ALMATY, Kazakhstan – Ukraine's (search) leap toward democracy has inspired opposition leaders in formerly Soviet Central Asia and alarmed its long-ruling autocrats, but analysts say the region isn't ready for a democratic revolution.
Still, they're ready for surprises, noting that few would have predicted the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic (search) by Serbian street protesters.
Since then a revolution has toppled a Soviet-era leader in Georgia, and opposition-led mass protests — with advice and inspiration from veterans of the Milosevic ouster — augur big change in Ukraine. Now eyes are now turning toward Central Asia — a region seen as the largest and possibly strongest bastion of post-Soviet dictators.
The energy-rich region of five nations and 60 million people is still led by former Communist bosses — all allegedly experienced in election fraud.
Across the region there is public frustration, fueled by grinding poverty, blatant human rights abuses, political repression, corruption and lack of civil rights.
In oil-rich Kazakhstan (search), which has made some economic progress, there is infighting among the political elite and a maturing opposition is biding its time. Its leaders addressed protesters in the main square of Kiev wearing orange, the Ukrainian opposition's color.
"Yesterday it was Georgia, today it's Ukraine and tomorrow it'll be Kazakhstan!" Asylbek Kozhakhmetov of Kazakhstan's opposition Democratic Choice party told the crowd.
The protesters responded by chanting: "Nazarbayev go! Kuchma go!" referring to Presidents Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan and Leonid Kuchma of Ukraine.
In Kazakhstan's neighbor, Uzbekistan, the leader of the opposition Erk party believes the Ukrainian spirit will reach his country too, despite its notoriously repressive government.
"There is huge frustration and there is fear, and maybe fear prevails for now. But more and more people have been overcoming it," Atonazar Arifov said, noting recent unprecedented mass Uzbek protests against new trade restrictions.
But those in power are also alert.
"In most cases, the reaction to the Georgian events was an increase in control against international organizations in Uzbekistan, and similar rhetoric in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. I expect a similar reaction to events in Ukraine," said David Lewis, project director in Central Asia for the International Crisis Group think tank.
"It is also an easy way for existing leaderships to attack opposition groups, by saying that they are somehow puppets of the West, and that demands for democracy and somehow part of a geopolitical battle," said Lewis.
It's widely speculated in Kazakhstan that Nazarbayev plans to abolish presidential elections and give the parliament, which is dominated by his loyalists, the power to elect the president. In Turkmenistan, autocratic leader Saparmurat Niyazov has been declared president for life.
The region lacks charismatic leaders, politically conscious publics and basic democratic building blocks such as a modicum of independent media and semi-free elections, Lewis said. Its opposition groups tend to be divided and driven by their leaders' personal ambitions, and unable to unite behind an agreed candidate.
Another problem is neighbors: The region is surrounded by Russia, China, Afghanistan and Iran — countries not known as exporters of democracy.
While Ukraine has some democratic European neighbors, "we are far from centers of democracy, and we are in a difficult geopolitical surrounding," said Kazakh analyst Eduard Poletayev.
Still, some say Kyrgyzstan, which will have presidential elections next year, could become the birthplace of the first formerly Soviet Central Asian democracy.
The small country of 5 million people has a vibrant civil society that has earned it the nickname of "a country of NGOs," nongovernmental organizations.