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Last Updated: Wednesday, 2 November 2005, 17:54 GMT
Changing winds in ex-Soviet lands
By Ian MacWilliam
BBC Central Asia correspondent

Riot police in Baku
Security has been tightened as Azerbaijan's election approaches
Across the former republics of the dead Soviet Union, elections have long been a regular feature of political life.

But for anyone accustomed to the pre-arranged elections of former years, with their predictable victories for the president's party, the past two years have seen an unexpected development - elections have become a catalyst for political change.

In November 2003, the little Caucasus republic of Georgia with its Rose Revolution became the unlikely trendsetter for a series of protest movements which have now overthrown three sitting presidents in the region.

Almost exactly a year later, Ukraine followed Georgia's example, and Kyrgyzstan followed suit in March 2005.

Hard on the heels of the Kyrgyz uprising came a protest in neighbouring Uzbekistan, which shook the leadership of that authoritarian republic.

But troops ruthlessly crushed the protest in the town of Andijan, firing into the crowds and killing an unknown number of people.

What began in Kyrgyzstan in March means that Central Asia is starting to wake up
Nigara Khidoyatova, Sunshine Uzbekistan
Local leaders are now on their guard. With parliamentary elections due to be held next weekend in Azerbaijan, then presidential elections in Kazakhstan in December, there is much discussion of whether another "coloured revolution" is imminent.

Azerbaijan's newly united opposition has adopted the colour orange, in imitation of Ukraine's Orange Revolution.

The Kazakh opposition drape themselves in scarves and banners of bright yellow - "the colour of the Kazakh steppe".

Changing times

Next September, Belarus' autocratic president, Alexander Lukashenko, also faces elections.

And even in Russia, the political elite are already fretting about presidential elections due in 2008, when President Putin's second, and theoretically final, term comes to an end.

These former republics of the vanished USSR are all very different places now.

It is no longer possible to generalise about their differing societies and political systems.

But what is clear is that all this uncharacteristic political activity is changing people's political attitudes and expectations across the region.

No post-Soviet leader can count any more on rigging his elections until he chooses to retire.

Kyrygz protesters in Bishkek, Spring 2005
Kyrgyzstan's former President Akayev was overthrown in March
The winds of political change are sweeping across a region where politics has traditionally been reserved for the powerful elite.

Most of the region has seen varying degrees of reform, but three countries in particular have resisted all political liberalisation - Belarus in Eastern Europe, and Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan in Central Asia.

But there are signs that the pace of change is accelerating.

"Today Central Asia is similar to Eastern Europe in the 1980s," said Nigara Khidoyatova, a leader of the Sunshine Uzbekistan opposition group.

"What began in Kyrgyzstan in March means that Central Asia is starting to wake up. The chains of the authoritarian Central Asian republics broke in their weakest link."

Hurdles ahead

But while Eastern Europe had some experience of democratic ideas before it was forced into Moscow's authoritarian embrace, this was not the case in the Soviet Union itself.

Central Asia, in particular, has no history of democracy at all.

New political ideas have seeped into those regions closest to Europe, but have struggled to reach the remote republics.

Analysts say the advance of democracy and the free market is by no means assured.

The revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine have not magically swept away all injustice and unhappiness.

And observers continue to point out that the Central Asian ex-Soviet republics are very different from the European ones.

Crowds in Kiev, Ukraine, 2004
Changes in Central Asia are different from Ukraine and Georgia
The protests that overthrew Kyrgyzstan's president were not entirely a spontaneous popular movement. Critics argue that the new leaders are no more democratic than the ousted ones.

"In Eastern Europe, [revolutionary figures] Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel were new people, with no connections to the old powers," said Dr Dosym Satpayev, head of the Assessment Risks Group in Kazakhstan's biggest city, Almaty.

"Here, it's still old members of the government elite changing places. The people still aren't taking part. Most people still don't understand politics."

In Georgia and Ukraine, it was popular anger at rigged elections which drove the sitting presidents from power, but in Kyrgyzstan the situation was murkier.

There was popular anger at corruption and poverty - but newly-rich businessmen with their own interests also had a hand in organising many anti-government rallies.

In neighbouring Kazakhstan, now in the midst of its own presidential election campaign, growing anger at corruption among the president's family will lead some people to vote against President Nursultan Nazarbayev.

But most people still do not trust the weak and little-known opposition leaders.

After more than a decade of poverty and upheaval, the main concern is stability, now that life is improving at last.

Many people say they know their leaders have filled their pockets, but see no reason why they should now elect another group of upstarts to start filling their own pockets in turn.

Uzbek repression

In Uzbekistan, the situation is more stark. Sergei Yezhkov, a veteran observer of the Uzbek scene, says that no realistic political opposition can emerge in Uzbekistan, because of the government's control of the media and the severe repression of any criticism.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov
Uzbek analysts fear there is little opposition to President Karimov
While he may sympathise with Sunshine Uzbekistan's desire for reform, he says the group lacks popular support.

"There is a business and official elite who [President Islam] Karimov doesn't entirely control," says Mr Yezhkov. "Only that elite, if they combined, could realistically remove Karimov from power and change Uzbekistan's course."

"This elite sees that, yes, the president is bad, that something must be changed, but they want to protect their own positions," he explained.

President Karimov has made it abundantly clear that he will not change his course, but many analysts suspect the pressures for change will reach breaking point.

At that point, the most likely result is a palace revolution of some sort. Whether such a change of power happens relatively peacefully or with bloodshed is anybody's guess.

Only a few years ago, the demand for economic or political change in many ex-Soviet republics was muted.

There was little point in discussing something that seemed unlikely to happen.

The past two years have changed that.

Many people are still distrustful of the chaos which "democracy" brought them in the dying days of the USSR. But political change is now a reality.




SEE ALSO:
Kazakh opposition faces tough fight
25 Oct 05 |  Asia-Pacific
Belarus opposition closes ranks
03 Oct 05 |  Europe
Akayev quits as Kyrgyz president
04 Apr 05 |  Asia-Pacific
Central Asia: At-a-glance
31 Oct 05 |  Asia-Pacific


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