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Editorial

Counterrevolution

Friday, February 4, 2005; Page A16

PRESIDENT BUSH and other Western leaders are still celebrating the democratic revolution in Ukraine, but in other former republics of the Soviet Union an entirely different response is underway. Post-Soviet leaders who, like Ukraine's former regime, have lived by corruption, rigged elections and thuggish repression are frantically seeking to head off a repeat of the popular "orange revolution," or the earlier "rose revolution" in Georgia. In recent weeks they have banned opposition parties, thrown their most plausible democratic challengers in jail and cracked down on Western pro-democracy organizations. They have also sought help from a familiar address: the Kremlin of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

One visitor to Moscow last month was Nursultan Nazarbayev, the president of Kazakhstan. The Central Asian nation's long-suffering opposition was inspired by the events in Ukraine; representatives of three opposition parties even traveled to Kiev. Mr. Nazarbayev, who had staged his own rigged parliamentary elections just a month before Ukraine's, responded quickly. He dissolved the leading opposition party; brought tax charges against the local branch of the Soros Foundation, which promotes democratic reform; and filed a defamation lawsuit against a leading opponent, Zamanbek Nurkadilov. He was then warmly received by Mr. Putin, who granted him a border treaty that will allow the two governments to jointly exploit a gas field. "God has given us each other," the grateful Kazakh tyrant said to the Russian leader.

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Next to turn up in Mr. Putin's antechamber was Askar Akayev, president of Kyrgyzstan. Ruler of his small, mountainous nation for 15 years -- one year longer than its existence as a sovereign state -- Mr. Akayev has real reason to sweat. He has parliamentary elections scheduled on Feb. 27, and his opposition is openly modeling itself after Ukraine's freedom movement, adopting the color yellow and the tulip as its emblems. Mr. Akayev tried banning his principal opponent, former foreign minister Roza Otunbayeva, from the ballot, but that only made things worse: The opposition began organizing protests in the streets of Bishkek, the capital, and a defiant parliament passed a law repealing the regulation used to block Ms. Otunbayeva's candidacy. So Mr. Akayev, who in the past has sought alliance with the United States, turned to Mr. Putin. In Moscow last week, he promised to make a recently established Russian military base in his country "a key element of security in Central Asia"; unspoken, but implied, was a corresponding downgrade of a U.S. airbase that has been used since 2001 for operations in Afghanistan.

Some Western commentators have speculated that Mr. Putin might have been chastened by his failed attempt to install a like-minded thug as Ukrainian president. On the contrary: Mr. Putin's circle appears to have concluded that its only error was not insisting on the preemption of Ukraine's democratic opposition. As would-be freedom fighters are repressed or jailed around the region (the pro-Moscow dictator in Belarus also has dispatched his most plausible challenger to prison), Mr. Putin soothes nervous autocrats with Kremlin hospitality and economic favors. President Bush, who has sworn to stand by democratic reformers facing repression, has some work to do in Eurasia -- unless, that is, he fears offending Mr. Putin.


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