As Ukraine prepares for repeat presidential elections on December 26, Kyrgyzstan's government is keeping close watch. With two national elections scheduled in the Central Asian state next year, the outcome of the so-called Orange Revolution could prove critical to the administration of President Askar Akayev.
Already, the 60-year-old leader is making his analysis of the implications for Kyrgyzstan known. Speaking at a December 10 Bishkek conference on democracy, Akayev stressed that a situation similar to events in Kiev or during Georgia's 2003 Rose Revolution would not "answer to the core interests of Kyrgyzstan." To stave off any possibility of unrest, the president and his cabinet have charged that the opposition is working to sideline the democratic process and seize power, while parliament, controlled by pro-government parties, has introduced a draft law that would severely limit protestors' rights.
A double dose of national elections in 2005 drives the government's campaign. Presidential elections, slotted for October 30, will mark the first democratic transfer of power in former Soviet Central Asia. Although Akayev has stated that he will not run for reelection, many local observers believe that the president will eventually designate a candidate as his political heir, and continue to exercise influence over policy from behind the scenes. Parliamentary elections, scheduled for February 27, are expected to set the stage for the later poll.
In preparation, authorities are taking no chances. A draft law before parliament proposes banning all public demonstrations that are not registered with authorities nine days in advance, and designating the presidential residence, parliament, certain government buildings and transportation routes as off-limits. Demonstrations would not be allowed to last past 11pm and could be halted for a variety of reasons. The measure juxtaposes with the president's recent descriptions of the opposition as making use of "dirty political techniques" designed to instigate scenarios similar to the revolutions in Kiev or Tbilisi.
A great deal of controversy has also surrounded the Central Election's Committee's decision to refuse to register Kyrgyzstani ambassadors as candidates for the parliamentary elections on the basis of their prolonged residence outside of the country. It is widely believed that the ruling is meant to sideline influential political players ÔÇô such as former ambassadors Medetkan Sherimkulov, Usen Sydykov and Mambetjunus Abylov ÔÇô who might sympathize with the opposition if elected. The People's Movement of Kyrgyzstan (PMK) ÔÇô a coalition of opposition parties and groups ÔÇô has issued a statement stating that Sherimkulov, Sydykov and Abylov are being subjected to "political persecution" for having endorsed its policy proposals. The three have since petitioned Kyrgyzstan's Constitutional Court to overturn the ban.
Aim has also been taken at the media, which, in Georgia and Ukraine, played central roles in shaping the course of events. Although the government retains control over television, Kyrgyzstanis' most common source of information, the president has labeled opposition newspapers as "instruments for destabilization." In a recent speech to the Kyrgyzstani Security Council, Akayev asserted that the mass media and various groups "aggressively" participating in the country's political struggle are engaging not in "harmless propaganda," but rather in a "purposeful preparation for the takeover of power."
Akayev has stated that he will insist on "the strictest, most exacting control" over the conduct of both elections to ensure a democratic vote, but many opposition members doubt those promises. On December 20, leaders from the People's Movement of Kyrgyzstan and the New Direction opposition group threatened to stage massive demonstrations if attempts were made to rig the February parliamentary vote. International observers widely condemned the 2000 presidential and parliamentary vote as falsified.
The Kyrgyzstani uprising may already have a name ÔÇô called the Tulip Revolution in tribute to the country's wide variety of tulip species ÔÇô but other opposition members are opting to keep their heads low. In remarks to journalists in Bishkek on December 13, several opposition members of parliament fell largely in line with Akayev on the undesirability of a Rose or Orange Revolution in Kyrgyzstan. "We do not welcome the current events in Ukraine. We are against conducting a Tulip Revolution here in Kyrgyzstan since it will lead to instability in the country's government structures," the news agency AKI Press quoted the eight opposition members as saying.
With 44 political parties, Kyrgyzstan's opposition is widely seen as weak and fragmented. A report released this August by the Brussels-based think tank International Crisis Group, in fact, termed the opposition as "dependent on the regime." Opposition members, the report went on to state, frequently agree on "implicit deals" with the authorities about seats in parliament or other power issues. Some local observers, for example, have charged that the Union for Fair Elections, a pro-opposition election watchdog formed in May 2004, doubles as a front organization for Akayev confidantes intent on retaining power. The three remaining watchdog groups ÔÇô People's Movement of Kyrgyzstan, Jany Bagyt (New Course) and Atajurt (Fatherland) ÔÇô were all formed only within the past three months.
Meanwhile, the government is working hard to create the impression that it is vigorously pursuing vital reforms. As in Georgia and Ukraine, where the promise to fight corruption became an important element of the opposition's success, the issue of corruption in Kyrgyzstan is expected to play a role in swaying votes. At one recent government meeting, Akayev demanded that Interior Minister Bakhyrdin Suvanbekov "undertake cardinal measures for bringing order to his own ÔÇÝhouse'" as part of a "matrix of anti-corruption activities." A 2003 index assembled by the anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International ranked Kyrgyzstan as second only to Tajikistan and Azerbaijan in terms of public perceptions of official corruption.
At the same time, Akayev's cabinet has begun to emphasize his own role in preserving Kyrgyzstan's stability. Speaking at a December 17 Council of Defense meeting, Akayev reinforced that image by depicting the country as under potential siege from Islamic radical groups such as Hizb-ut-Tahir who might seize on the election campaign to propagate their own views.
Playing to the desire for stability, senior ministers such as Temirbek Akmataliev, the Minister for Ecology and Emergency Situations, have recently started to suggest that Akayev is the best leader available and, therefore, should remain in power. One political analyst, who asked not to be named, stated that the show of support from the cabinet is only meant "to detract the public's attention and conceal moves for preparing a successor."
At a September 29 seminar at Harvard University's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, however, the president downplayed those allegations, presenting the average voter as the final arbiter of Kyrgyzstan's 2005 ballots. "Our people are educated and wise," said Akayev, " and I am convinced that [they] will choose a worthy next president."
Editor's Note: Erdin Beshimov is a graduate student at Harvard University's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies.