Kyrgyzstan's new government could inspire its neighbors, with Europe's help.
Is Central Asian democracy an oxymoron? After the collapse of the Soviet Union, sweeping changes have come to the region. It has emerged as an important center for energy production, and two of the states, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, quickly converted their economies to a market model.
But Central Asia remains solidly authoritarian. Only one country, Kyrgyzstan, has challenged that pattern in the past. Now it is doing so again after last month's popular uprising to oust another authoritarian government. How it fares could have implications for the rest of the region.
To see why, it helps to understand the context. In 1992, the local Communist Party bosses took the reins of most countries in the region. Twenty years later, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan remain under the thumb of the same rulers or persons very close to them. All torture political opponents, abuse activists and independent journalists, and violate the human rights of their citizens. They are also all in some measure kleptocracies, using natural resources and other assets to fuel their ruling families
Only Kyrgyzstan has tried to take a different path. Its Communist Party elites were fragmented as the Soviet Union fell. So without any clear autocrat in waiting, in the early 1990s it experimented with multiparty democracy for a time. But it wasn't entirely successful. The first Kyrgyz president, Askar Akayev, tolerated opposition parties early on, but took increasingly aggressive steps against them as his term came to a conclusion. His successor, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, didn't have patience for opposition at all. Last year, at the beginning of his second term, the country suffered numerous killings of opponents, politicians and journalists, as documented by both local and international human rights groups and advocates.
If its leaders fit the regional mold, at least Kyrgyzstan itself was different. Popular uprisings brought down the would-be dictators in March of 2005 and again last month. The purpose of these uprisings was the same: a demand for real democracy and an end to corruption.
How can these aspirations become reality? The answer will hinge partly on structural questions Kyrgyz themselves resolve. Kyrgyzstan will soon begin deliberating a new constitution. Shortly after the revolution, a number of the movement's leaders, including Roza Isakovna Otunbayeva and Omurbek Tekebayev, proposed a radical shift from a constitution built around a strong presidency to a parliamentary democracy on the German model.
The country already has a vibrant multiparty political environment and it's unlikely that any one party would achieve outright control over parliament. A parliamentary system would require formation of coalition governments. Critics say this system would be less stabile, which may be so. But its appeal to many Kyrgyz is that it would make it more difficult for another would-be dictator to emerge.
But Kyrgyzstan's success will also depend on the acquiescence, if not outright support, of its neighbors. To some of Kyrgyzstan's neighbors, parliamentary democracy is viewed as a menacing threat for the message it could send to their own citizens and the outside world as well. Kyrgyz democracy would challenge the myth that Central Asians expect leaders to behave like the authoritarian khans of yore.
So the likes of Kazakhstan's autocratic president Nursultan Nazarbayev have come out swinging against Kyrgyz democracy. He has made his view clear to Kyrgyzstan's interim leaders that parliamentary democracy is unacceptable. He has continued to block the flow of goods and services across the frontier, which is Kyrgyzstan's lifeline. He also denounces the popular uprising as rioting and rowdyism. His criticisms mask a concern that if the beacon of democracy really has been relit in Kyrgyzstan, and if Kyrgyzstan's example is successful, it could spread across Central Asia.
Fortunately Kyrgyzstan does have some cards to play in defense of its democratic aspirations. After six weeks of fruitless attempts to reason with Kazakhstan, the interim government in Bishkek cut off the water supply to southern Kazakhstan. That finally persuaded Astana to allow limited movement of people and goods at three crossing points. For Kyrgyzstan, this victory underscores the importance of further strengthening its independence by diversifying its trade and reducing dependence on Astana.
The country also needs help from further afield. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in particular has a role to play here. It is dedicated to promoting democratic values, yet Kazakhstan currently holds the rotating chairmanship. Other members must insist that Astana not undermine the group's ideals by blockading a fellow OSCE member for attempting democratic reforms. Other European democracies have a stake in nurturing freedom in the former Soviet bloc, and various institutions of the OSCE, including the Office for Democratic Initiatives and Human Rights, could assist not only with monitoring upcoming elections but also with issues such as transferring power in an orderly way to new, legitimate governing authorities.
The interim Kyrgyz government now will have some breathing room to push reforms while also trying to clean up the detritus of years of autocratic misgovernment. And they will do that, because this time the majority of the Kyrgyz people both support them and demand a better future. The Kyrgyz must be free to make their own decisions about the shape of their democracy, free from the meddling of neighbors out to preserve the status quo.
Source: Оnline.wsj.com .