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Central Asia Report: November 28, 2003

28 November 2003, Volume 3, Number 40

CENTRAL ASIA MULLS CONSEQUENCES OF REVOLUTION IN GEORGIA. The 23 November ouster of Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, in a bloodless coup that has been dubbed the "Revolution of Roses," has implications for Central Asia that the region's leaders have only begun to ponder. A commentary on 25 November mused on possible "adverse repercussions for incumbent leaders" across the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). An op-ed in the "International Herald Tribune" on 27 November, penned by a senior researcher at the New York-based Human Rights Watch, called the uprising in the Georgian capital Tbilisi "a wake-up call for local tyrants." All five of the Central Asian presidents are sure to step up their vigilance against real or imagined opponents. Heightened political repression to nip any conceivable remaining challenges in the bud is also a danger. There might indeed be many disaffected individuals in Central Asia who were inspired by the demonstration effect of people power in Georgia. But inspiration is not the same as empowerment, and the truth is that the lid is already screwed on so tightly almost everywhere in Central Asia that few oppositionists are in much of a position to translate thought into meaningful action.

That said, four of the Central Asia states will be moving into election cycles in the next couple of years. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan will stage parliamentary elections in 2004. In 2005, there will be a presidential election in Kyrgyzstan and parliamentary elections in Tajikistan. It was a rigged vote in Georgia that brought the people onto the streets last week (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 24 November 2003). It is not impossible that upcoming ballots in Central Asia will become lightning rods for popular frustration and catalyze anger against local regimes. The catch is that, while would-be revolutionaries might take Georgia as their model, defenders of the status quo might prefer the example of Azerbaijan. Following the 15 October Azerbaijani presidential election, also falsified, security forces did not show the restraint of their Georgian counterparts and were willing to employ violence against protestors (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 20 October 2003). With both the Georgian and Azerbaijani options now before everyone's eyes, it remains to be seen whether Central Asian regimes put troops on the streets to protect the integrity of the vote next time elections come around.

This is not to deny that Central Asia's presidents must have been unnerved when Shevardnadze, the consummate political survivor, was bested by unarmed crowds whose leader, 35-year-old former Justice Minister Mikhail Saakashvili, brandished nothing more intimidating than a red rose. For Central Asia watchers, perhaps the most interesting exercise of the week was to observe the region's leaders struggling to formulate responses to the Georgian revolution. Amid the congratulations of the international community, they could not condemn it outright. Nor could they embrace it as the just deserts of an unpopular autocrat without virtually admitting that they should be next. Caught between a rock and a hard place, Turkmenistan maintained a stony silence. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan mostly tried to ignore it. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan were marginally bolder and more creative. They selectively interpreted the causes for Shevardnadze's downfall in self-serving ways, stressing weaknesses about his rule in the very areas where their own records were allegedly stronger. As a consequence the reactions of Central Asian governments to the revolution presented a skewed picture of events in Georgia -- but managed instead to mirror their images of themselves.

CAUTIOUS APPROBATION FROM KAZAKHSTAN. Kazakhstan reacted to the developments in Georgia with cautious approval (see "Central Asia: Where Georgians See Roses, Regional Leaders May See Thorns,", 25 November 2003). In a delicately worded statement released on 24 November by the presidential press office, President Nursultan Nazarbaev apportioned praise so equally between the ousters and ousted that it almost seemed the Georgian revolution was a cooperative enterprise. The Kazakh leader expressed satisfaction with "the wise stance of the people of Georgia, which ensured the peaceful outcome of events." At the same time, it was "also due to the sense of civic responsibility of Eduard Shevardnadze, who saved Georgia from bloodshed and disorder." Truly to blame, Nazarbaev implied, were objective, impersonal factors somehow divorced from Shevardnadze's corrupt rule and his rigging of elections -- in particular "the country's difficult economic circumstances and a complicated internal political situation [that] led to the confrontation of various groups of the population."

This interpretation of events was quickly established as the party line and Nazarbaev's top team appeared to be well drilled in it as officials started citing it almost verbatim. Foreign Minister Qasymzhomart Toqaev, asked on 25 November about the news from Georgia, told journalists the situation had resulted from "the difficult economic conditions and the confrontation between various political groups after the failure of the parliamentary elections," ITAR-TASS reported. (Incidentally, Toqaev's gloss that confrontation occurred between "political groups" is a clever piece of spin: it downplays a popular uprising on the streets of Tbilisi as a bit of political infighting between party factions.)

The particular advantage, from Kazakhstan's point of view, of attributing the coup in Tbilisi to economic woes and disunity among the population is that the regime in Astana scores relatively well on both counts. Nor was Nazarbaev slow to point this out. He stressed on 24 November that Kazakhstan was much better off economically than Georgia, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. On the following day, congratulating Muslims on the Eid al-Fitr holiday at the end of Ramadan, Nazarbaev underlined again that the country was enjoying strong economic growth, Khabar Television said. Plugging Kazakhstan's GDP is not exactly a standard part of an Eid al-Fitr address. But the president's reasons for veering in this direction seemed clear when he went on to ascribe the country's economic success -- not to oil and foreign investment -- but to friendly relations between different ethnic and religious groups, backed up by a stable political scene. At a time when "the world is unstable," Kazakh citizens should appreciate the tranquility that reigned at home, he said. Thus neither of the factors that Nazarbaev held chiefly responsible for the revolution in Georgia, poverty and popular divisions, were allegedly at play in Kazakhstan. Unsurprisingly he ignored widespread anger at government corruption, which was a major theme that propelled the leaders of Georgia's uprising to national prominence. Nazarbaev himself is currently trying to distance himself from charges of bribery and malfeasance involving foreign oil companies.

KYRGYZSTAN BANKS ON CLEAN ELECTIONS. In Kyrgyzstan, the economic situation is as bad, if not worse, than in Georgia. The response of President Askar Akaev's government to the uprising in Tbilisi has reflected this fact. In contrast to the Kazakh approach, Kyrgyz official statements have been silent on the economic grounds for popular disaffection in Georgia. Instead they have shifted attention to the fraudulent elections as the key factor -- and pledged energetic action to ensure that future elections in Kyrgyzstan are free and fair.

"We are observing developments in Georgia with attention and concern," Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Askar Aitmatov told Pyramid TV on 24 November. On his reading of events, Shevardnadze's main offense was his disdain for law and the will of the people expressed at the ballot box. "We hope that the forthcoming elections [on 4 January to choose a new president] will be held in peaceful circumstances in strict compliance with the country's constitution and laws," Aitmatov said. On the following day, Akaev, in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, addressed a session of the Public Council for Democratic Security, a recent creation of the executive aimed at safeguarding achievements in the area of democratization (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 March 2003). Akaev told the body that he had appealed to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan for assistance in upgrading Kyrgyzstan's electoral system in preparations for parliamentary and presidential elections in 2005, Kyrgyz radio reported on 25 November. The goal was "to hold them without transgressions, transparently and fairly." Akaev explicitly called on the council to exert itself to prevent a Tbilisi scenario in Bishkek. "Having watched the situation in the post-Soviet space, in Azerbaijan and Georgia,... I see what an important role the Council for Democratic Security can play here," the president said. "Why can't we hold elections as peacefully as in the countries of Central Europe, for instance?... Nobody's fought with one another, no rallies have been staged there. I hope that we'll manage to achieve this [in Kyrgyzstan]."

In short, Bishkek's public position seems to be that the rigged elections were what brought Shevardnadze down -- so if Akaev's regime can deliver clean elections next year, it may be deemed to have done enough to avert comparable dissatisfaction among its own people. On 24 November, the chairwoman of the pro-government Democratic Party of Kyrgyz Women Tokon Shailieva told RFE/RL that, in any case, what happened in Georgia could never happen in Kyrgyzstan. "The differences [between Akaev and Shevardnadze] are like between the sky and the Earth. It will not happen to us. Reforms in our country are being carried out better than in the other states [of the CIS]."

Meanwhile, the Kyrgyz opposition signaled clearly that it, too, had been watching events in Georgia. "Elections [in Kyrgyzstan] have been held with violations of the law occurring all the time," the leader of Kyrgyzstan's Communist Party, Absamat Masaliev, told RFE/RL on 24 November. "If our [national] leadership does not take into consideration the developments [in Georgia], and if we don't learn the lessons from Georgia's situation, then these kinds of events might happen [in Kyrgyzstan], too." But it was far from evident what lessons Kyrgyzstan's opposition had drawn. Prominent Kyrgyz politician and human rights activist Topchubek TurgunAliyev sent a message to Georgian opposition leader Saakashvili asserting that the transfer of power there served as inspiration for Kyrgyzstan's democrats. Kyrgyz opposition party Ar-Namys (Dignity)'s leader Emil Aliyev announced that an analogous situation arose in Kyrgyzstan in 2000 when former Vice President Feliks Kulov was forced out of the presidential race. Unfortunately, Aliyev said, the opposition had unable to exploit that occasion despite its success in parliamentary elections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 November 2003).

That inability to seize political opportunities is the story of Kyrgyzstan's divided and ineffective opposition in a nutshell. But apparently reenergized by Saakashvili's example, about 50 human rights activists, independent journalists, antigovernment politicians, and students picketed the government building in Bishkek on 27 November demanding Kulov's release, RFE/RL and Interfax reported. He is serving a 10-year sentence for embezzlement, but will be eligible for early release under an amnesty in about 4 1/2 years. Rights advocate Tolekan Ismailova, who leads the nongovernmental organization Civil Society Against Corruption, said the picket was timed to mark the 55th anniversary of the adoption of the UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights. She added to Interfax that the opposition's main demand regarding elections in 2005 was that the Kyrgyz Central Elections Commission become a genuinely independent body.

UZBEKISTAN PRIORITIZES STABILITY. In Uzbekistan, where stability and order practically amount to the state ideology, the government appeared at a loss to craft an adequate response to Shevardnadze's ouster. Uzbek media's initial reaction on 23 November to the opposition's occupation of the Georgian parliament was to remark briefly on "dark forces" at work. The only official commentary from Uzbekistan to date was offered to journalists on 24 November by President Islam Karimov. Describing the takeover of parliament, misleadingly, as "violent actions," he made no further reference to the Georgian opposition and focused exclusively on the role of Shevardnadze, who, in Karimov's version, was the real hero of the piece. "I think his actions were dictated by just one thing -- to preserve stability, to preserve peace, and to shield his people from any possible escalation that could have led to unforeseeable, serious consequences -- not only for the country but for the region," Karimov said on Uzbek Television. "He has confirmed once again that he is a man who has always struggled for peace, democracy, and stability, first and foremost in his country. In this regard he deserves great respect."

In fact, Karimov's characterization of Shevardnadze was strikingly similar to his own view of himself as a bulwark against chaos and disorder. Just like Nazarbaev's and Akaev's responses, Karimov's take on the Georgian revolution was colored by his domestic concerns. His reaction said more about his own regime than about Shevardnadze's. Defending his refusal to speak much about the Revolution of Roses, the Uzbek leader told the press on 24 November: "Events transpiring in every country including Georgia are that country's internal affairs.... I consider any outside interference, any attempt to control or influence these processes to be invalid.... Every country chooses its own model of development to serve its own interests and the interests of the people living in the country," Karimov said, rehearsing arguments he has used frequently to rebuff international criticisms of Uzbekistan. "As for my evaluation of the situation, I am in favor of a situation where everything happens in accordance with the constitution and the law." Since revolutions are by definition extraconstitutional processes, Karimov by implication condemned the events in Tbilisi, and incidentally reasserted his own role as the authoritarian upholding the law. Since Karimov made these remarks neither the government nor the state-controlled media has had anything to say about the news from Georgia.

TAJIKISTAN LAUDS RUSSIA'S ROLE. While Tajikistan's media did report on events in Georgia, the official response was limited to a few scattered remarks by President Imomali Rakhmonov. "Everything that is happening in Georgia is that country's internal affair, but one cannot help worrying," Rakhmonov told ITAR-TASS on 25 November during a state visit to Armenia. He added that Shevardnadze was "a courageous and far-sighted politician. He did not want to spill blood."

Yet it is certain that the government was closely monitoring developments in Tbilisi. In 1992, similar rallies and calls for replacing top government figures heralded the start of Tajikistan's five-year civil war. Other comments by top state officials showed that they -- like their Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Uzbek counterparts -- were interpreting events in Georgia with an eye on their own domestic experiences. "When the country was put under curfew and Eduard Shevardnadze issued a statement on the possible use of force, it seemed to me that the situation in Georgia would develop according to the worst scenario and bloodshed could not be avoided," Abdulmazhid Dostiev, deputy speaker of the Tajik parliament in the capital Dushanbe, told ITAR-TASS on 26 December. He went on give all the credit for a bloodless resolution -- without mentioning the Georgian opposition -- to the peacemaking efforts of Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. Ivanov's shuttle diplomacy between opposition leaders and Shevardnadze helped lead to the Georgian leader's quiet surrender (see "Russia: Moscow Looks To Regain Toehold In Georgia After Ivanov's Diplomatic Coup,", 24 November 2003). "Great Russia has helped the Georgian people avoid a civil war," Dostiev said, and added, "I think Tajikistan could have avoided such a fate if Russia had had clear goals in 1991-92 and sent a diplomat of Ivanov's rank to Tajikistan." Russia currently safeguards Tajikistan's stability in the form of some 20,000 soldiers and border guards stationed in the country.

Another good reason why Dushanbe is surely observing developments in Tbilisi with care is that, of all the countries in Central Asia, Tajikistan is probably the most susceptible to a popular outburst on Georgian lines. Kazakhstan's relative prosperity has taken the edge off popular despair. Uzbekistan's and Turkmenistan's leaderships have proven too ruthless, and their police too efficient, to allow oppositionists to organize. (Turkmenistan's President Saparmurat Niyazov has made no formal acknowledgement of the regime change in Georgia, nor have Turkmen media carried any news about it.) Kyrgyzstan already experienced a period of political destabilization after the shootings in Aksy Raion in 2002 -- which served to demonstrate that the Kyrgyz police, unlike their Georgian counterparts, were willing to fire on the citizenry to maintain the status quo. "It would be a bloodbath here," Reuters quoted a 25-year-old Kyrgyz entrepreneur as saying on 24 November. "The security forces would protect Akaev as their own president." The Kyrgyz opposition flubbed their chances to seize their advantage while Akaev was off-balance in spring and summer 2002 and the president now is stronger than ever.

Rakhmonov is no pushover, either. But in the words of Hikmatullo Sayfullozoda of Tajikistan's opposition Islamic Renaissance Party, quoted by RFE/RL on 24 November: "Currently, the hard life in Tajikistan, the concentration of power that has increased, especially during the last years, and people who wish to change the situation -- all these factors can pave the way for confrontation in the next Tajik elections."