Echoes of Ukraine's "Orange Revolution" have struck in the central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan, where crowds of opposition activists have burned a police station and seized government buildings in rolling protests against alleged vote fixing.
Embattled Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev, who has ruled the tiny nation in semiauthoritarian style for the past 15 years, responded to the growing unrest in Kyrgyzstan's volatile and multiethnic south Monday by ordering a probe into the elections that international observers found seriously flawed.
Although a revolution appears to be taking shape in Kyrgyzstan similar to the ones that erupted in Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine last December, experts suggest the violent street revolts rocking Kyrgyzstan could develop very differently from the democratic upheavals that brought peaceful change to the other ex-Soviet states.
"There is a quite open and obvious attempt to imitate Ukraine's Orange Revolution by the opposition in these events, but the same methods may lead to very different results," says Irina Zvigelskaya, an regional expert with the independent Center for Strategic and Political Studies in Moscow.
"There is a real danger that instability in Kyrgyzstan could unleash the pent-up forces of Islamic fundamentalism or ethnic conflict. It could turn down very ugly streets."
The unrest began early this month to protest alleged breaches in the Feb. 27 parliamentary elections. It intensified after the subsequent March 13 runoffs that the opposition, several European countries, and the US all said were flawed.
Now Mr. Akayev suggested he might be willing to hold talks with the opposition, which accuses him of rigging the parliamentary polls as a prelude to winning himself an unconstitutional third term. But some opposition leaders say they would talk with Akayev if he's willing to accept their demands for his resignation and a rerun of the elections.
"The genie is out of the bottle," says Adakhan Madumarov, parliamentary deputy and a leader of the opposition Ata-Zhurt movement. "Everything will depend on authorities. It is not too late to start a dialogue yet. But the most important thing is that [Akayev] must understand that he should take people's interests into account."
But the main opposition leader, former Foreign Minister Roza Otunbayeva, ruled out any talks. "We have one aim only, to oust the government," she told the Associated Press. She added the opposition would guarantee the personal security of Akayev and his top officials if they step down, "as it was in Georgia and Ukraine," she said.
A rally that drew about 15,000 people Monday to the southern city of Jalal-Abad was relatively peaceful, a local government spokesman said. There were no reports of violence a day after demonstrators burned down much of the police headquarters and freed 70 detained protesters. In Osh, Kyrgyzstan's second-largest city, about 1,000 protesters took control of the governor's building.
Kyrgyzstan, a mainly Muslim nation of 5 million, is deeply divided between its more developed, Kyrgyz-populated north and the impoverished and ethnically diverse south. While the opposition has had little success in staging protests in the capital, Bishkek, it has virtually taken over at least four southern districts.
The Fergana Valley, the epicenter of the unrest, is a volatile and impoverished mixture of Kyrgyz, Tajiks, and Uzbeks who clashed in communal riots in 1990. Elsewhere in the south, the Uighurs, a Turkic minority who also live across the border in China, have sometimes given support to Islamic militants, trained in Taliban-run Afghanistan, who call for a separate Uighur state.
"The Fergana Valley is one of the most ethnically explosive, poverty-stricken places on earth," says Ms. Zvigelskaya. "Any instability can play into the hands of Islamic fundamentalists, or could lead to interethnic war. It's already far from peaceful - there's a lot of violence going on - and that could escalate in the coming period."
Both Russia and the US maintain large military bases in Kyrgyzstan, a symbol of their post-9/11 cooperation in the global war on terror. Experts say neither could view instability in the region with much relish. "Unlike the recent events in Ukraine, there is no pro-Western or pro-Moscow side to this unrest in Kyrgyzstan," says Vladimir Zharikhin, deputy director of the official Institute of Commonwealth of Independent States Studies in Moscow. He says neither Moscow nor Washington has meddled in Kyrgyzstan, and both worry about the consequences of escalating political conflict.
The mood in Moscow is wary and nervous. Russia's Foreign Ministry issued a statement Monday warning that there should be no compromise with the "extremist forces" who are threatening to undermine Kyrgyzstan's delicate political balance.
Experts say the Kremlin is likely to view Kyrgyzstan's crisis as another blow to Russia's hegemony in the post-Soviet space and, without a purposeful dialogue between Moscow and Washington, the east-west chill could deepen.
• Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.