will be in the United States for several weeks, has held meetings with influential members of Congress such as Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Republican, Florida) of the House of Representatives' International Relations Committee. He has also met representatives of key nongovernmental organizations that receive funding from the United States, such as the National Democracy Institute, the International Republican Institute, and IFES, a Washington-based election-assistance organization.

He was also due to meet with officials of the Bush administration's National Security Council.

The State Department's deputy assistant secretary for Europe, Eurasia, Central Asia, and the Caucasus is Matthew Bryza. He told RFE/RL on 30 June that the United States remains intent on guiding democratic reforms in Uzbekistan. But he made clear that Washington is not planning to focus its interests on opposition activists despite concerns over the actions of the Karimov government.

Bryza said Solih's visit to Washington was coincidental and did not reflect new ties with the Uzbek opposition.

"We work across the board with all Uzbek people -- with the government, with the political opposition, with people in the middle. We want to work with the entire society, as we do in the neighboring broader Middle East," Bryza said. "And that's an enduring interest of ours, so we haven't grown any more active in our engagement with all Uzbekistan society. Maybe the world is paying more attention to our engagement now."

The Bush administration has repeatedly called for an independent international inquiry into the events in Andijon. It has also talked of possible diplomatic measures, including action at the United Nations, but has not made any specific threats.

Solih said in testimony on 29 June before the U.S. Helsinki Commission, a human rights monitoring agency, that Karimov's departure would not result in a takeover of power by fundamentalist Muslims -- an argument Karimov himself has made.

Solih later added that his movement is dedicated to peaceful change and will not condone acts by violent extremist organizations. And he told the RFE/RL briefing on 29 June that he has made contacts with Uzbeks linked to government security agencies to try to ensure that any future demonstrations are not met with violence.

"We will not bring the people out into the streets until we are sure that the Andijon events will not be repeated," Solih said.

Meanwhile, a co-chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, Congressman Christopher Smith (Republican, New Jersey), says he is introducing this week the Central Asia Democracy and Human Rights Act. It will aim to set conditions for all non-humanitarian U.S. assistance, both economic and military, to individual governments in the region.

Such assistance would be conditioned on whether each government is making "substantial, sustained and demonstrable progress" toward democratization and full respect of human rights. (RFE/RL's Uzbek Service Director Adolat Najimova contributed to this report. Originally published on 1 July.)


By Jeffrey Donovan

Following the unrest in the Uzbek city of Andijon in mid-May, there is growing speculation about the future of Uzbek President Islam Karimov. And this week, a major essay in the British journal "Jane's Intelligence Review" argues that "Uzbekistan is now spiraling irretrievably towards violent regime change." Such an upheaval, the piece says, could leave in its bloody wake a "failed state" with continued violence driven by "an ugly cocktail of ethnicity, revenge, disparities of wealth, clan interests, organized crime, foreign interference, and religious extremism."

Filip Noubel is the Central Asia program director for the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting. He spoke with RFE/RL on 30 June, a day after Karimov was in Moscow to visit Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"There is a lot of warning going on in Andijon: people are still being arrested, relatives of victims, a lot of journalists and human rights activists have been harassed. So obviously, the regime is not looking at any kind of compromise. And Karimov's trip to Moscow and Putin's declarations are a clear indication that it's not going toward any form of compromise. On the other hand, the people of Uzbekistan do not want to put up with this system any more. So really the only alternative is actually very strong confrontation," Noubel said.

During his Moscow visit, Karimov said the Andijon unrest was planned and financed from abroad. Putin backed that position.

The unsigned "Jane's" essay rejects the idea that the events in Andijon were planned abroad or involved Islamic militants. It says the events were the climax of months of pent-up frustrations and nationwide protests. "There is probably nothing beyond socioeconomic conditions that connects the various manifestations of instability," the piece says.

It goes on to state that "it is likely that the country is now beyond a point where the government can control unrest using violence, although this will not stop it trying."

Karimov's regime currently has unchallenged control of the country's security forces, which include an extensive intelligence service. Opposition groups have yet to produce a unifying leader and are divided between parties advocating peaceful change and armed militant groups.

Analysts such as Noubel interviewed by RFE/RL largely agreed that Uzbekistan is fast approaching a major crisis. But not all of them appeared to agree that Karimov's regime is necessarily heading toward a violent end.

Alain Deletroz is vice president of the International Crisis Group, an organization that works on conflict prevention. In an interview with RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, Deletroz rejected the idea that the unrest in Uzbekistan has anything to do with plots from abroad.

Deletroz said a possible way for Karimov to avoid further bloodshed and retain power as well is to allow modest economic and political reforms.

"What the U.S. and the Russians can do and should do is push Mr. Karimov into a corner and tell him, 'Now, if you want collaboration with us, you have to implement a few reforms.' I don't believe that [someone from abroad can decide] about coming in and taking power. You can do that only if you are ready to put your army in the country, which the United States has done in Iraq, and you see that the result is not that brilliant," Deletroz said.

Still, some analysts say reforms might not unseat Karimov so much as help him retain power. Martha Brill Olcott, a Central Asia expert with Washington's Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, made that point this way in a recent interview with RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service.

"If he has economic reform, and some degree of political opening, then I think the West will reverse its position and he will manage to retain power and could well avert cataclysm. The question you're really asking is what will happen if he's isolated and if he does not have economic reform in any way and if there are more popular protests. Well, then, at a certain point, force will become less viable as an option, but it's very hard to say at what point that becomes true," Olcott said.

Deletroz, meanwhile, suggests that Karimov could find a way out of his predicament by copying former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who unexpectedly announced Putin as his successor at the end of 1999. "One of the ways out would be if Mr. Karimov at some point would try to prepare a successor for himself, a little bit the way Yeltsin has done in Russia -- a younger man with a better understanding of the century in which we are all living, the 21st century, and a better understanding of where the heavyweights are," Deletroz said.

Deletroz adds that there are people in the Uzbek government and bureaucracy who could run the country, if given the chance.

Noubel, who spoke with RFE/RL from his base in Bishkek, says one other way change might occur is through a rebellion of senior officials. "I think the entire question -- but of course it's a very secret world, quite dark, very divided among clans and personal ambitions -- is whether there will be enough people around Karimov who will say: 'We don't want to be associated with Karimov any more. If the regime changes, we have to think about the future, then maybe we should think about an alliance and maybe reach out to some outside opposition.' That's sort of a more optimistic possibility," Noubel said.

But even if that happens, the essay in "Jane's" predicts that powerful Uzbek elites are likely to press any new leader to stop reforms that negatively impact their interests. In that case, the piece concludes, "It will be difficult for Uzbekistan to avoid becoming a failed state." (RFE/RL's Uzbek and Azerbaijani services contributed to this report. Originally published on 30 June.)