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Last Updated: Monday, 21 March, 2005, 15:43 GMT
Analysis: Why Kyrgyzstan matters
By Leonid Ragozin

Clashes in Kyrgyzstan
Kyrgyzstan's protests may not be so peaceful
The outside world has been watching events unfolding in Kyrgyzstan with a mixture of excitement and fear.

Excitement because this could be the beginning of another "velvet revolution" in a former Soviet country.

Fear because in such a poor and volatile region as Central Asia, it may not be as non-violent or democratic as those in Ukraine or Georgia.

Whatever happens, the outcome will be significant because Kyrgyzstan is close to Afghanistan - an area with a history of inter-ethnic conflicts lying on one of the world's drug trafficking routes.

Central Asia has returned to the top of the news agenda, arguably for the first time since the US invasion in Afghanistan in 2001.

That invasion toppled the Taleban regime backed by al-Qaeda. But far from being defeated, the al-Qaeda network still has enough influence beyond Afghanistan's northern border to undermine political regimes in Central Asia.

Kyrgyzstan does not border on Afghanistan, but it is close enough to have a direct impact on the country's affairs.

"Kyrgyzstan has its chunk of the Fergana valley [shared with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan], the most densely populated and poor part of Central Asia, which is also known as the hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism in the region," said Dovlat Qudrat of the BBC's Central Asian Service.

Portrait of Askar Akayev burnt
The opposition says Mr Akayev's government is steeped in corruption
There may also be an ethnic issue at play.

"A majority of the Fergana valley residents in Kyrgyzstan are ethnic Uzbeks, which make the authorities fear a revival of an old inter-ethnic conflict. Fortunately there are no signs of this so far, with ethnic Kyrgyz and ethnic Uzbeks jointly participating in the protests," he said.

When Afghanistan was still controlled by the Taleban, Kyrgyzstan came under attack from militants led by Osama Bin Laden's close associate Juma Namangani, himself an ethnic Uzbek.

The attack was repelled, but there are still many of Mr Namangani's sympathisers in the Fergana valley.

No wonder that Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev, who has led the country since the collapse of the USSR, was all too eager to help the US in Afghanistan, allowing the Americans to set up a military base on its territory, a move which was quickly followed by the Russians.

Lately, the cells of the radical Uzbek Hizb-e Tahrir party have been even more active in the relatively democratic Kyrgyzstan than in Uzbekistan itself, where President Islam Karimov clamped down on them brutally.

Fergana valley is also on a drug trafficking route from Afghanistan, which had a near record opium poppy harvest last year, into Europe.

Nomadic tradition

The Kyrgyz opposition wants the country to make a leap forward that would put it ahead of many other former Soviet states, including Russia, in terms of democratic development.

President Akayev's Kyrgyzstan is usually considered the most democratic of Central Asian states.

Mr Akayev likes to take credit for the fact that the opposition has its own voice and expresses its opinion in the independent media, unlike in any neighbouring country.

Many observers believe the Kyrgyz are keen on democracy because personal freedom has been at the heart of their nomadic culture. With Islam not as deeply embedded here as in the rest of Central Asia, the Kyrgyz seem to be closer to the Buddhist Mongols than to Muslim Uzbeks or Tajiks.

Mr Akayev's rhetoric about democracy and the need to develop friendly relations with the West is hardly distinguishable from that of the opposition.

But the latter claims that the president has deviated from the democratic path and his government has become steeped in corruption.

At the February parliamentary election, opposition leaders were barred from participating, while two of Mr Akayev's children were elected, prompting speculation he intended to create a ruling dynasty - an idea seemingly entertained by all post-Soviet Central Asian leaders.

Mr Akayev accuses Washington of orchestrating the opposition protests and complains bitterly about the US ambassador being unable to see a difference between his government and regimes in other Central Asian states.


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