One of the most significant events in the recent history of Central Asia may have actually occurred in Kyiv in late 2004, when thousands of demonstrators took to the streets to protest falsified election results.
Those protests eventually swept Viktor Yushchenko to Ukraine's presidency in a political upheaval the world now knows as the Orange Revolution. In the early days of 2005, change in Ukraine, and similar events in Georgia a year earlier, has emboldened opposition movements in Central Asia and unnerved rulers who have been in power since the break-up of the Soviet Union. Whether the future holds crackdown or crackup, events in Georgia and Ukraine are increasingly creating the context for Central Asian politics, as recent developments in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan vividly demonstrate.
Though Kazakhstan's opposition cried foul after parliamentary elections on 19 September 2004, the resulting parliament convened with a minimum of fuss and an overwhelming majority of supporters of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev. But that was before Ukraine. Leading figures from the Kazakh opposition visited Kyiv as demonstrations roiled the Ukrainian capital under the full glare of international media. Inspired by what they saw, the leaders of the opposition party Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) issued a statement in early December 2004 rejecting the legitimacy of President Nursultan Nazarbaev's government and calling for acts of civil disobedience. Perhaps also influenced by events in Ukraine, a Kazakh court ordered the dissolution of DVK on 6 January for incitement.
With the DVK's case under appeal, Kazakhstan's Coordinating Council of Democratic Forces -- which brings together DVK, Ak Zhol, and the Communist Party -- applied for a permit on 19 January to hold a demonstration in Almaty "against extremism and terrorism." When the authorities refused to grant a permit, the opposition took to the streets anyway, gathering up to 1,000 people in Almaty on 29 January to express support for DVK, "Kazakhstan Today" and Interfax reported. In a nod to events in Kyiv, an invited guest at the 29 January rally was Andrei Gusak, a coordinator for the Ukrainian youth movement Pora, DVK noted in a press release. Police were out in force, arresting eight DVK activists. A court promptly sentenced seven of them to fines or jail terms ranging from two to seven days. At a news conference in Almaty on 31 January, DVK members decried the authorities' "illegal actions," condemned government efforts to muzzle coverage of the 29 January rally, and vowed to conduct similar protests in the future, according to a DVK press release.
'Island Of Democracy' No More
Political tensions have also been rising in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, where parliamentary elections are looming on 27 February. Both Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev, who has said that he will step down when his term ends later this year, and the opposition have made it clear that they view the upcoming poll as a referendum on the status quo. Recent years have dimmed the luster Kyrgyzstan gained in the early 1990s as an "island of democracy" in an authoritarian sea, but it still boasts a comparatively vibrant civil society and an increasingly vocal political opposition.
A coalition of opposition forces brought 500 people together for a demonstration in Bishkek on 19 January after a district election commission barred former Foreign Minister Roza Otunbaeva, whom President Akaev described in a 28 January interview with Russia's "Nezavisimaya gazeta" as the "locomotive of the opposition," from participation in parliamentary elections because she failed to meet the five-year in-country residency requirement. Otunbaeva, the co-chair of the opposition movement Ata-Jurt, and two other organizers of the 19 January demonstration have since been fined 1,000 soms ($24) each for the unsanctioned rally. Topchubek Turgunaliev, who leads the opposition Erkindik party and received a 1,000-som fine as one of the organizers of the 19 January protest, dismissed the court decision as "a politically motivated order," RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. He promised to follow up all legal avenues: "For sure, we will appeal to the Bishkek city court, then to the Supreme Court, then the Constitutional Court, and then to an international court."
A crucial part of the emerging political context is a perception gulf between two basic understandings of the "orange" and "rose" revolutions. The consensus in Europe and the United States, both in official circles and the broader public, was that the changes in Georgia and Ukraine represented a victory for democracy. The official view in much of the CIS, from Russia through Central Asia, is that in both Georgia and Ukraine Western-funded organizations, primarily U.S.-backed democracy-building NGOs, cunningly manipulated existing dissatisfactions to foment upheaval and install pliant regimes. Kyrgyz President Akaev has spoken out frequently on the issue, memorably comparing the Western export of democracy to the Bolshevik export of revolution in an article in Russia's official "Rossiiskaya gazeta."
Watch Out NGOs
However, the most recent, and forceful, statement of the case belongs to Uzbek President Islam Karimov. Uzbekistan's placid parliamentary elections on 26 December 2004 took place without the participation of any opposition parties and earned a tepid assessment from the OSCE. When President Karimov addressed a joint session of the country's newly elected parliament in Tashkent on 28 January, he made it clear that he has his eyes on NGOs. In the transcript of Karimov's address provided by official Uzbek news agency UzA, the president appeared to refer to his government's decision in 2004 to deny registration to the Soros Foundation's Open Society Institute and Internews-Uzbekistan when he stated that "as inspections have shown, the activities of certain NGOs created at the expense of various sponsors go far beyond their declared charters and programs to carry out specific goals ordered up by others."
Karimov said that "such projects, which contradict our legislation, have no future in Uzbekistan," UzA reported. He stressed, "We will bring to heel those who go beyond the law. We have the capability to do that," Uzland reported. Karimov then directly addressed Western ambassadors, invited guests at parliament's first joint session. "I don't want to delve too deeply into this matter. But those sitting up there in the balcony ought to understand that better," he said, according to Reuters. The remarks, which were not included in the transcript posted on the site of official news agency UzA, underscores a commitment to head off potential unrest at the pass where Karimov clearly believes it rode into Georgia and Ukraine -- through Western-funded NGOs.
The narrative of the Orange Revolution is even beginning to creep into public foreign-policy discussions. At a news conference after his address to parliament on 28 January, Uzbek President Islam Karimov said that his country may pull out of GUUAM (Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Moldova), Uzbek Television First Channel reported. Why? Karimov explained: "The tendencies that are taking place now in Ukraine and Georgia, and also in Moldova, which is a member of GUUAM, make us reconsider our relations again and again: whether or not we should continue participating in GUUAM in the future. We have not yet adopted any decision on this account. However, I think we will solve this issue in the near future." Uzbekistan has been ambivalent on GUUAM in the past, suspending and then reaffirming its membership in 2002 and 2003, and the U.S.-backed organization is largely considered moribund, but the Uzbek president's statement is noteworthy for its specific reference to Ukraine and Georgia.
For now, the major change that events in Ukraine and Georgia have wrought in Central Asia is one of perception. With the authorities, the opposition, and outside observers increasingly viewing events in the region through the prism of changes in Georgia and Ukraine, a common context is reemerging to frame political discussions. Such a context briefly existed in the immediate post-Soviet period amid much exuberance about the coming "transition" of successor states. Subsequent years had a sobering effect, as the triumphant narrative of transition broke down into national tales that diverged from the hoped-for storyline. With a new narrative troubling the powers that be, energizing the opposition, and drawing international attention, Central Asia finds itself once again at what could be an anxious crossing.
EurasiaNet is funded by the Open Society Institute.