Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Central Asian Opposition Unites

New association unifies Central Asian opposition in struggle against region's authoritarian regimes
By Chinara Jakypova

Opposition leaders in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia are to step up their struggle against the region's increasingly autocratic regimes.

They've created a regional body, the Forum of Democratic Forces of Central Asia, FDFCA, to coordinate social movements, political parties and civic activists in fighting for democratic values and human rights.

The organisation will also campaign for legal and material assistance to political

prisoners, independent journalists and human rights campaigners.

The coordinating body was set up late last month at a London conference, which brought together opposition politicians and independent journalists from Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

The rally gained the sympathetic ear of influential British politicians and government officials.

Simon Lovett, head of the department responsible for Central Asia at the British Foreign Office, admitted the West had been too preoccupied with the preservation of the sovereignty of the new post-Soviet states and their leaders, in the first years after the dissolution of the USSR. In doing so, he acknowledged that problems relating to the development of civil society had sometimes been overlooked.

But he reassured delegates that the Foreign Office "has changed its approach" over the past eighteen months.

At the London meeting, much attention was given to the plight of independent media, which seeemed to have largely disappeared in parts of the region. Central Asian delegates pointed out that unprecedented pressure is being applied to political dissidents, democratic opposition and the opposition press in their homelands.

Delegates were gratified to learn that the UK parliament and the Foreign Office were well-informed on political prisoners in Kazakstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Professor Nurbolat Masanov, co-chairman of the Forum of Democratic Forces in Kazakstan, said political pressure is undermining the country's traditionally strong opposition, forcing it to become more active abroad.

Indeed, the Kazak opposition has now significant representations in Washington, London, Paris and Toronto.

Things are much more complicated in Kyrgyzstan. The country is small, has neither oil nor gas and lacks competent political leaders. Politicians aspiring to become president soon find themselves in jail or out of business.

The mere mention of President Askar Akaev's name tends to send a nervous shiver down the spines of opposition activists. Yet it was precisely Kyrgyzstan whom the West actively backed to create democratic society during the past 10 years, apparently believing that it would be easier

to transform a small, poor country, than big, rich ones.

Kyrgyzstan was originally chosen as a showcase for Central Asian democracy in the hope of prodding neighboring dictators into mending their ways.

Akaev's administration at the time was viewed as a Central Asian model for democracy and human rights. It wasn't long, however, before he began to stray.

Western observers took an increasingly sceptical view of the huge majorities he managed to amass in elections and were disturbed at his suppression of opponents.

A well-known Tajik opposition politician, Dodojon Atovulloev, admitted that during these years he was very impressed by Akaev and never thought the Kyrgyz president would resort to closing down independent media and jailing political opponents.

During the London discussions, analysts suggested that political suppression was more likely to bring a social explosion in Kyrgyzstan than in neighbouring countries. People like the Kyrgyz who had tasted political freedoms and had them taken away felt a resentment that

was absent in people who had never known a free society, the analysts said.

After the London meeting, Lord Avebury, deputy chairman of Britain's All-Party Parliamentary Group on Human Rights, launched an initiative for protection of democracy and human rights in Central Asia.

The group hopes to persuade Tony Blair's government to adopt stronger policies towards the regimes in the region.

Experts on Central Asia reckon it is still not too late to return Kyrgyzstan to democracy. They say it will take political will and courage on the part of President Akaev to achieve this. If he acts quickly, he will have a chance to strengthen his own position and his country's image in the international community.

The FDFCA told the governments and parliaments of Western Europe, the USA, Canada and the OSCE that they do not want Central Asian states to become isolated. They urged that aid to the region should be linked to democratic reforms.

Forum founders followed up the London meeting with a visit to Brussels where they met EU politicians and journalists and discussed measures European bodies could take to promote

freedom and human rights in Central Asia.

Chinara Jakypova is IWPR Country Director in Kyrgyzstan

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