Revolution echoes around Russia

Kyrgyzstan's people-power revolt spurs others protests against corruption throughout the region.

The shock waves from Kyrgyzstan's lightning revolution are spreading around the former Soviet Union - and into the heart of Russia - leading analysts to wonder which regimes might be next to face the peoples' wrath.

Recent days have seen a spate of copycat protests launched by opposition groups that were perhaps hoping their own local authorities might fold and flee under pressure, as did Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev when demonstrators stormed his Bishkek complex last week.

About 1,000 people rallied last Friday in the capital of Belarus, where President Alexander Lukashenko runs the last Soviet-style dictatorship in Europe, to demand his resignation. Police quickly dispersed the crowd and dispatched the ringleaders to prison.

Two Russian ethnic republics, Ingushetia and Bashkortostan, have seen mass street demonstrations this week directed against Kremlin-installed leaders. Even in remote Mongolia, the former USSR's Asian satellite, hundreds of protesters gathered last week to "congratulate our Kyrgyz brothers" and demand a rerun of last June's disputed parliamentary polls.

Some experts see a common thread among these upheavals that began 17 months ago when Georgians overthrew Eduard Shevardnadze in a peaceful revolt and continued with Ukraine's "Orange Revolution" late last year.

"Every situation is different, but a single process is unfolding," says Valentin Bogatyrov, a former Akayev adviser and director of the International Institute of Strategic Studies in Bishkek. "Kyrgyzstan is a kind of trigger that will spread this unrest to our neighbors, and beyond. We are witnessing the second breakup of the Soviet Union."

Allegedly fraudulent elections sparked the uprisings in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. Among the post-Soviet states that face elections in the next two years are Azerbaijan later this year, plus Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan in 2006. Common features of the regimes potentially under siege include systemic corruption, nepotism, and political appointments based on personal fealty rather than professionalism.

Kyrgyz experts say the Akayev family ran the country like a private estate, extorting bribes and selling government jobs to the highest bidder. "We estimate Akayev amassed a personal fortune of around $800 million," a staggering amount in a country with an annual budget is half that, says Edil Baisalov, president of the Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, a Kyrgyz nongovernmental organization (NGO) partly funded by the US. "Everyone was being corrupted, the police, judiciary, civil service. And the appetites were growing.... Everyone had to share with the Akayev family."

In an interview Tuesday, Akayev refused to resign, saying he was "the only elected and legitimate president," but admitted to making mistakes. "There were many mistakes. But we remain on the right path," he told the independent radio station Ekho Moskvyi.

As he alienated supporters, Akayev's base narrowed, which may explain why his regime evaporated when demonstrators barged into the presidential office last week. "One family basically privatized the state," says Irusbek Omurzakov, editor of the opposition weekly Tribuna. "In the end, no one felt like defending it."

Similar tales of corruption have emerged from several post-Soviet countries. "In Georgia, we know that [the new post-revolutionary president Mikhael] Saakashvili managed to triple state revenues by gaining control over money previously lost to graft," says Talant Mamitov, an economic official with the new Kyrgyz government.

Ironically, the post-Soviet countries that have so far been rocked by revolution have been among the most liberal and relatively democratic in an admittedly tough region. "Akayev, to his credit, allowed a fairly permissive environment for NGO's to work," says Stuart Kahn, Kyrgyzstan project director for Freedom House, which is partly financed by the US government. The danger, he says, is that other Central Asian leaders may see Akayev's concessions to democracy as the Achilles' heel of his regime. "The lesson they may draw is that the permissive, or semi-repressive environment Akayev created is antithetical to maintaining the status quo."

Neighboring Kazakhstan could be next in line for upheaval, some experts say. Former Soviet politbureau member Nursultan Nazarbayev has built a similar crony-centered, semi-democratic and, reportedly, deeply corrupt regime similar to Akayev's government. "Kazakh society will start thinking about more rapid changes," says Mr. Baisalov. "At the very least, Nazarbayev will probably forget any plans about his daughter inheriting power."

Uzbekistan, where another old Communist Party chief, Islam Karimov, rules with an iron fist, is a more worrisome case. "In Uzbekistan the frustration level is growing," says Mr. Kahn. "We've seen protests there already. There's a threat of an extreme reaction to that repression."

Some argue that it's only a matter of time before the revolutionary tide sweeps over Russia. Several of the country's 20 ethnic republics have a similar political profile to Kyrgyzstan, with a long-time ruler monopolizing power and often extending corrupt tentacles into business. "Events around the former Soviet Union have raised the possibility that similar things can happen here too," says Andrei Piontkovsky, director of the independent Center for Strategic Studies in Moscow. "The situation in several of our republics, including Tatarstan and Bashkortistan, look very much like Kyrgyzstan."

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