Democracy rising in ex-Soviet states

Christian Science Monitor (Boston, MA)
February 10, 2005, Thursday

Democracy rising in ex-Soviet states

By Fred Weir Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Aftershocks of Ukraine and Georgia are stirring up rallies in Central

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

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

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

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.”