Could Kyrgyzstan be the democracy in Afghanistan's back yard?

By Thomas A. Daschle
Friday, September 17, 2010

Kyrgyzstan rarely makes headlines in the United States. It is a small, landlocked country in Central Asia that is overshadowed by neighbors such as China, Kazakhstan, Pakistan and Afghanistan. When I recently visited Bishkek, the capital, it was clear that Kyrgyzstan's strategic importance and democratic impulses deserve greater attention. At the same time, the people of Kyrgyzstan would rather be recognized for their democratic ambitions than as an asset in the war in Afghanistan.

One narrative among American Kyrgyzstan-watchers goes something like this: Kyrgyzstan is important because it hosts a U.S. airbase, which serves as a key transit point for personnel en route to Afghanistan. Although the rights to this base were reasonably secure under the autocratic administration of Kurmanbek Bakiyev, his ouster in April threw the fate of the base into question. Kyrgyzstan is now ruled by a more democratic but weak interim government that was unable to quell the deadly ethnic violence that erupted in June, has been unable to remove a hostile mayor in the south, has been unreliable about meeting international commitments, and has risked increasing tensions by holding a constitutional referendum in June and scheduling parliamentary elections in October. The narrative's subtext seems to be that this government is less predictable than its authoritarian predecessor. Indeed, a recent headline in The Post described Kyrgyzstan as a "new headache" for U.S. policy.

I see it differently. Kyrgyzstan is important not only because it houses an airbase but also because it has the most democratic potential in the region. Processes and institutions do not yet align with citizens' aspirations, but popular demand and respect for democracy still burn bright. The Bakiyev regime toppled in April at least in part because it failed to deliver on democratic promises and trampled on political freedoms and human rights.

Kyrgyzstan is at a crossroads. What transpires at this transformational moment will have an extraordinary impact on its future and the politics of the wider region.

The interim government has taken concrete steps toward democratic reform by limiting its tenure, holding a referendum that endorsed new checks and balances in the constitution, and organizing parliamentary elections for Oct. 10. Large numbers of citizens turned out peacefully to vote in favor of the new constitution, despite the trauma of June's ethnic violence. Surveys forecast that turnout should also be high for the parliamentary polls. The major political parties have pledged to run responsible, peaceful campaigns. The Central Election Commission appears determined to administer the elections openly and fairly. Kyrgyzstan arguably has more democratic wind in its sails than ever before.

A democratic outcome is not assured. The country is beset by divisive ethnic tensions, corruption, defiance among some officials and a fragile economy. The controversial sentencing this week of an ethnic Uzbek human rights activist to life in prison for his alleged part in the ethnic violence reflects these ongoing tensions. These problems are compounded by a growing suspicion of "outside interference" and international efforts to prevent conflict. President Roza Otunbayeva has played a heroic role as the first female head of state in the region, but she is beleaguered from many sides.

Yet democratic reforms are the only solution to Kyrgyzstan's many problems. More important than the strength of any single leader is the confidence of citizens in their government. Until public support for Kyrgyzstan's political processes and institutions is restored, it will be impossible to reconcile ethnic conflict, eradicate corruption, improve the judiciary, strengthen the economy or establish reliable international partnerships. The United States and the wider international community should help the government, whoever happens to be in office, meet citizens' expectations through democratic means.

If Kyrgyzstan is left to face these challenges alone, we can almost certainly predict an outcome of renewed authoritarianism, extremism or state failure, any of which would be devastating for Kyrgyzstan's people, regional stability and U.S. strategic interests.

The international community still has time to take a more active role in providing meaningful aid in the only Central Asian country where genuine democratic progress is a near-term prospect. This will require greater assistance and patience. It will also require a diplomatic approach that prioritizes long-term support for the democratic principles Kyrgyz citizens demand.

I was struck during my visit that politicians and citizens of all stripes voiced admiration for the rule of law, representative parliaments, civil society and political pluralism. How meaningful it would be if we could look back in a decade or two and see that those goals had been realized and that we were on the right side of history.

The writer, a former Democratic senator from South Dakota, is a vice chairman of the National Democratic Institute.

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