March 23, 2005

March 23, 2005 | Commentary on Europe

Running Out of Time in Kyrgyzstan

The sand in Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev's clock is running out. His secular opposition has taken over the south of the country, including the two largest cities of Osh and Jalalabad. To save the country from a civil war and bloodshed, Mr. Akayev must act quickly, and the West must help.

The Kyrgyz call it the Lemon Revolution -- similar to Georgia's Rose Revolution and Ukraine's Orange. But there are no guarantees the Kyrgyz will make lemonade out of this lemon.

The two rounds of Kyrgyzstani elections took place on Feb. 27 and March 13. During the polls, President Akayev packed the parliament with cronies and relatives, including his son and daughter. Observers from the U.S. and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe called the elections flawed. As in Ukraine, the opposition demanded a rerun and, as in Georgia, called for the president's immediate resignation.

According to his entourage, Mr. Akayev is considering changing the Kyrgyz Constitution and running for a third term in October, something most Kyrgyz oppose. Mr. Akayev, who has been in power since 1991, is reportedly tired and not really interested in remaining in office. But he is being egged on to stay by his influential wife and other family members, who enriched themselves during his rule. As a result, his once-sterling reputation of a democrat, philosopher and writer has shrunk like Dorian Gray's picture.

It didn't have to be like that. In the early 1990s, mountainous and poor Kyrgyzstan was hailed as an oasis of democracy as it allowed relatively more freedom than other neighboring countries. The U.S. bestowed membership of the World Trade Organization, World Bank credits and other goodies. However, attitudes changed sharply in 2000, when Mr. Akayev jailed Felix Kulov, his former vice-president and ex-mayor of the capital Bishkek, for challenging him for the presidency.

His former Prime Minister Kurmanbek Bakiev resigned in May 2002 after government troops shot six peaceful protesters, and is now an opposition leader. Roza Otunbaeva, the former foreign minister whom he banned from running for parliament in favor of his daughter, has become one of his toughest critics.

Kyrgyzstan today is a quintessence of everything that is wrong with post-communist Central Asian regimes. It did not have a "velvet revolution." Instead Mr. Akayev took over when the Soviet Union collapsed, but the elite remained Soviet in essence. Even the opposition leaders come from this elite, instead of being dissident figures like Lech Walensa and Vaclav Havel. But that has not stopped them from championing popular discontent with the ruling family's corruption, and demanding more democracy than Mr. Akayev is willing to grant.

The situation in neighboring Uzbekistan and totalitarian Turkmenistan is even worse. The regimes there are busy suppressing any form of opposition, prompting one senior member of the Bush administration's National Security Council to suggest they are digging their own graves.

Lurking in the background ready to exploit the situation are radical Islamic groups. In Kyrgyzstan, and especially in Uzbekistan, a clandestine group called Hizb ut-Tahrir al Islami, or the Party of Islamic Liberation, is recruiting supporters by the thousand. Two prominent Kyrgyz politicians rank among its supporters. Hizb's goal is the creation of a worldwide Califate, a military dictatorship based on Shari'a law, and dedicated to waging a jihad against the West. Although unlikely to take part in the current popular uprising, since it has declared that democracy is un-Islamic, Hizb is exploiting anger over what it calls corrupt "infidel" regimes to further its radical Islamic agenda.

On Monday, a senior Kyrgyz official visiting Washington could not answer this writer's question as to why Mr. Akayev is afraid of the opposition's demand to rerun the elections in a clean way, with numerous foreign observers present. After all, he should have nothing to worry about if he really enjoys the degree of popular support that he claims. Mr. Akayev should also clearly commit himself not to stand for reelection in October. That should not be too great a sacrifice. Since the Kyrgyz opposition does not have a recognized leader, such as Victor Yushchenko in Ukraine or Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia, whoever Mr. Akayev nominates as his successor would stand some chance of success, even in a free election.

Kyrgyzstan is on the brink. In 1992, ethnic Uzbeks and Kyrgyz were at each other's throats in Osh, with the death toll reaching 2,000. Moreover, the split between North and South in Kyrgyzstan is significant, like the chasm between East and West in Ukraine, or the split between the northern and southern clans in Tajikistan. There, a civil war took over 100,000 lives after the collapse of the Soviet Union If ethnic clashes break out again in Kyrgyzstan, it could follow a similar path, with a civil war pitting the North of the country against the South.

Equally if the opposition loses control over the protesters who burned government buildings in Osh and Jalalabad and took over the airport in Osh, its possible that Russia, or even Western powers and international organizations, will throw their support behind Mr. Akayev as a lesser evil to the continued chaos. Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are nervously watching developments in the small neighboring republic, weighing intervention or even partition.

To avoid a catastrophic outcome, Kyrgyzstan's neighbors, the United States, European Union, OSCE and the United Nations need to prod Mr. Akayev and the opposition to find a bloodless solution to the current crisis before time runs out.

Ariel Cohen is a research fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D. Visiting Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in The Wall Street Journal