Democracy rising in ex-Soviet states

Aftershocks of Ukraine and Georgia are stirring up rallies in Central Asia.

The peaceful street revolts that recently brought democratic change to Georgia and Ukraine could spawn copy-cat upheavals against authoritarian regimes across the former Soviet Union, experts say.

Waving orange scarves and banners - the colors of Ukraine's revolution - dozens of Uzbeks demonstrated in the capital Tashkent last week over the demolition of their homes to make way for border fencing.

According to the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, the protest compelled the autocratic government of Islam Karimov, widely condemned for human rights abuses, to pay compensation.

In Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan, hundreds of pro-democracy activists rallied on Saturday to demand that upcoming parliamentary elections be free and fair.

From Kyrgyzstan on the Chinese border to Moldova, where Europe's only ruling Communist Party faces elections next month, opposition parties are eagerly studying Georgia's "Rose Revolution" and Ukraine's "Orange Revolution," which led to the triumph of pro-democracy forces. Opposition groups are even selecting symbols for their banners when the moment arrives - tulips for the Kyrgyz opposition, grapes for Moldova's anticommunists.

"The recent events in Ukraine have made people everywhere understand that taking to the streets gets the authorities' attention," says Tatiana Poloskova, deputy director of the independent Institute of Modern Diaspora, which studies Russian minorities in former Soviet countries.

Georgian President Mikhael Saakashvili and newly inaugurated Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko were clearly addressing their former Soviet colleagues last month when they hailed their revolts as the leading edge of "a new wave of liberation that will lead to the final victory of freedom and democracy on the continent of Europe."

The prospect has sent shudders through the Kremlin, still smarting from the "loss" of pro-Moscow regimes in Georgia and Ukraine, and reeling in the face of its own grass-roots revolt by pensioners protesting cuts in social services. For Russia, where authoritarian methods have been taking root under President Vladimir Putin, the prospect of pro-democracy rebellions sweeping the former Soviet Union seems to threaten the underpinnings of domestic stability. The pro-Western bent of the new regimes in Ukraine and Georgia may also threaten the economic ties Russia has built with post-Soviet regimes from Armenia to Uzbekistan.

First in line could be Kyrgyzstan, where any official attempt to rig parliamentary elections slated for Feb. 27 could trigger Ukrainian popular action. Strongman Askar Akayev, who's ruled the tiny central Asian state for the past 15 years, has already faced street demonstrations over a failed attempt to ban his chief opponent from the parliamentary race. Mr. Akayev has pledged to step down in October, and appears to be grooming his daughter, Bermet, to succeed him. After a recent Moscow visit with Vladimir Putin, Akayev warned that if the opposition takes to the streets, "it would lead to civil war."

But some Russian experts see a "Tulip Revolution" in the near future for Kyrgyzstan, which hosts both Russian and US military bases. "Akayev is lost," says Alexei Malashenko, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "The opposition is strong, well-organized, and has international as well as domestic backing."

The Kremlin may fear that political ferment in Kyrgyzstan could spread to more important allies in central Asia. The long-time leader of oil-rich Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has fixed elections and changed the Constitution to extend his rule, last month dissolved the leading opposition party after it sent a delegation to Ukraine to study the Orange Revolution. He also moved to close down a local institute funded by global financier George Soros, who has backed pro-democracy movements in Ukraine and elsewhere.

In Uzbekistan, which also hosts a key US military base, President Karimov, a former Soviet politburo member, has ruled with an iron fist since the demise of the USSR. Karimov recently jeered publicly at those "who are dying to see that the way the elites in Georgia and Ukraine changed becomes a model to be emulated in other countries." He warned bluntly: "We have the necessary force for that."

Some experts argue that, while velvet revolution may be possible in semi-authoritarian Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, it is a very distant prospect in Uzbekistan because democracy and civil society are barely developed there. Last week's protests in Tashkent, though based on a narrow economic issue, hint that instability may lie just beneath the regime's tough and orderly surface.

Uzbekistan's gas-rich neighbor, Turkmenistan, is run by a North Korean-style dictatorship that permits no dissent of any kind. "In absolutely authoritarian regimes like [Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan] the threat of 'Orange Revolution' is just used by the leaders to crack down harder," says Masha Lipman, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "There is no chance for the opposition to actually organize anything, much less a revolution."

That paradox may help to explain why Georgians were able to rally successfully against the lethargic regime of Eduard Shevardnadze, when it attempted to rig the 2003 parliamentary polls, while protesters in neighboring Azerbaijan were put down when the much more efficient dictatorship of Gaidar Aliyev imposed the succession of his son, Ilham, through fraudulent elections just a month earlier.

Ukrainians were able to successfully mobilize against vote-rigging late last year in part because Ukraine had relatively free institutions, including a parliament and Supreme Court that the president was not able to control. In next-door Belarus, which US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has labeled "the last outpost of tyranny in Europe," dictator Alexander Lukashenko has crushed the opposition and banished nongovernmental organizations, and looks set to be handily reelected in showpiece elections later this year.

But an upsurge looks increasingly likely in ex-Soviet Moldova, where Communist President Vladimir Voronin has lost Moscow support. He faces a strong challenge in next month's parliamentary elections from the pro-Western Christian Democrats, who reportedly are sporting orange scarves and flags in the capital.

"The Kremlin suddenly finds itself severely challenged to change its strategies, both at home and in former Soviet countries," says Sergei Kazyonnov, an expert with the independent Institute for National Security and Strategic Research in Moscow. "It can go on depending on political manipulations and under-the-carpet deals with local elites. But it is already becoming obvious that there are just too many different realities here, and an unworkable multiplicity of carpets."

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