Out of Kyrgyzstan's chaos, another chance for democracy

Protesters rally in the central square of Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, Thursday.
Protesters rally in the central square of Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, Thursday. (Sergei Grits Associated Press)
By Alexey Semyonov and Baktybek Abdrisaev
Friday, April 9, 2010

Events in Kyrgyzstan have once again seized headlines. Five years ago, in March 2005, the Tulip Revolution blossomed: Crowds upset by a falsified election stormed the main government building in Bishkek, the capital, and chased out then-President Askar Akayev. This week, after widespread riots in which security forces opened fire on opposition protesters, President Kurmanbek Bakiyev escaped the capital in a plane. A temporary people's government announced that it has taken power, with former foreign minister Roza Otunbayeva in charge.

For Kyrgyzstan, a mountainous nation that prided itself on being an "island of democracy" in Central Asia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, events represent a second chance to get back on track. This opportunity comes at a heavy cost -- hundreds have been injured and at least 75 people killed -- and these sacrifices will be in vain if another revolt is provoked in a few years by the same plagues of corruption and despotism. But it is significant that of the former Soviet republics, Kyrgyzstan is the only nation that has forced regime change. The people are clearly willing to fight for their rights. The test now is whether the country can also provide for peaceful transitions.

Otunbayeva is an erudite and experienced diplomat and parliamentarian who has the credibility and track record to lead the country. Her first task is to prove that she and her emergency cabinet can get the violence under control. Looters have run rampant through Bishkek's grocery stores and malls. Armed mobs have stolen guns from police. Rumors are circulating that Bakiyev flew to the city of Osh, his regional stronghold, and is gathering supporters for a standoff.

Otunbayeva must show that her government will not pursue personal vendettas at the expense of forging national unity, nor stoke regional rivalries within the country by making irresponsible appointments. It is key that the government refrain from redistributing among officials the same property and assets that the Bakiyev regime took from Akayev.

Policy statements in these early days should focus on the people's grievances: worsening living conditions and rampant corruption. Part of Otunbayeva's message should be the need to pursue constitutional changes that Bakiyev rejected in his bids to centralize power in the presidency and put the country under the control of his family and close associates.

Otunbayeva would do well to tap into the seeds of democracy and pluralism that were planted after Kyrgyzstan became independent in 1991: She could start by improving oversight of the government by Kyrgyzstan's beleaguered but experienced nongovernmental organizations, fostering a robust media environment that publicizes competing views, and holding democratic elections that convey legitimacy on a new government.

For the Obama administration, there's a powerful lesson in this week's events: The U.S. government's policy of supporting security at the expense of democracy has come back to bite the United States. For the past several years, the United States has been noticeably quiet while the Bakiyev regime has held rigged elections, trampled on human rights and resorted to violence to silence the opposition and independent media; U.S. behavior has most likely been out of deference to the Bakiyev regime for allowing the U.S. military to operate Manas Air Base, which supports operations in Afghanistan. In fact, on the day his father was forced to flee the capital, the president's son Maxim Bakiyev was scheduled to be in Washington for bilateral consultations and to drum up investment in the impoverished country.

The United States could play a role in helping the opposition deal with the considerable economic and political challenges facing Kyrgyzstan. Washington should encourage the citizen government to work with the people in an honest and open way. It could also seek to maintain its security relationship while encouraging Kyrgyzstan to find common ground with the country's long-standing partner, Russia. Following the acting government's decision to dismiss parliament and hold elections, the United States and other nations should offer technical assistance to ensure free and fair elections.

Rarely do countries get the chance to remake themselves so quickly. Governments change, but problems often remain. The new Kyrgyz leadership has a chance to address the country's pressing problems, and the United States could improve its Kyrgyz policy in the process.

Alexey Semyonov is vice president of the Andrei Sakharov Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes civil society and democratic development in the former Soviet Union. Baktybek Abdrisaev, a visiting professor of history and political science at Utah Valley University, was Kyrgyzstan's ambassador to the United States and Canada from 1997 to 2005.

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