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Wednesday, 24 July, 2002, 11:35 GMT 12:35 UK
Central Asia's rocky democracy
Troops in Turkmenistan at an independence day celebration
The message is clear: don't step out of line

Recent events in Kazakhstan, where one opposition leader has been sent to prison and another is due to go on trial, have raised new concerns about the state of democracy not just in Kazakhstan, but in Central Asia as a whole.

Most critics of the current political leaders find themselves either in exile or in prison, charged with abuse of power and corruption.

Last week the former Kazakh energy minister, Mukhtar Ablyazov, was sentenced to six years in jail for "illegal entrepreneurial activity".

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev
Critics of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev have been jailed
The man with whom Ablyazov founded the opposition Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, former governor of Pavlodar region Galymzhan Zhaqiyanov, faces similar corruption charges.

Both charges sound serious and would certainly be punishable in most countries.

But, as with a growing number of Central Asian figures who dare criticise the current leaders, their friends and allies argue that they are really being punished for their opposition to the authorities.

The most prominent example in Kazakhstan previously was former premier Akazhan Kazhegeldin, sentenced "in absentia" last year on charges of taking bribes and possessing arms.

Charges 'fabricated'

The pattern has been repeated in other republics.

In neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, MP Azimbek Beknazarov, chairman of a parliamentary committee on judicial reform, is currently facing charges of abuse of power while he was a regional prosecutor.

Mr Beknazarov's supporters say the charges have been fabricated, and there have been widespread demonstrations in his support across his home region.

Another former Kyrgyz official who has fallen foul of the authorities is former vice-president and mayor of the capital, Bishkek, Felix Kulov.

He was sentenced last year to seven years for abuse of office, even though the International League of Human Rights has suggested the charges against him were politically motivated.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov
Uzbek President Islam Karimov banned opposition parties
In other republics like Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan the secular opposition has had an even tougher time.

Uzbekistan's Birlik (Unity) and Erk (Freedom) parties were banned by President Islam Karimov very soon after independence in 1991 and now operate in exile.

And Turkmenistan, perhaps the most authoritarian republic of all, has been so tightly controlled by President Saparmurat Niyazov - the self-styled leader of all Turkmen - that until recently there was no question of any opposition forming.

It was not until late last year that former foreign minister Boriz Shikhmuradov left the country and joined the opposition in exile.

Civil rights groups have also been critical of other developments in the region.

Kazakhstan's new law on political parties, for example, says political parties can only register if they have at least 50,000 members and have branches in all regions.

Anti-terror co-operation

Some human rights organisations suggest that world opinion has become more tolerant of political abuses in Central Asia because of the co-operation the region's governments have given to the US-led campaign against terrorism.

Map of Central Asia
Others point out, however, that most Central Asian governments no longer bother to invoke the terrorist threat to justify their actions.

They suggest that the Kazakh authorities' actions, for instance, have more to do with the country's growing mineral wealth.

Whatever the reason, there's now widespread cynicism in the West about the right of any of these countries to call themselves democratic.

The Prague-based website Transitions Online suggests that even the limited form of "managed democracy" introduced by President Putin in Russia is hugely preferable to the "semi-monarchical" system favoured by Central Asia's current leaders.

See also:

02 Apr 02 | Asia-Pacific
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