Kyrgyz political uprising may usher in hard-liners

Thursday, March 24, 2005

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan -- The only splash of color in the drab bluish gray office of Kyrgyzstan's Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society was a wool orange scarf thrown over the back of its president's chair.

It was Edil Baisalov's souvenir from Ukraine's Orange Revolution that swept opposition leader Victor Yushchenko to the presidency. Baisalov had been in Kiev in December as an election monitor. He returned home inspired: "I was intoxicated by the protests, by the desire for change, the power of the people."

The popular uprisings in Ukraine and in Georgia a year earlier have fired up Central Asia's nascent political opposition and brought protesters into the streets of Kyrgyzstan.

The movement is unsettling authoritarian regimes who have ruled since the Soviet Union collapse 15 years ago. But it's also exposed the frailty of opposition groups who lack charismatic leaders -- and created an opening for extremist Islamic parties to gain power in a strategic oil-rich region known as a terrorist haven.

"What happened in Ukraine and Georgia touches the hearts of our people because these countries are like us," said Kyrgyzstan's deputy ombudsman Sadyk Sherniyas, whose office investigates complaints against the government.

In most of Central Asia, however, the absence of a cohesive opposition group is encouraging regionalism and chaos, said political activist Alymkulov Berdi, who protested when his candidate was disqualified from Kyrgyzstan's February elections.

"Today all we have are regional leaders and that is a dangerous situation because people are frustrated and furious but they don't have one leader to guide them," Berdi said.

Color coordinating

During the February elections, opposition leaders sought to mimic Ukraine's Orange Revolution with a color of their own -- but even there they couldn't agree.

In the more prosperous and liberal north, Roza Otunbayeva, leader of the opposition Ata-Jurt movement, wrapped supporters in yellow. In the south, demonstrators wore pink, called their uprising the "pink revolution" and strung pink banners from windows of government offices they overran to demand the resignation of President Askar Akayev.

Protests against Akayev began after the first round of voting in February and swelled after run-off balloting that the opposition and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said was seriously flawed. The fiercest opposition has been in the south.

Akayev blames the demonstrations on outside interference.

A senior Georgian lawmaker who helped stage his country's 2003 Rose Revolution was in southern Kyrgyzstan, where opposition seized control of the country's second-largest city and other towns, Georgia's Rustavi-2 television reported. Givi Targamadze was also in Ukraine for the Orange Revolution.

A series of parliamentary elections across the region in the past six months -- which exposed authoritarian regimes to criticism from international observers -- spawned allegations of U.S. attempts to foment anti-government uprisings through U.S.-funded democracy building organizations, like the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and Freedom House.

"American organizations like the NDI were involved in the revolution in Ukraine and Georgia and definitely they want to create the same situation here," says the Kyrgyz president's spokesman, Abdil Seghizbayev. "The United States thinks we are too close to Russia and China."

In February, electricity was shut off at the Freedom House printing press in Bishkek, where opposition newspapers were printed. Tajikistan refused to register Freedom House. Uzbekistan in 2004 denied registration to the Open Society Institute funded by the George Soros Foundation.

"After Ukraine and Georgia we have certain concerns about the activities of these western democratic promotion organizations," said Igor Sattarov, the foreign ministry's information chief in Tajikistan.

Michael Goldfarb, spokesman for Freedom House, said his organization and others like it "are not in the business of supporting one political party over another."

"We are not part of any political agenda or Western government agency," he said. "In Central Asia, the nature of our work is to support people advocating for their fundamental rights. Governments in the region that are critical of the work of civil society are in fact trying to deflect criticism of their own heavy-handed electoral tactics by blaming outsiders."

Baisalov, president of the Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society that receives a U.S. grant, described his Kyrgyz group as a "civil non-partisan organization."

"But we are able to criticize authoritarian governments," Baisalov said in early March. "After 15 years of Akayev we say it is enough. The personality cult around Akayev has stifled discourse in our country."

On Wednesday, Baisalov was among 20 to 30 protesters detained by riot police in Bishkek as the government got tougher with demonstrators. "The tolerance is being scaled down," he said by cell phone from a police station.

Both the United States and Russia regard the Central Asian countries as vital security interests -- and both have military bases outside Bishkek. The United States places high importance on stability in the region, which borders Russia, Afghanistan and Iran.

Although the Bush administration supports pro-democracy movements, the turmoil in the region also has created a potentially dangerous opening for extremist Islamic parties.

Hizb ut-Tahrir, or the Party of Liberation, has a following among the young in Central Asia. It has called for Islamic rule to replace secular governments and unite the Muslim world. And its pamphlets criticize U.S. bases established in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to support the war on terror.

A senior Western diplomat in Tajikistan confirmed that Hizb ut-Tahrir's influence is growing across the region, particularly among the young who are looking for alternatives to what they perceive as corrupt, totalitarian regimes with links to the Soviet past.

The United States has not declared Hizb ut-Tahrir a terrorist organization because it does not advocate violence, but the diplomat said some of its literature is virulently anti-American and anti-Semitic and could inspire violence.

Leaders across Central Asia have banned Hizb ut-Tahrir. Kyrgyz security authorities have accused the group of having links with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which is allied to al-Qaida and operates in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Kyrgyz government has also warned of cooperation between Hizb ut-Tahrir and Uighur separatists in China, but has not provided evidence. Russia has accused Hizb ut-Tahrir of involvement in breakaway Chechnya.

The south of Kyrgyzstan is where Hizb ut-Tahrir is strongest, presidential spokesman Seghizbayev said. He said the group blames the government for every problem and makes promises it cannot fulfill.

Hizb ut-Tahrir has become more politically active. In Jalal-Abad, the scene of some of the fiercest anti-government protests, the group collected 20,000 signatures on a petition calling for more Islamic instruction in schools and segregation of the sexes.

The petition, circulated in November, also demanded state sponsorship of Muslim schools and restrictions on the sale of pornography. Candidates who espoused a like-minded philosophy got support from Hizb ut-Tahrir members.

Askarov Azimjan, a human rights activist whose office in southern Kyrgyzstan is partially funded by Freedom House, says Hizb ut-Tahrir has emerged as an alternative for residents frustrated by corruption.

"Most ordinary people I think support them now because they feel that in a democratic society it is difficult to get anything done without corruption. People believe that if the government was religious the situation would change," he said from Bazar Korgon, about 20 miles from Jalal-Abad.

"Even high school students know exactly how much they will have to pay if they want to get a job in the police station," he added. "If Hizb ut-Tahrir registered as a political party it would get a lot of support. But the government won't allow them to register. They are afraid."

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