Not only post-Soviet Ukraine and Georgia have taken a popular turn toward democracy; now Central Asia is going through something too. How similar it is remains uncertain.
In late March, relatively spontaneous protests arose in Kyrgyzstan in opposition to the February election, which was allegedly rigged. President Askar Akayev was ousted and the Supreme Court annulled the election results and recognized the outgoing parliament as the legitimate legislature. Although the 10,000-strong demonstration resulted in no bloodshed, it was less disciplined than in other recent nonviolent movements elsewhere, and there was looting. Then new elections were scheduled for July. Two of the opposition leaders who drove Akayev from office are likely to be elected. They are Kurmanbek Bakliev, now acting as President, and Felix Kulov, who is expected to become his prime minister. (See the dispatch below on Kyrgyzstan, sent to us from Tashkent by our correspondent, Eric Walberg.)
Two months after Kyrgyzstan erupted, there was a far more grave uprising in Central Asia's most populous country, Uzbekistan. Economic reform has been stalled there; the media are not free; and, according to a UN report, the use of torture is "systematic." Radical Islamic groups have emerged in Uzbekistan and, after 9/11, the government won favor with Washington by allowing a base to be established near the Afghanistan border.
For four weeks there were peaceful protests in Andijan (a town 40 km from the Kyrgyzstan border) against the imprisonment of 23 local business leaders accused of Islamic extremism. According to local observers, these men had simply followed a devout Muslim pamphleteer named Akramjan Yuldashev, whose message was not political but moral. Instead of being a "terrorist cell," they prayed and called for brotherhood, modest living, and Islamic charity to the poor. Nevertheless, they were put on trial.
Finally, on May 13, a mob seized arms, raided the prison, and freed the 23, along with about 2,000 other inmates. They took control of government buildings. Troops then moved in and opened fire in the city square. According to the regime, 169 people died, but an army source told the BBC that 500 people were killed. Many others fled as refugees into Kyrgyzstan. President Islam Karimov has refused to allow an international investigation. Moscow has supported him and the US Administration has expressed concern about the violence -- and even more concern about the liberation of some presumed "terrorists" along with the 23 businessmen.
There are, in fact, some other organizations in Uzbekistan that call for the overthrow of the Karimov regime. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) advocates the use of violence, whereas the political party Hizb ut Tahrir would use peaceful means to oust the current regime. Both organizations are outlawed.
The simplest solution to this situation would be to legalize the popular political party, monitor it, and bring democracy and ethical governance to Uzbekistan. Since the Karimov regime will not take any such reforms voluntarily, outside governments can help by cutting off aid, boycotting the regime, and criticizing it at the United Nations.
Introductory notes by Peace Magazine staff
BY ERIC WALBERG
On March 24, opponents of President Askar Akayev stormed the main government buildings in the capital, Bishtek.
Akayev had promoted his country as the "Switzerland of Central Asia," the most democratic in the region. But besides its poverty, social inequality, and poor economic prospects, Kyrgyzstan has a north-south ethnic divide, with Akayev representing the north, and protests festering in the south.
The elections encouraged a "new Kyrgyz"-- entrepreneur Bayaman Erkinbayev, a lawmaker, martial arts champion and one of Kyrgyzstan's richest men. His small army of Kung Fu-style fighters from the southern city of Osh stormed the palace and ousted President Akayev without bloodshed. The moderate, intellectual president and former physicist refused to order troops to fire on the rebels, and later announced from Moscow that he had fled the country to avoid bloodshed.
The United States has been promoting democracy in Central Asia since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The National Endowment for Democracy provided more than $600,000 of grants to projects in the Kyrgyz Republic in 2004, including the establishment of the American Center for International Labor Solidarity (ACILS). Other projects include training for human rights programs, legal aid, and one to publish a Kyrgyz guide to press freedoms.
The International Republican Institute spent another $400,000 training political parties in Kyrgyzstan. Newspapers and websites funded by George Soros reported on the corruption of President Akayev. All told, the State Department spent $12.2 million for democracy-promotion projects in the country.
The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, the American University of Kyrgyzstan, plus human rights, farmer-to-farmer, and health-related (mostly missionary-financed) NGOs regularly provide seminars, training programs, junkets to Washington, and Muskie scholarships to study international relations. The regime change in Kyrgyzstan fits President Bush's stated goal: to export democracy around the world. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on March 24 that if the upheaval in Kyrgyzstan occurs without violence "it will have been a very good thing."
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Central Asia has taken on significance reminiscent of the distant past, the era of the ancient Silk Road, when it was the heart of Eurasia and had a thriving economy based on trade. Then came the so-called "Great Game" between the Russian and British empires in the 19th century, when Central Asia became important as a buffer between empires. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and with air travel and telecommunications, it once again is the focus of geopolitical intrigue, with new actors and goals.
Instead of the weak khanates of the 19th century or the Soviet republics of the 20th century, there are now five independent republics run by former Communist leaders. The region is rich in raw materials, including oil and gas, coveted by the United States and China. Its Muslim Turkic population has close ethnic ties with Tatars in Russia and Uighurs in China, a source of concern to Russian and Chinese leaders. It is also an important transit route for international drug trafficking. Both the United States and Russia have bases not only in Kyrgyzstan but Tajikistan and, in the case of the United States, Uzbekistan.
For Moscow, Kyrgyzstan's revolution was like a fire in its backyard. Russia had to postpone its joint military exercise with Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Armenia, and Tajikistan, and change the location of the exercise from Kyrgyzstan to Tajikistan. Kyrgyzstan's presidential election due in June is likely to produce an even more pro-Western government, the latest in a string of triumphs for US influence in the CIS.
President Putin has tried to put the best face on the change, telling a press conference in Armenia on March 25 that the Kyrgyz "revolution" was the result of weak authority and economic and social deterioration, and promising to continue energy supplies to Kyrgyzstan. On the same day, a US State Department spokesman said that the Bush administration would join the Russian Government to help Kyrgyzstan maintain order. Washington also promised an aid package of $31 million this year. But this polite show of unanimity masks real underlying tensions.
For other Central Asian leaders, the revolution in Kyrgyzstan was a wake-up call. Regional governments are concerned that the domino effect of the color revolutions that hit Georgia, Ukraine and now Kyrgyzstan, could strike them next.
On March 25, the opposition in Belarus tried launching a "Snow Revolution" in Minsk, demanding that President Lukashenko step down. Though the situation was brought under control, Lukashenko's political rivals are optimistic about the future. They said that what happened was simply a rehearsal, for the decisive phase of the Belarus revolution would take place in 2006.
Kyrgyzstan is a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a regional body that includes Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, China and Russia. If the new Kyrgyz government is pro-US, Kyrgyzstan may withdraw from the SCO.
China is concerned that east Turkistan independence forces in China may exploit Kyrgyzstan's disorder. Three Uighur organizations that were outlawed in Kyrgyzstan have links with the East Turkistan Islamic Movement that seeks to split Xinjiang from China.
The 600 km China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway might also be affected by the chaos. As part of an ambitious new Silk Road, it will link Beijing, Paris, and the Gulf, but it may have to be postponed. China's strategy of securing long-term energy supplies from Central Asia may also be affected.
The Chinese Embassy in Kyrgyzstan reported that Chinese businesses and the 10,000 Chinese nationals in Kyrgyzstan suffered $8m in losses when stores were looted during the uprising. Xinhua News Agency correspondent Wan Wancai reported that the US might now deploy long-distance AWAC espionage planes in Kyrgyzstan.
Observers agree that there is no sign of more democracy following the regime change in Kyrgyzstan, with the new leaders handing out sinecures to their followers in place of Akayev appointees. The threshold for further political upheaval is lower now. Unrest has already spread to Uzbekistan [see introduction] and could re-ignite Tajikistan's war.
In the meantime, all eyes are on the upcoming presidential elections in Kazakhstan where, President Nazarbaev will not be constitutionally allowed to run for another term. What this episode shows is that where Western-style democratic traditions are lacking, interference by external forces can have unpredictable results.
Eric Walberg is a Canadian living in Tashkent.