The people of Kyrgyzstan have spoken-and acted. On Thursday, they stormed presidential headquarters and government buildings in the capital Bishkek in response to rigged parliamentary elections, and the government appears to be losing its grip on power. The Supreme Court has since annulled the elections, and the country is likely to return to the polls shortly. Still, Kyrgyzstan may face the prospects of civil war and possible disintegration if President Askar Akaev does not resign. In turn, turmoil in Kyrgyzstan could bring inter-ethnic and political violence to its larger neighbors, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, and lead to their destabilization. To prevent this outcome and win another victory for democracy, the U.S. and its allies convince President Akaev to step down-and soon.
A Model of Authoritarian Ills
The present unrest was not inevitable. In the early 1990s, mountainous and poor Kyrgyzstan was hailed as an oasis of democracy in Central Asia where freedom of speech flowered. The United States bestowed WTO membership and World Bank credits, but the country remained poor and corrupt.
In the mid-1990s, Kyrgyzstan began its long descent into authoritarianism. Askar Akaev, a respected physicist, was elected president in 1990 and has managed to hold that post thanks to changes to Kyrgyzstan's constitution. Since the mid-1990s, his government has become increasingly hostile to political opposition, harassing supporters and holding questionable elections. International observers challenged elections in 1995 and 2000 as not up to standards, and Akaev's government began to crack down on independent media and opposition parties. A recent referendum, also contested, gave Akaev greater powers and eliminated party-list voting-weakening the opposition further.
In early 2001, President Akaev jailed Felix Kulov, his former vice president who had challenged him for presidency. Protesters now have released him. Akaev's Prime Minister Kurmanbek Bakiev resigned in 2002 after troops shot six peaceful protesters and now is emerging as the top opposition leader. Roza Otunbaeva, the former Foreign Minister whom he banned from running for parliament in favor of his daughter, is among his toughest critics.
Having never gone through a "velvet revolution," Kyrgyzstan's political elite remains essentially Soviet, with addition of some small traders and criminals, as well. Its opposition leaders are very much of the national nomenklatura-and not dissidents like Lech Walensa in Poland or Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia. But they are still the standard-bearers of popular discontent with the ruling family's corruption and are pushing for more democracy than Akaev cares to grant. If successful, the opposition is likely to inject new blood into the country's corrupt body politic.
They have some reason to be optimistic. A wave of democracy is sweeping the former Soviet Union. The Kyrgyz call it the Tulip Revolution or the Lemon Revolution, echoing similar movements in Georgia and Ukraine. Given reports that President Akaev fled the country, the opposition has the chance to make lemonade out of a lemon of an election. In two rounds of Kyrgyzstani elections held over the past month, President Akaev has packed the parliament with cronies and relatives, including his son and daughter. Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and U.S. say the elections were flawed.
Following the second round, the opposition took over the south of the country, including the second and third largest cities, Osh and Jalal-Abad, and protests have since spread elsewhere. The opposition demands a rerun, like in Ukraine, and Akaev's immediate resignation, like in Georgia.
But this was not Akaev's plan. According to reports, Akaev is no longer interested in the presidency. His once-sterling reputation as a democrat, philosopher, and writer has understandably withered. But Akaev's influential wife and family, who have enriched themselves during his rule, are egging him to stay on. He may still try to change the constitution and run for a fourth term in October, something most Kyrgyz oppose. Akaev calls opposition leaders "criminals" and "externally inspired," echoing closely the words of Ukraine's former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich before he gave into opposition demands for a fair election. All signs are that Akaev is unlikely to stand down now without significant prodding.
The leaders of neighboring Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are nervously watching these developments. As in Kyrgyzstan, both countries' ruling regimes are prone to cut down opposition, mostly secular, as quickly as it appears. But a greater menace may be lurking in the wings: Islamic radicals who are amassing power and, for now, have been holding back from the political square. By cutting the secular opposition out of the picture, the region's leaders may be pursuing a counterproductive-and ultimately destructive-strategy.
In Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, a clandestine radical Islamist party known as Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami (Party of Islamic Liberation) is recruiting supporters by the thousand. Two prominent Kyrgyz politicians, including the country's ombudsman, are Hizb supporters. Hizb's goal is creation of a worldwide Califate-a military dictatorship based on Shari'a law-and it is dedicated to waging the Holy War (jihad) against the West. Central Asia, according to Hizb, is nearly ripe for Islamist revolution because of its corrupt "infidel" regimes and the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. Central Asia, with its natural resources like uranium mines, is as good a bridgehead as any for global jihad. Hizb has boycotted elections and calls democracy un-Islamic. It is likely, however, to join in any popular uprising-which may happen if Kyrgyzstan's Akaev does not change tactics and negotiate with the opposition.
Such widespread unrest may destabilize Uzbekistan to the south, with its large Islamist opposition, and the oil-rich Kazakhstan to the north. Both are afraid that the unrest will spill over to Muslim Turks in their countries, many of whom are poor.Ethnic unrest is also a possibility. In 1992, ethnic Uzbeks and Kyrgyz clashed in Osh, with the death toll reaching 2,000. Moreover, the split between Kyrgyzstan's North and South is significant- just like the chasm between East and West in Ukraine or the split between northern and southern clans in Tajikistan. There, a 1992-1997 civil war took over 100,000 lives.
Quick Solution Needed
Three things must happen-and soon-to avoid a catastrophic outcome in the region:
The people of Kyrgyzstan have shown that they are unwilling to accept the status quo. They deserve better and should have the chance to build a more democratic, equitable, and accountable republic. With international support, they have the chance to accomplish these goals.
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is a Senior Research Fellow at the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy of the Shelby and Kathryn Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.