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Elections in Central Asia Continue to Pose Challenges

Kyrgyz woman shouts slogans in front of parliament building in Bishkek
Elections in Central Asia continue to pose challenges and foster change, but perhaps nowhere more so than in the neighboring countries of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Analysts say the activity stems from the recent popular unrest in Kyrgyzstan, which led to the ouster of long-time leader Askar Akayev. Fearing the possibility of similar unrest, Kazakhstan last week amended its election code, in a move opposition critics say is designed to head off a peoples' revolution.

Officials in Kazakhstan, which has never held an election judged free or fair by the West, have published a new law banning street rallies during and after elections.

The move comes just eight months before residents of Kazakhstan are scheduled to go to the polls to elect a president. Incumbent President Nursultan Nazarbayev has repeatedly said he will run for a new, seven-year term.

Mr. Nazarbayev boasted recently that there is no social base for the same widespread discontent seen in Kyrgyzstan. He says under his leadership, the resource-rich nation of Kazakhstan has achieved rapid market reforms and relative prosperity in comparison to other post-Soviet nations.

But the new election law is drawing immediate ire from opposition political parties. They say it aims to prevent a repeat scenario of the popular electoral uprisings witnessed over the past two years in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan.

Alexei Malashenko, of the Carnegie Moscow Center, agrees the timing of the move is suspect. Mr. Malashenko says Kazakhstan's economic situation is better than that of Kyrgyzstan, where popular unrest over poverty is believed to have sparked the protests, in part. But he says economic prosperity alone, will not buy peoples' silence.

"In any case, the opposition, the local business needs more and indeed people their dreams [are] about the real democracy and maybe not only about democracy, but about their possibility to be more prosperous in their business and now they think that the regime of [President] Nazarbayev is a kind of obstacle - that [under] Nazarbayev's government let us say that they can not move forward. They can not improve on economic situation and reforms and so on," said Alexei Malashenko.

Mr. Malashenko says it is sentiments such as this that may be fueling official concern about the upcoming elections and leading, in part, to the recent change in the country's election law.

Just back from a visit to Kazakhstan, Mr. Malashenko says he found the opposition emboldened by the rapid change of events in Krgyzstan. He says there is a real sense of optimism and possible choice about the next elections. But he says the opposition will have to maintain its unity, if it is to pose a viable challenge to the current leadership.

The challenge in Kyrgyzstan which is due to hold repeat presidential elections July 10 - is a bit more complex. Mr. Malashenko says it will be a contest the likes of which have never been seen before.

"We have no experience in this post-Soviet space when the competition between two leaders of the opposition takes place," he said. "Of course, there is a difference between [acting President] Bakiyev and [Mr. Felix] Kulov, but at the same time they have no program, they have no plan. I think the next election that will take place on July 10 will be the competition between two personalities."

Last week, acting president Kurmanbek Bakiyev and opposition leader Felix Kulov agreed to run their election campaigns freely and fairly. They also pledged not to bring their supporters out into the streets to protest, in the event of their loss.

Their agreement is seen as likely to ease fears that Krygyzstan could be split in two, between Kulov supporters in the north and Bakiyev backers in the south.

The Director of Moscow's Heritage Foundation, Yevgeni Volk, tells VOA the recent political demonstrations, and questions and fears they raise, highlight a whole new way of thinking in Central Asia.

"This unrest shows that even in the most traditional societies of the Central Asian region, where people obey their superiors and where revolutions were not an ordinary thing, where the potential for subordination is very traditional, I would say even in those countries people understand that something is to be changed that the ruling elite are corrupt, that they lead the countries nowhere, that really some kind of radical shift toward a kind of new system is badly needed," concluded Mr. Volk.

Meanwhile, the United States is warning that it has continued concerns about security in Central Asia.

In a public announcement last Friday, the State Department said it continues to receive information that terrorist groups in Central Asia may be planning attacks in the region. The announcement also urged caution, given that hostage-takings and skirmishes have occurred near the border areas of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan.

The United States and Europe have urged authorities in Central Asia that free and fair elections would go a long way toward establishing peace and stability in the region.