Which Country Is Up Next for a Revolution?

APA Belarussian police officer detaining demonstrators at a pro-democracy rally of 1,000 people in Minsk on Friday.
Who's next? That's the question strongmen in former Soviet lands are asking themselves nervously after Kyrgyzstan became the third country in the region to be swept by revolution.

In neighboring countries in Central Asia, opposition politicians sense it's their turn to re-enact the drama of 1989, when democracy swept much of Eastern Europe as the Soviet empire started to crumble.

Kazakhstan, a vast, energy-rich nation where Western oil firms have invested billions of dollars, is seen by many analysts as the next target for a popular uprising. Possible ramifications abound: In addition to oil -- also a factor in Azerbaijan -- the region has Islamic fundamentalist movements suspected of links to terrorism, an active drug trade, U.S. and Russian military bases, strategic positioning on China's doorstep, and no firm guarantees that any new leaders would be more democratic than the current crop.

Russia has looked on with anxiety at the upheaval in its former Soviet backyard, as allies in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan have been toppled in succession and without regard to its wishes. It sees the trend as a deep strategic threat to its role as the dominant regional power.

A momentous process is unfolding in Central Asia and the Caucasus, said Yevgeny Volk, Moscow director of the conservative Washington-based Heritage Foundation think tank.

"These countries are facing a radical change of power, which did not happen in the early 1990s," he said.

"Unlike the Baltic states, which quickly adopted a market economy, democratic society and rule of law, and Russia to a much lesser extent, in Central Asia and the Caucasus, the communist-era leaders stayed in power, which bred corruption and authoritarianism. ... But now the time is ripe for revolutions."

The United States encouraged the Georgian and Ukrainian pro-Western reformers now in charge. In Central Asia, seen as a vital source of energy and a bulwark against Islamic radicalism, it favors stability but is tentatively distancing itself from corrupt regimes that are fanning religious extremism.

In Kazakhstan, President Nursultan Nazarbayev, a former Communist boss who has been in power since 1989, will be seeking another seven-year term next year. He contemptuously blamed Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev on Friday for his "weakness" in allowing "rioters and thugs" to oust him.

But despite a crackdown on independent media and the opposition, the 64-year-old Nazarbayev is in trouble because of alleged nepotism amid widespread poverty and his opponents' growing popularity.

Last week, the long-fractured opposition chose as its single candidate for the 2006 presidential vote Zharmakhan Tuyakbai -- a former top Nazarbayev ally who resigned last year as parliament speaker and head of the presidential party.

"In Kazakhstan, if the government tries to falsify the election results, the same scenario as in Kyrgyzstan cannot be ruled out," said Andrei Piontkovsky, an independent analyst.

In Uzbekistan, where thousands of political prisoners languish in jails, hardline President Islam Karimov's repressive rule with an omnipresent secret police is seen as sufficient -- for now -- to keep the lid on any unrest. But observers worry that after Kyrgyzstan, Islamic radicals could launch an attempt to unseat Karimov.

Outside Central Asia, the likeliest candidate for revolution is seen as Armenia, a key Russian ally on Russia's southern flank in the unstable Caucasus region. President Robert Kocharyan, whose contested re-election to a second term in 2003 sparked opposition protests, faces fresh elections for parliament and the presidency in 2007.

Critics say he has violently cracked down on dissent, allowed corruption to flourish and done little to improve the lot of the people.

In Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev in 2003 succeeded his late father, Heidar Aliyev, the longtime ruler in the Caspian state, marking the first political dynasty in a former Soviet republic. The country will hold parliamentary elections in November this year, which the opposition sees as its best opportunity for change.

In Belarus, opposition activists staged a rally Friday in the capital that was violently broken up by police. The opposition said it was trying to start an uprising similar to Kyrgyzstan's.

"Who's next?" Noviye Izvestia asked on its front page Friday. "The Kyrgyz precedent cannot fail to worry the leaders of other countries, especially those countries where in the near future parliamentary and presidential elections will be held."