IT'S NOT YET CLEAR how the latest revolution in the former Soviet Union will end. As in Georgia and Ukraine, a rebellion was touched off in the Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan last week by popular outrage over an unfair election. But the revolt succeeded so quickly -- after almost 15 years in power, President Askar Akayev was toppled in five days -- that it left even opposition leaders breathless and confused. For a time over the weekend two rival parliaments were meeting in the Kyrgyz capital and newly installed ministers, including one recently freed from prison, were issuing contradictory directives. Mr. Akayev, meanwhile, apparently had taken refuge in Russia and refused to resign. It won't be easy to sort out this political mess: Kyrgyzstan's leaders will need lots of help to do it democratically.
The country's designated prime minister, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, says he is looking for a constitutional way forward. Encouragingly, he also announced a presidential election for June. In an apparent attempt to compromise with Mr. Akayev's past supporters, the former opposition leader agreed to recognize the newly elected parliament -- even though irregularities in the balloting that chose it prompted the popular uprising. Some accommodation with the previous establishment, which controls a significant part of the Kyrgyz economy, may be necessary, as well an understanding with Mr. Akayev's prior backers in the Russian government. Fortunately, Mr. Bakiyev reportedly enjoyed good relations with Moscow during a previous tour in government, and President Vladimir Putin's administration has indicated an initial willingness to work with him.
But the new administration must also turn decisively toward democracy if it is to keep faith with the citizens who propelled it to power. Replacing one unaccountable regime with another would merely isolate Kyrgyzstan from the West and possibly invite another revolution. A fresh start means, at the least, restaging parliamentary elections in those parts of the country where abuses were observed by international monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
The Bush administration has rightly urged Mr. Bakiyev to work closely with the OSCE, which is dispatching a team to Kyrgyzstan. The European election monitors can help to ensure that new legislative and presidential elections are fair to all sides and produce a government with a genuine popular mandate. It's far from clear, however, whether other governments will cooperate. Russia, which has been waging a campaign against the OSCE's pro-democracy activities -- and which supported Mr. Akayev's fraud -- may seek to steer Mr. Bakiyev in a different direction; neighbors such as China, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan aren't likely to welcome the creation of a genuine democracy in Central Asia.
Yet if its revolution ends in pluralism, tiny Kyrgyzstan could have a crucial influence on the half-dozen other former Soviet republics where autocrats still rule. At a minimum, surviving dictators may conclude that the old trick of staging a rigged election is no longer safe.