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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Next Colored Revolution?

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Central Asia is confronting the first succession crisis of the post-communist era. By promising to leave office this October, at the end of his third term, Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev unleashed a scramble for power that has divided the political establishment and raised the specter of a new colored revolution, a yellow one.

Like Boris Yeltsin at the end of the 1990s, Akayev is surrounded by a Family that is desperate to retain its power and perquisites. In the Kyrgyz case, the Family is even larger and more visible than that of the former Russian president. It has not yet, however, found its Putin. The energies of Akayev and his entourage are currently focused on nominating the president's relatives and close associates to stand for seats in the parliamentary elections, which will take place Feb. 27. A strong showing for Akayev-backed forces in parliamentary balloting will boost their visibility for the Oct. 30 presidential election and allow them to control legislation affecting the presidential campaign.

It is tempting to conclude that the outcome of the parliamentary elections is predetermined. The Akayev bloc enjoys numerous advantages over the opposition: It dominates the media and has at its disposal administrative resources, the euphemism for state agencies that serve as campaign offices for the president. As if this were not enough, the leadership pushed through a reduction in the size of the parliament to only 75 members to make it easier for Akayev loyalists to form a majority. Moreover, members of the Family, most notably the President's daughter, Bermet, recently helped to organize a new party of power, Alga, Kyrgyzstan!, or Forward Kyrgyzstan!, which was created to do in the forthcoming Kyrgyz parliamentary elections what United Russia did in the December 2003 parliamentary contest in Russia. The performance of Alga, Kyrgyzstan! in last October's local elections revealed it to be a formidable force, outspending and outpolling the competition.

Yet the advantages of proximity to the ruler in a semiauthoritarian state such as Kyrgyzstan do not assure electoral victory. One reason for this is the growing unpopularity of Akayev, especially in the south, which has been denied its fair share of the political and economic pie in the post-communist era. Another reason is Akayev's status as a lame duck. After Akayev announced his intention last year not to seek another term, several of his staunchest political allies, including former Prime Minister Kurmanbek Bakiyev, former head of the Security Council Misir Ashirkulov and former Foreign Minister Muratbek Imanliyev, joined the opposition, apparently hoping to position themselves for the presidential election this fall. Several returning ambassadors have further swelled the ranks of this establishment opposition, such as Rosa Otunbayeva, Medetkan Sherimkulov, Mambetjunus Abylov and Usen Sydykov. Akayev's Family faces, therefore, a counterelite that has broad experience, strong political bases in parts of the bureaucracy and in the regions and is, for the moment at least, united against the ruling clique.

Fearful of confronting such accomplished politicians in free and fair elections, the Akayev Family in recent weeks has practiced the black arts of authoritarian politics, which include disqualifying opposition candidates on technical grounds. In Bishkek's First Electoral District, which includes the country's flagship university, election officials in early January refused to register Otunbayeva as a candidate, claiming that she failed to satisfy in-country residency requirements. The other prominent candidate who has her eyes on this seat is none other than Bermet Akayeva.

Popular demonstrations against the rigging of the parliamentary elections have thus far been measured, in part because most opposition candidates have not encouraged mass protests by their supporters. Having wielded power themselves, the leaders of the establishment opposition are no doubt reluctant to unleash society against the state. They also understand that Akayev, whose fear of a colored revolution in Kyrgyzstan has become palpable in recent weeks, could use widespread protests as a pretext to suspend elections, introduce a state of emergency and renege on his promise not to seek another term or to extend his current one. Akayev has already presented legislation to parliament that would ban all nonsanctioned public meetings and keep protesters off the streets after 11 p.m.

But if lawsuits in the courts and negotiations with the government fail to restore the opposition leaders' rights to run for office, they will have little choice but to mobilize the population against the regime. At that point, a yellow revolution will become a possibility in Kyrgyzstan. Although Kyrgyzstan may lack some of the features present in the Georgian and Ukrainian revolutions, such as a dominant opposition leader with ties to the West with a well-organized following, it does have an important regional divide and a politically active population, at least by Central Asian standards.

What makes the 2005 elections different from earlier flawed elections in Kyrgyzstan is not only the backdrop of the Georgian and Ukrainian revolutions but the presence of so many former Akayev loyalists in the leadership of the opposition. It is as if the political establishment is now seeking to regain power rather than retain it. Assuming that this mass betrayal of Akayev is genuine, and not, as some insist, part of an elaborate presidential plot to plant allies in the opposition, pro-presidential forces must face the election without many of the country's most popular and experienced politicians on their side. In such a contest, the Akayev Family has no choice but to blatantly manipulate the election to assure victory. These tactics may guarantee victory, but they would also guarantee the illegitimacy of the election and risk launching a colored revolution in a deeply divided society with a vigorous and visible opposition.

Russia has every interest in forestalling this looming political crisis in Kyrgyzstan. Russians remain the third-largest ethnic group in the country and a growing presence in the Kyrgyz economy. Russian troops are now stationed in Kant, on the opposite side of Bishkek from the Western base at Manas. Russia is also a signatory to the Shanghai Six organization, which has its anti-terrorist headquarters in Bishkek.

Because Akayev has been such a close ally of Russia, such a passionate advocate for Russian language and culture in Central Asia and such a moderate force in ethnic politics in Kyrgyzstan, the Russian government has backed the Kyrgyz president uncritically for more than a decade. But it is now time to open negotiations with the establishment opposition and to signal to Akayev and his Family that the Russian government is unwilling to support a leadership transition in Kyrgyzstan that is based on electoral fraud.

To do otherwise will set the Russian Federation against the will of the people of Kyrgyzstan and risk alienating opposition leaders that have long had close ties with Moscow. If a yellow revolution occurs in Kyrgyzstan, it will not be the United States or Europe but Russia that bears responsibility.

Eugene Huskey is William R. Kenan, Jr. professor of political science and Russian studies at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.