Writing on the wall for Soviet-era leaders
By Stefan Wagstyl
Published: March 25 2005

The overthrow of Kyrgyzstan's authoritarian president Askar Akayev raises serious questions about the stability of central Asia and the role of the three big powers in the region Russia, the US and China.

Few observers forecast that after 14 years Mr Akayev would be ousted in less than a week. The upheaval has left diplomats wondering whether other ex-Soviet central Asian republics might face similar challenges. While the region is remote from the world's power centres, it plays a big role as an energy supplier, is a major drug smuggling route, and its Muslim population has, in places, shown sympathy to Islamic fundamentalism.

There is certainly a domino effect at work. Supporters of the US's democracy campaign have been quick to cast Kyrgyzstan as the latest state to join “the global march of freedom led by President Bush”, as the conservative Wall Street Journal said on Friday, praising Washington's policies in Afghanistan and Iraq.

However, of more relevance to Kyrgyzstan have been the peaceful revolts against authoritarian leaders in the former Soviet Union, in Georgia and Ukraine. Television and the internet has spread the message. The common element has been a drive to get rid of self-serving corrupt cliques which have often been in power, as in Kyrgyzstan, since Soviet times. These cliques have generally been supported by Moscow, but the revolts against them have not been principally anti-Russian or pro-western. Domestic issues have mattered most.

On this basis, central Asia's leaders have reason to be afraid. Not for nothing have officials in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan reinforced border controls. Further afield in oil-rich Azerbaijan, Isa Gambar, head of the opposition Musavat party, on Friday praised the Kyrgyz revolt: “This is yet another warning bell for authoritarian regimes.”

The region's leaders have all ruled since before the collapse of the Soviet Union except for Tajikistan's Emomali Rahmonov, who became president in 1992, and Azerbaijan's Ilham Aliyev, who succeeded his late father, Heydar Aliyev, the communist era strongman, in 2003. Presidents Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan and Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan are all former communist party chiefs. All have forced compliant parliaments to amend laws to extend their years in office, in Mr Niyazov's case for life, and most have shown dynastic ambitions by promoting children as potential successors.

Energy-rich Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan have generally enjoyed strong economic growth, compounded in Kazakhstan's case by liberal economic policies. Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have remained poor, with their farmers often lacking even sufficient water.

The Kazakh authorities, like the Kyrgyz, have tolerated a significant opposition and some media and civil society freedoms. So, to a lesser extent, has the Azeri government. But Mr Niyazov of Turkmenistan, who has erected gold statues of himself, brooks no dissent, nor does Mr Karimov, the Uzbek leader.

If Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan are a guide, elections could be the triggers for potential revolts. The next poll will be a parliamentary vote in November in Azerbaijan, followed by presidential contests next year in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan and in Uzbekistan in 2007. Eric Rudenshiold, a regional specialist at Ifes, a US-funded pro-democracy agency, says: “They will all be quaking in their boots after Kyrgyzstan.”

As in Georgia, Ukraine and, now, Kyrgyzstan, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which organises election monitors, could play a key role. Its criticisms of polls have given anti-government forces vital ammunition.

For Russia, which has mostly regarded the post-Soviet leaders as personal allies, these are difficult times. The failure to secure the election of its favoured presidential candidate in Ukraine was a bitter blow to its ex-imperial pride. In Kyrgyzstan it kept a low profile, even though Mr Akayev was seen as a loyal friend. On Friday Russian president Vladimir Putin condemned the uprising as “illegitimate” but said Moscow would co-operate with the new team in Bishkek.

Mr Putin's remarks may indicate a new policy with less emphasis attached to treating ex-Soviet leaders as personal clients. But it is early days. Nationalist politicians in Moscow still tend to see popular revolts against the established order as threats, especially if the opposition can be portrayed as pro-west.

While some US commentators have already welcomed the changes in Kyrgyzstan, the administration has reacted cautiously. Like Russia, the US is interested above all in maintaining regional stability to hinder the spread of drugs and Islamic fundamentalism. The dangers of violent Islamic groups are particularly evident in Takjikistan, southern Uzbekistan and southern Kyrgyzstan, notably in the Fergana Valley, which is shared by the three countries, populated by a volatile mix of ethnic Uzbeks, Tajiks and Kyrgyz, and has suffered political violence including terrorism. If the US and Russia are worried about aspects of the Kyrgyz popular revolt, so is China, which shares a border with Kyrgyzstan and has a large Muslim Uighur population that shares a common culture with the Kyrgyz. Beijing would hate to see the Uighurs, who have demanded greater autonomy, regard the Kyrgyz uprising as any kind of precedent.

Much depends on how events in Kyrgyzstan develop. If the revolt ends with the peaceful establishment of democracy, it will inspire local opposition movements and give comfort to those in Washington and elsewhere campaigning for political freedom. But if Kyrgyzstan sinks into violence, it will be cited by those who would block democratic change, including many in Beijing and more than a few in Moscow.