Fragile stability in Central Asia

The region, where there have been recent uprisings, is buffetted by demands from the US, China, and Russia.

A post-Soviet arc of crisis stretching from the oil-rich Caspian Sea to the mountains of Central Asia is beginning to worry regional experts that fresh upheavals and revolutions are on the horizon.

Varying mixtures of social misery, authoritarianism, corrupt governance, and outside agitation continue to fuel political and social turmoil. Violence has already marked the run-up to Sunday's election in Kyrgyzstan to replace former President Askar Akayev, who fled the country in March after after a one-day, lightning revolution.

Making the region increasingly important to Moscow, Beijing, and Washington, many of the six mainly-Muslim former Soviet states of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan contain vast reserves of oil and gas.

Most are also allies in the battle to contain Islamic extremism and fight terrorism. The US has maintained air bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan to provide support for its effort in Afghanistan. But on Tuesday, a regional alliance led by China and Russia called for the US to set a deadline for its departure from the region.

Many see this as a move by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to bolster the regional clout of China - hungry for Central Asian resources - and remove US influence from Russia's own backyard.

Because these countries are on the doorstep of Afghanistan, where there is a post-Taliban surge in poppy production, they are also known as a lucrative throughway for narcotics. Some Russian experts say drug lords often make common cause with religious extremists, to sow rebellion and expand their influence.

"Everyone is watching with very deep concern as the drug pipeline widens and deepens, while political stability deteriorates in some parts of Central Asia," says Sergei Kolmakov, an expert with PBN, an international strategic consultancy.

All of these countries face near-term social and political challenges that threaten to ignite upheavals, which in turn could spread shock waves around the region.

• In Kyrgyzstan, since Mr. Akayev was unseated, the country of 5 million has staggered through economic stagnation and political crisis under its provisional president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev.

Riots rocked the southern city of Osh last month, where unrest in Uzbekistan has radicalized many, experts say. Two weeks ago a crowd supporting banned presidential candidate Urmat Baryktabasov stormed Bishkek's main government compound before being ejected by baton-wielding security forces.

Six candidates are vying in Sunday's presidential polls, with an electoral alliance between Mr. Bakiyev, who hails from the ethnically diverse south, and northern strongman Felix Kulov considered the most likely victor.

Experts doubt that a successful vote will end Kyrgyzstan's season of unrest. "The new Kyrgyz leadership has failed to create a clear and legitimate system of power, recognized by all," says Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. "There is a growing tendency toward anarchy there, and it looks like anything might happen."

• In Uzbekistan, an uneasy calm has set in since government forces put down a rebellion centered in the Ferghana Valley town of Andijan in May. President Islam Karimov, who has ruled the country of 26 million with a heavy hand since Soviet times, blamed "Islamic militants" for the uprising. The government insists that 176 people died, mostly armed rebels. Human rights groups say more like 750 mostly innocent people were killed.

Mr. Karimov has blocked calls for an independent probe into the tragedy. The US reacted cautiously at first but has since stepped up criticism of the Uzbek government. In response, Karimov appears to be moving closer to Moscow. Russian President Vladimir Putin has fully supported the Uzbek leader's view of the Andijan events.

"In Uzbekistan, destabilization will continue," says Alexei Malashenko, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "At the very least, Karimov will soon be replaced. He is an exhausted leader."

• Tajikistan is the only Central Asian country to have experienced civil war, which killed over 100,000 of its 7 million people between 1992 and 1997. Now, the country enjoys tense social peace under its increasingly authoritarian leader, Imomali Rakhmanov. "There is an ever-present threat of upheaval in Tajikistan, but everyone remembers the civil war and wants to avoid getting back to that," says Mr. Malashenko.

• Perhaps the most stable state in Central Asia is Kazakhstan. The oil-rich country of 17 million has seen blistering economic growth under long-time President Nursultan Nazarbayev.

But the opposition, which accuses Mr. Nazarbayev of cronyism, corruption, and rigging last year's parliamentary elections, has pledged to unseat him in presidential polls that could happen as early as this December. The Nazarbayev-controlled Mazhilis, the lower house of parliament, has passed tough new laws to ban demonstrations during elections, crack down on foreign-funded NGOs, and toughen media controls.

"For all its economic success, Kazakhstan is taking strong measures," says Andrei Grozin, a Central Asia expert with the official Institute of Commonwealth of Independent States in Moscow. "Kazakh interior troops have been seen practicing putting down mass disorders. The country's political development is suffering."

• Turkmenistan is a North Korea-like dictatorship, run by former Communist Party chief Suparmurat Niyazov. The country of 5 million has the world's fifth-largest natural gas reserves but no observable public politics. Experts say the crunch will come when Mr. Niyazov dies, and rumors persist that he may be unwell.

• Azerbaijan is the first post-Soviet dynasty. Presidency of this oil-rich Caspian state of 8 million was passed from ailing strongman Gaidar Aliyev to his son Ilham in 2003 elections - widely regarded as rigged. Though oil revenues are pouring in, and may grow when the US-backed Baku-Ceyhan pipeline begins pumping Caspian crude later this year, poverty is widespread.

Thousands of oppositionists took to the streets of Baku last month, many sporting orange banners - symbols of Ukraine's democratic revolution - and portraits of President Bush, to demand that November's upcoming parliamentary polls be free and fair.

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