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

A Shock to the System for Kyrgyzstan's Neighbours

The revelation that a well-ensconced government could fall so fast is cause for alarm or delight, depending which side you are on in the Central Asian republics.
By IWPR Central Asia

As Kyrgyzstan’s neighbours struggle to catch up with the rapid pace of events in that country, some governments in the region concerned about the possible security implications for themselves.


But if the official reactions mix outright hostility with calls for the restoration of law and order, the political opposition and civil activists in other Central Asian republics have welcomed the fairly bloodless “tulip revolution”.


Many of them realise that the different situations in their own country make it unlikely there will be an automatic domino effect across the region, but hope the Kyrgyz experience will have served notice on autocratic leaders that their power is not infinite.


As Mamudani Abdugazizov, a political analyst in Tajikistan, put it, “The leaders of Central Asia will now become very suspicious in their relationship with Kyrgyzstan.”


Kyrgyzstan’s two bigger neighbours to the west, Kazakstan and Uzbekistan, are perhaps the most immediately affected by the changes.


On March 25, Kazak president Nursultan Nazarbaev appeared on national television to sum up his view of things to a domestic audience. “Social and economic problems have led to widespread poverty and unemployment,” he said. “The weakness of the leadership also played a negative role, allowing rioters and thugs to act as they pleased.”


Those were harsh words, given that the historically close relationship between the republics – due to their similar ethnic and linguistic heritage and lack of disputes over territory – had been cemented by an apparently warm relationship between Nazarbaev and his Kyrgyz counterpart Askar Akaev.


The decision by the Kazak authorities to close the border was a drastic measure for the large numbers of Kyrgyz citizens who work in Kazakstan or travel there to trade because of its relatively better economy.


Predictably enough, the Kazak opposition was supportive of the success achieved by colleagues in Kyrgyzstan.


The opposition party Ak Zhol released a statement as early as March 24 stressing how important it was for democratic forces to take control, and saying authoritarian regimes in former Soviet states must not be allowed to discredit such forces. It was clearly a pointed message directed at Nazarbaev, who is widely expected to stand for re-election yet again in 2006.


However, there is also a recognition among many in the Kazak opposition that the sheer size of their country and a different set of social and economic dynamics argue against a grassroots popular revolution on the Kyrgyz model.


“Everything is different in Kazakstan,” said the prominent independent journalist Sergei Duvanov. “We have a middle class which benefits from the regime, and we have a weak opposition. The population does not express a willingness to participate in the political process.”


Further south, Uzbekistan may also feel vulnerable to instability in Kyrgyzstan, given the economic ties between the two country, and the presence of 800,000 ethnic Uzbeks in south Kyrgyzstan, who maintain close relations with relatives living in Uzbekistan. In the Osh and Jalalabad regions, the big Uzbek communities played an active part in the anti-Akaev demonstrations there.


The Uzbek government condemned the chain of events in Kyrgyzstan, labelling it anti-constitutional and portraying it in an extremely negative light in the state-controlled media.


An official in the Fergana valley explained the border closure in stark terms, saying, “We have taken preventive measures to prevent terrorist groups entering Uzbek territory.”


A member of a non-government group in the city of Fergana who asked not to be named explained how the official reaction was being played out on the ground.


“The entire propaganda machine has been cranked up so as to ‘explain’ things at all levels - from neighbourhood committees to schools and workplaces, just as regularly happens after terrorist attacks.


“Yet what I see among the people is that they all understand this is the result of the discontent of the population of Kyrgyzstan, whose living conditions are no different from those in Uzbekistan.”


Civil society activists suggested the news from Kyrgyzstan was salutary for other countries.


“The events in Kyrgyzstan must serve as a lesson to us all,” said human right activist Mamurjan Aminov, also from Fergana. “The Kyrgyz nation is unable to accept the falsification of elections.”


Uzbekistan’s political opposition, which largely operates underground because of government harassment, was naturally heartened. Hamdam Sulaymanov of the Birlik party said, “The parliamentary elections in Kyrgyzstan were rigged just as they were in Uzbekistan. That is what caused opposition dissatisfaction and massive unrest.”


Many Uzbeks recognise than if such events were replicated in their own country, the response from the authorities would be swift and brutal. “Everything would be different in Uzbekistan: the authorities would organise terrible provocations to punish everyone,” said civil society activist Agzama Turgunova.


Tajikistan, which borders on Kyrgyzstan in the south, held its own general election at the end of February, a fact which will make the government there particularly sensitive given that there have been similar allegations of widespread ballot-rigging.


Shokirjon Hakimov, deputy chairman of the Social Democratic Party, one of several opposition parties that contested the Tajik election, told IWPR, “It’s important to note that if there hadn’t been ballot-rigging [in Kyrgyzstan], people wouldn’t have come out into the streets.


“This will be a good lesson for the leaders of Central Asia.”


The Tajik government released a statement through its foreign ministry on March 23 expressing concern at the disturbances in Kyrgyzstan and calling for a peaceful and constitutional solution.


Given Tajikistan’s experience of civil war in the Nineties, public attitudes tend towards caution, and many voiced relief that the Kyrgyz government had refrained from employing violence against the demonstrators.


Dushanbe resident Munira Olimova said, “Of course it’s a good thing that one nation in Central Asia has recovered its consciousness, and that people have started fighting for their rights. I do think the West is providing financial support, but what matters that people make the right choice in their priorities and don’t get manipulated.”


East of Kyrgyzstan lies China, which developed a political and economic relationship with the republic after it became independent from the Soviet Union.


In the long term, Beijing will be worrying about the possible impact on the Uighur people of its own western province of Xinjiang. The 12 million Uighurs share the Turkic Muslim heritage of the Central Asian republics, and are present as a diaspora in both Kyrgyzstan and Kazakstan, not to mention as itinerant traders.


More immediately, the authorities are concerned that Chinese property and citizens have suffered in the looting of recent days.


The official news agency reported that two Chinese supermarkets were destroyed and many Chinese nationals injured during the looting, four of them severely. Chinese students have been trying to leave the country, but the last plane home left on March 25, while the land border will stay closed until March 28.


Filip Noubel is IWPR’s Central Asia project manager in London. Lidiya Isamova and Eduard Poletaev direct the IWPR programmes in Tajikistan and Kazakstan, respectively. Matluba Azamatova, Zokirjon Ibrahimov, Kudrat Babajanov and Sid Yanushev are IWPR contributors in Uzbekistan, and Zamir Karajanov a contributor in Almaty.


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