Trying Times For Central Asia's Autocrats

Is another autocratic ex-Soviet leader about to fall? That's what some analysts are predicting after protesters occupied an airport and stormed government buildings in two major cities in the Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan on Mar. 20 and 21. The unrest was a reaction to disputed parliamentary elections held in February and March, in which the opposition won just six seats in the 75-member Parliament. International observers, including the Organization for Security & Cooperation in Europe, complained of voting irregularities. Now the opposition is demanding that President Askar Akayev, who has ruled the nation of 5 million since independence in 1991, step down.

Democracy or Chaos?

The Kyrgyz protests are the first sign that the democratic revolutions that swept Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine late last year may be spreading to the strategically important region of Central Asia. That's a worry for Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, who is closely allied to Akayev as well as to the Soviet-era leaders of resource-rich Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Putin doesn't like international observers criticizing elections in his neighborhood. And Russia clearly fears a further erosion in its sphere of influence in Central Asia, where the U.S. established military bases for fighting the war on terror after September 11, 2001.

The stakes are also high because of the risk of ethnic conflict and Islamic militancy. The Kyrgyz protests have centered on the towns of Osh and Jalalabad in the south, where ethnic Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, and Tajiks have clashed in the past. Militant groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan have used the region as a base, and the area is a transit point for opium trade. Moscow worries that unrest risks long-term instability. "In place of a moderate authoritarian, Akayev, there won't be democracy but chaos, which will lead sooner or later to a radical Islamic dictator," says Sergei Markov, director of the Institute of Political Studies in Moscow.

How the current confrontation will play out is far from clear. Unlike the movements that led Georgia's "Rose Revolution" and Ukraine's "Orange Revolution," the Kyrgyz opposition is fragmented. As BusinessWeek went to press on Mar. 23, only small protests had broken out in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek. But the government warned that it would use force to prevent seizures of public buildings and other illegal actions. If violence escalates, civil war is possible. "There's a risk that this will be a very ugly situation," says Martha Brill Olcott, a Central Asia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

With an eye on Georgia, Ukraine, and now Kyrgyz-stan, the region's autocratic leaders are tightening their grip. In Kazakhstan, where President Nursultan A. Nazarbayev plans to run for another seven-year term in 2006, a key opposition party has been banned. In Uzbekistan, President Islam A. Karimov has waged a crackdown after attacks blamed on Islamic militants last year.

In the short term, more repression may be an effective way for these leaders to quell opposition. But over time it could make matters worse. The deeper cause of discontent is political fossilization: Soviet-era leaders from Kyrgyzstan to Belarus are rarely willing to give up power. That may keep emboldening opposition figures to launch Rose, Orange, or Yellow Revolutions -- as the Kyrgyz are calling theirs -- whether intransigent elites or their Moscow allies like it or not.

By Jason Bush in Moscow

Edited by Rose Brady

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