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Democracy rising in ex-Soviet states

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First in line could be Kyrgyzstan, where any official attempt to rig parliamentary elections slated for Feb. 27 could trigger Ukrainian popular action. Strongman Askar Akayev, who's ruled the tiny central Asian state for the past 15 years, has already faced street demonstrations over a failed attempt to ban his chief opponent from the parliamentary race. Mr. Akayev has pledged to step down in October, and appears to be grooming his daughter, Bermet, to succeed him. After a recent Moscow visit with Vladimir Putin, Akayev warned that if the opposition takes to the streets, "it would lead to civil war."

But some Russian experts see a "Tulip Revolution" in the near future for Kyrgyzstan, which hosts both Russian and US military bases. "Akayev is lost," says Alexei Malashenko, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "The opposition is strong, well-organized, and has international as well as domestic backing."

The Kremlin may fear that political ferment in Kyrgyzstan could spread to more important allies in central Asia. The long-time leader of oil-rich Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has fixed elections and changed the Constitution to extend his rule, last month dissolved the leading opposition party after it sent a delegation to Ukraine to study the Orange Revolution. He also moved to close down a local institute funded by global financier George Soros, who has backed pro-democracy movements in Ukraine and elsewhere.

In Uzbekistan, which also hosts a key US military base, President Karimov, a former Soviet politburo member, has ruled with an iron fist since the demise of the USSR. Karimov recently jeered publicly at those "who are dying to see that the way the elites in Georgia and Ukraine changed becomes a model to be emulated in other countries." He warned bluntly: "We have the necessary force for that."

Some experts argue that, while velvet revolution may be possible in semi-authoritarian Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, it is a very distant prospect in Uzbekistan because democracy and civil society are barely developed there. Last week's protests in Tashkent, though based on a narrow economic issue, hint that instability may lie just beneath the regime's tough and orderly surface.

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