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

Kazakstan: All Eyes on Kyrgyzstan

Fears of a Ukraine-style “velvet revolution” begin to grow in neighbouring Kazakstan.
By Zamir Karajanov

Kazak politicians and opposition activists alike are nervously watching preparations for elections in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, looking for any sign of the sort of bloodless revolutions that have recently swept aside undemocratic leaders.


The prospect of local opposition forces following the examples set by those in Georgia and Ukraine appear to be worrying Kyrgyz president Askar Akaev and his counterparts in neighbouring Kazakstan and Uzbekistan.


In a January 28 interview with the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Akaev warned of attempts by “quasi-political forces” and “provocateurs of various kinds” to “bring the velvet revolution to Kyrgyzstan”.


Earlier, the same newspaper quoted Uzbek president Islam Karimov criticising Akaev for not doing enough to control the opposition, and claiming that “now there is a danger of a coup in Kyrgyzstan”.


Political scientist Sanat Kushkumbaev told IWPR that the entire region was keeping a close eye on Kyrgyzstan’s February 27 parliamentary ballot.


“The results of the Kyrgyz elections will in many ways affect the expectations of many politicians in Central Asia,” he said.


“In Astana, analysts and officials of the presidential administration and opposition alike are paying close attention to what is happening in Kyrgyzstan.”


Observers say that while Kyrgyzstan is a small nation of around five million people and is in a difficult socio-economic situation, events there will have a huge influence on its larger neighbours.


“A possible velvet revolution in Kyrgyzstan will be felt by countries in the region far more than the events in Georgia or Ukraine were,” said Artyom Ustimenko of the Kazak Strategic Research Institution.


“One of the reasons that political elites of neighbouring countries are watching the events in Kyrgyzstan with concern is that this country may become an engine in the democratisation process of the whole region,” he added.


Dosym Satpaev, director of the Risk Assessment Group, agreed. “A so-called ‘fifth column’ could be formed, and this new leadership may actively support opposition forces in other countries of Central Asia, which is what the existing regimes are afraid of,” he said.


The analyst believes that if the Kyrgyz regime is toppled, western forces may sponsor Kazakstan’s opposition groups in an attempt to effect another “regime change”.


“If there is a change of political elite in Kyrgyzstan, then the Kazak authorities will not be pleased,” said Nikolai Kuzmin, chief analyst of the Reputation Centre for communication technologies.


The Kazak authorities are now expected to consolidate their power to avert a revolutionary domino effect in the region – and some steps have already been taken. For example, the opposition Democratic Choice of Kazakstan was officially banned not long after the popular uprising in Ukraine.


Leading DCK member Asylbek Kojakhmetov told IWPR that the banning of the movement had not curtailed its activities in the run up to elections in the region.


“We will definitely go to Kyrgyzstan to see what is going on there, to coordinate our efforts as well as to support the [opposition forces],” he said.


Meanwhile, a DCK-organised protest meeting on January 29 attracted around 2,000 people in the centre of Almaty, and featured a speech from Ukrainian opposition activist Andrei Gusak of the Pora (“It’s Time”) civil society movement.


The demonstration, which was supported by the Ak Jol (Bright Path), Communist and Auyl (Village) parties, was stopped by police when the participants began to move towards the city’s central square.


Eight opposition activists were arrested following the meeting. Seven of these later received short jail sentences or fines for “disobeying police orders”.


The protest was organised after the DCK was refused permission to hold a public meeting on January 19. Not long after, blue and orange stickers with the slogan “Go Away” – believed to be a reference to President Nazarbaev – began to appear all over Almaty.


“We can expect pressure on the opposition and the closure of the little independent media that remains,” warned Andrei Chebotaryov, coordinator of the National Research Institute of Kazakstan.


Ninel Fokina, head of the Almaty Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, also believes that an increase in official intimidation is inevitable. “The authorities are already checking all foreign non-governmental organisations to see if they are financing the opposition,” she said.


Analysts fear that relations between the two former Soviet republics – and within the Commonwealth of Indepdendent States in general - could suffer if the opposition triumphs in the Kyrgyz elections.


One important side effect of the velvet revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine was a cooling of relations between them and other post-communist elites in the region.


While the CIS welcomed Azerbaijan president Ilkham Aliev – who succeeded his father Heydar – its relations with the new leaders of Georgia and Ukraine are more strained.


As a result, Ukraine president Viktor Yushchenko and his Georgian counterpart Mikhail Saakashvili formed their own democratic bloc on January 5, signing the so-called Carpathian agreement praising those who had held non-violent protests in support of democracy in the two countries.


Zamir Karajanov is an IWPR contributor in Almaty.