Fourteen years after the fall of the Soviet Union, democracy is showing fresh signs of life in yet another former Soviet republic: Kyrgyzstan. Last week, in a dramatic display of “people power,” popular protests against disputed elections toppled President Askar Akayev, who had ruled the Central Asian nation for 15 years. Similar protests had forced a government change in Georgia in November 2003 and in Ukraine in December 2004.
It was the “rose revolution” that toppled an authoritarian regime in Georgia and the “orange revolution” that did the same in Ukraine. In Kyrgyzstan, there is, as yet, no name for what happened there last week, but it still seems fair to call it a revolution. In all three cases, the driving force for change was popular anger at what was seen widely as flawed elections.
The upheavals in the three former Soviet republics have another thing in common: political corruption in a regime of near-absolute power. In that kind of climate, a vicious circle forms and events tend to take a common pattern: Rulers maintain an iron grip to suppress dissent. Their families and cronies dominate politics and business, and amass fortunes, while millions of people languish in poverty. To protect their status, dictators and their ilk build a powerful secret police to crack down on opposition parties and media organizations. With democratic forces in limbo, their societies continue to stagnate politically and economically. Popular discontent accumulates over the years, eventually reaching a boiling point.
Similar things appear to have happened in the three nations. Waiting in the wings, perhaps, are people in other former Soviet republics that remain under a dictatorial or authoritarian leadership. Indeed, there is no assurance that some untoward developments, such as political scandals and election irregularities, will not trigger popular uprisings in these states as well. Initiating drastic democratic reforms, therefore, should be an urgent priority for their leaders.
The revolution in Kyrgyzstan, however encouraging for democracy, has left the country in turmoil for now, as it struggles to find a new leader. Indeed, the seeming lack of clear-cut political momentum is one reason why the “Kyrgyz revolution” differs from the rose and orange revolutions, each of which was orchestrated by a strong and determined opposition headed by a popular politician.
In Georgia, the protest movement was led by Mr. Mikhail Saakashvili, who won a smashing victory in a presidential election. In Ukraine, pro-Western Victor Yushchenko also triumphed, albeit in a second-round presidential election that followed a disputed first-round vote. In Kyrgyzstan, however, a sure-fire candidate has yet to emerge.
Former Prime Minister Kurmanbek Bokiev, who now serves as acting president, has set a presidential election for late June, saying he will be a candidate. It is unclear, though, whether he has enough traction to pull opposition forces together. For one thing, he was seen by many as the most likely successor to President Akayev. Also, Mr. Bokiev is said to lack the personal charm to attract voters.
By contrast, former Vice President Felix Kulov, a leading critic of the Akayev regime who was recently released from prison, enjoys high popularity. However, the fact that he was born in northern Kyrgyzstan, a region dominated by pro-Akayev forces, is said to be an electoral disadvantage for him. Opposition forces in the south, which engineered Mr. Akayev’s ouster, are hostile toward the north. This makes it uncertain whether Mr. Kulov will be able to gain enough support to win the election.
President Akayev, who reportedly fled to Russia after the coup, still holds the legal title pending a formal change of power. To make that change, however, it is essential that opposition groups and their supporters form a grand alliance. Indeed, opposition unity is essential — as it was in Georgia and Ukraine — especially because Akayev royalists are said to be trying to regain lost ground in Bishkek, the capital.
There is another important difference between the revolution in Bishkek and those in Tbilisi and Kiev: Kyrgyzstan has no critical geopolitical links with Europe. This condition makes it less likely that the great powers will try to intervene in the country, particularly Russia. By contrast, Georgia and Ukraine faced potent pressure from Moscow during their political transitions as they moved closer to Europe.
Still, Kyrgyzstan is in a sensitive situation, partly because, as a beachhead in the war on terror, it provides military bases for both the United States and Russia, and partly because it borders China. To help achieve stability in this key state in Central Asia, the U.S. and Russia need to act as honest brokers rather than compete for strategic advantage.
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