April 4, 2005

April 4, 2005 | Commentary on Europe

Bush Administration Welcomes the Kyrgyz Revolution

Kyrgyzstan's revolution is widely welcomed in Washington, and has some American policy planners contemplating the possibility of regime change in other Central Asian nations, especially Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

The tendency among Bush administration supporters is to see Kyrgyzstan, where Bishkek protesters pushed President Askar Akayev from power on March 24, as part of the trend toward genuine democracy in the former Soviet Union, closely linked to Georgia's Rose Revolution in 2003, and Ukraine's Orange Revolution in 2004.  In the Bush administration view, all three revolutions are, at their core, reactions against the "managed democracy" model of government, in which the trappings of a democratic system is grafted on to an authoritarian-minded leadership structure.

Events in Kyrgyzstan help justify Washington's pursuit of the "Bush Doctrine," or the globalization of American democratic values, Bush administration supporters contend. Many of those associated with the Republican Party establishment believe the Bush Doctrine served as a major source of inspiration for Kyrgyzstan's popular protest movement, which began amid allegations of vote-manipulation during the country's recent parliamentary election. 

Just a few years ago, Washington embraced Akayev as an ally, portraying him as the leader of Central Asia's most progressive government. Indeed, Kyrgyzstan was at one point hailed as an "island of democracy." But the very event that brought the United States and Kyrgyzstan closer together, the September 11 terrorist tragedy, also prompted Akayev to embrace an increasingly authoritarian governing style. Faced with a rising threat presented by Islamic radicalism in Central Asia, Akayev sought to stifle political opposition. At the same time, his administration tolerated widespread corruption, while members of family accumulated vast fortunes by using political influence to establish extensive business networks.

 In recent years, Akayev, aiming to prop up his authority, played a double-game involving the United States and Russia. Following the September 11 tragedy, the Kyrgyz government granted the US military basing rights at the Manas air field outside Bishkek.In late 2003, Akayev welcomed the opening of a Russian base in Kant, also outside Bishkek. In hosting the two bases, Akayev apparently hoped to secure increased support for his administration by playing the two regional powers off each other.

Having soured on Akayev's conduct, Washington policy planners were not especially sorry to see his administration toppled. Akayev has not yet formally resigned and is now living in exile outside of Moscow. The leaders of Kyrgyzstan's provisional government - including interim Prime Minister Kurmanbek Bakiyev, interim Interior Minister Feliks Kulov and interim Foreign Minister Roza Otunbayeva - are all familiar faces in Washington, and Bush administration officials appear to believe that a close US-Kyrgyz political relationship can now be reestablished.

The revolutionary turn of events in Kyrgyzstan has prompted some Bush administration officials to wonder whether more "democratic dominos" could fall in Central Asia in the near future. Frustration in Washington is running high with President Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan. Like Akayev, Karimov forged a close strategic relationship with the United States during the early stages of the global anti-terrorist campaign. However, Washington's has grown increasingly annoyed with Karimov's hard-line domestic political policies, as well as his intransigent resistance to implementing long-promised economic reforms. Many policy makers also see the erratic behavior of Turkmenistan's leader, Saparmurat Niyazov, as a regional security liability.

A high-level US National Security Council official suggests that Karimov, Niyazov and other authoritarian leaders may be digging their own political graves with their absolute refusal to ease up on repression and to encourage reforms in their respective nations. A major source of concern in Washington is that hard-line governmental practices in Central Asia are helping to swell the ranks of Islamic extremist groups, including Hizb-ut-Tahrir.

Washington policy makers are relieved that the revolution in Kyrgyzstan proved to be relatively bloodless, with only a handful of deaths occurring during the March 24 protests and subsequent looting spree. Most are well aware that if the regimes in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan end up confronting mass protests movements, security forces could be issued orders by embattled political leaders to shoot.

At this stage, US officials are engaging members of the Kyrgyz provisional government, discussing ways to promote economic stability and a return to constitutional order. On March 28, the American envoy to Kyrgyzstan, Ambassador Steve Young, met with Bakiyev, and separately with representatives of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, to explore ways to ensure to conduct of free and fair elections in the coming months. A tentative date for a new presidential election has been set for June 26.

While eager to assist the provisional government in fostering democratic changes, US diplomats have sought to avoid, or downplay questions concerning the legitimacy of the change in Kyrgyzstan's political order. Kyrgyzstani authorities -- including Omurbek Tekebayev, speaker of the country's unicameral parliament - have admitted that recent developments, including the manner in which the provisional government was formed, have not always followed the Kyrgyz constitution. At the same time, Tekebayev and others have defended the provisional government's formation and its actions so far as politically necessary, given the collapse of Akayev's administration and Akayev's departure for Russia.

At State Department briefings both on March 25 and March 28, spokesman Adam Ereli dodged the tangled issue of the provisional government's legitimacy, specifically whether its leaders followed the rule of law in coming to power. "We're dealing with reality on the ground with the understanding that what happens should happen consistent with the rule of law, consistent with the will of the Kyrgyz people and supported by the international community."

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

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First appeared on Eurasianet.org