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Revolts in former Soviet republics being felt in Russia

MOSCOW—With far-off Kyrgyzstan in revolt Friday, senior Russian politicians and pro-government analysts voiced concerns for the first time that populist revolutions in the former Soviet Union hold ominous portents for Russia's prestige, stability and security.

"The impact will be bad," said Sergei Markov, one of the architects of President Vladimir Putin's quasi-authoritarian policy of "managed democracy."

"The Central Asian region now faces a risk of Islamization," Markov said. "In addition, drug trafficking from Central Asia to Europe via Russia will certainly grow."

Whether democratic fever will spread to Russia eventually is the larger question.

A liberal opposition leader, Boris Nemtsov, suggested Friday that "if President Putin at least draws some lessons from these revolutions, Russia can avoid such a scenario.

"And if he doesn't, then anything is possible."

The Kyrgyz uprising is the third pro-democracy revolt in the former Soviet Union in the past 18 months, following Georgia's Rose Revolution and Ukraine's Orange Revolution.

Although Kyrgyzstan is a former Soviet republic that inherited a Soviet-style strongman as its leader, the country is markedly different from Georgia and Ukraine: It's landlocked, Asian, predominantly (and moderately) Muslim, with an almost feudal economy and no history of pluralism or liberal democracy.

Its revolution has been different, too: bloody, spontaneous, disorganized, marred by looting. The sobriquet "Velvet Revolution" (Czechoslovakia, 1989) doesn't quite fit.

Still, many Russian analysts were seeing Kyrgyzstan as the latest post-Soviet domino to fall, tipped over precisely by the earlier uprisings in Eastern Europe.

Vyacheslav Nikonov, the director of the Politika Foundation, a well-regarded Moscow research center, called the Kyrgyz revolt "undoubtedly the same sort of event as in Georgia and Ukraine."

There was some evidence Friday that organizers from Georgia had been working with the Kyrgyz opposition before the uprising, just as they had in Ukraine, but other pro-democracy activists who work in the region were worried by the violence they saw.

Rather than a well-orchestrated, almost festive political event with continuous back-channel negotiations with the regime, the Kyrgyz protest quickly and unexpectedly boiled over, fueled by public anger over poverty, corruption and a lack of jobs.

The violence could well embolden protesters elsewhere in Central Asia, and activists feared that such protests would be met by harsh crackdowns by the regimes there, possibly including the expulsion of Western pro-democracy groups.

Nikonov said gas-rich Kazakhstan, another Central Asian nation with an authoritarian regime, probably would be "the next link in the chain," partly because of the active presence there of international groups and Western nongovernmental organizations.

Regional analysts said Uzbekistan, ruled by the dictator Islam Karimov, was another possible candidate for revolution.

Despite its brutal, totalitarian government, Uzbekistan remains a close ally of the United States because of a large and strategic American air base in the southern part of the country. Karimov allowed U.S. forces to take over the base before the war in Afghanistan.

His security forces quickly crush any sort of opposition to his regime, particularly if it has an Islamic tinge.

A Knight Ridder investigation in Uzbekistan last year found numerous cases of police torture and abuse. One detainee died in police custody when he was allegedly dipped in a vat of boiling water. Another man said he was questioned by a syringe-wielding police investigator who threatened to inject him with the HIV virus, which causes AIDS.

Closer to Moscow, a crowd of about 1,000 demonstrators gathered Friday in downtown Minsk, the capital of Belarus, the former Soviet republic ruled by Alexander Lukashenko. He's often derided as "the last dictator in Europe."

Police quickly broke up the rally and arrested about a dozen people.

Russian nationalists called Friday for harsh measures against Kyrgyzstan, even as Kyrgyz opposition leaders scheduled new elections in June to replace the tainted March 13 vote that sparked the uprising.

The flamboyant leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, called the Kyrgyz revolutionaries "scum" and said Russia should "suppress the mutiny of the vulgar mob" that ousted Moscow's friend, President Askar Akayev.

"If we don't do this now," he said in an interview on Ekho Moskvy radio, "the infection will spread throughout Central Asia."


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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