Inspired by the 2003 Georgian Rose Revolution and the Ukrainian Orange Revolution four months ago, the people of Kyrgyzstan last week rose against their corrupt government to demand justice, good governance and respect for their democratic rights. It is yet to be seen, however, whether the new leadership of this post-Soviet country of five million shares the same democratic and reformist ideals as its Georgian and Ukrainian counterparts, or simply wanted to take power.
The outcome is critically important for people living in the Central Eurasian region ranging from Belarus to Uzbekistan who hope for a democratic future. Moreover, if the new Kyrgyz leadership fails to address the poverty, corruption and repression that led to the mass anger in this mostly Muslim nation, radical Islamists may reap the benefits domestically -- and use this strategically located country as a base for expansion internationally. The outcome is also critical to the United States, both because of President George W. Bush's push to expand democratic reform, and also because Kyrgyzstan hosts a U.S. military base that provides crucial support to Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. Russia has also established a base in Kyrgyzstan, located just a few miles from the U.S. facility outside the capital of Bishkek.
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Kyrgyzstan, which neighbors China, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, was for many years considered the "poster child of democracy" in Central Asia under President Askar Akayev. Following a promising start on economic and political reforms, over the course of 15 years in power, Mr. Akayev lost popularity when he couldn't tackle the country's poverty while his family members amassed political and financial power, and last week lost power.
The fraudulent parliamentary elections of Feb. 27 provided the spark. Unlike in Georgia and Ukraine, however, the opposition in Kyrgyzstan was not united in a common vision for the country's future. Although the death toll is very low, its use of violence and failure to control looting also distinguished it from the leaders of the Rose and Orange revolutions. While pent-up anger was sufficient to bring about the downfall of the government in only a few days, so far the Kyrgyzstani opposition has merely shown that they can gather a big, mob-like crowd.
The rapid pace of developments has left behind many unresolved constitutional questions. Leading opposition member and former Prime Minister Kurmanbek Bakiyev was reappointed prime minister and acting president, but his powers are far from clear -- not least because, while Mr. Akayev has fled the country, he has yet to resign. A few days after the Supreme Court recognized the old parliament as legitimate, the Bakiyev team over the weekend sent very confusing signals by recognizing the new one. Mr. Bakiyev was appointed by the "old" parliament, so his push to recognize the "new" one calls into question his own legitimacy. Reports also indicate that Mr. Bakiyev may not hold presidential elections in June, as he initially had promised, and may try to consolidate his power instead.
It is not certain whether democracy can succeed in today's Kyrgyzstan. It certainly will have less of a chance unless the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe remains actively engaged and helps revolve the current impasse. The OSCE's assistance in preparing the country for the next elections would also be critical for success.
Whether Russia will support democracy in Kyrgyzstan will also be important. Russia considers America's promotion of democracy in its neighborhood as a ploy to weaken its own regional influence. The new leaderships of Georgia and Ukraine have already made clear their future lies in Europe and will consider cooperation with Moscow only within this framework. The Kremlin does not want to "lose" Kyrgyzstan, and seems to have learned that the heavy-handed approach it used in Ukraine does not work. In this case, Moscow has maintained ties to both Mr. Akayev and the opposition. Moscow also announced a new "hearts and minds" propaganda strategy but that's unlikely to promote democratic and reformist change.
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Kyrgyzstan's other neighbors are closely watching these latest developments, since they are wrestling with similar social tensions of their own. In Uzbekistan, opposition leaders have issued a joint statement in support of their Kyrgyz counterparts. Given the Uzbek government's tight control over civil society, the chances for a peaceful change in power are rather slim. Unlike Mr. Akayev, President Islam Karimov would use force against his people. Radical Islamist networks are also much stronger in this country of 26 million. With no elections likely in the short-term future, one can expect further clampdowns in Uzbekistan.
In neighboring Tajikistan, while the opposition expressed significant disapproval of the fraudulent parliamentary elections in February, it did not push to oust the government. Following the events in Kyrgyzstan, however, the Tajikistani opposition is likely to try to use the fall presidential elections as their country's turning point.
Belarus may also be ripe for a change. Following Mr. Akayev's fall, last Friday demonstrators in Belarus clashed with police as they called for the resignation of their president, Alexander Lukashenko, who is widely known as the "last dictator of Europe." With no peaceful, legal possibility of ousting him from office, the Belarusian opposition believes that the only way Mr. Lukashenko would leave power is via the same route involuntarily followed by Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania. In the short term, however, such a violent end is unlikely, as last week's protests drew only a thousand people to the streets of Minsk.
Unlike their Belarusian, Turkmen or Uzbek counterparts, Presidents Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan and Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan have seemed more willing to consider pre-empting the opposition by opening up their country's political system. While the leaders of these two oil-rich countries with close ties to the U.S. have made relative progress in economic reform, they have so far failed to implement significant political reforms. Both leaders are frightened by what happened in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, the three most open and democratic countries of the region.
Following the fall of the Akayev regime, some advisers to Presidents Aliyev and Nazarbayev will urge a clampdown so that both avoid the same fate. Yet, as the Akayev example proved, repression only worsens the situation once the popular desire for democracy, justice, and good governance reaches a critical momentum. If Messrs. Aliyev and Nazarbayev become responsive to such desires, and hold free and fair elections, they are more likely to avoid a Kyrgyz-style revolution in their countries. Admittedly, this is a tough call; another lesson to be drawn from Georgia, Ukraine and now Kyrgyzstan is that the granting of any concessions to the opposition will make leaders vulnerable. Leaders such as Messrs. Karimov and Lukashenko, and the despotic leader of Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov, however, are in less of a danger of a peaceful overthrow due to the total repression in their countries.
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Now the Bakiyev administration has to decide which way to go as well, and the stakes are higher than before. If the post-revolution democracy does not succeed in Kyrgyzstan, Islamists may be the next ones to take power. Over the last two years the radical Islamist movement Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) has significantly increased its following in Kyrgyzstan. After the crackdowns in the neighboring Uzbekistan, many HT members moved to this relatively more open country to create a new base for an eventual takeover. It may be true that, compared to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Central Asian countries are less prone to radicalism. Yet the prevailing poverty and injustice in the region has provided HT a perfect breeding ground. Its campaign in Kyrgyzstan emphasizes that the only way there will be an end to all that misery is by the overthrow of the secular democratic system and the establishment of the Islamic rule. If the Bakiyev administration fails to quickly establish democratic order and prove that it can deliver justice and good governance, there may not be any other secular alternative left, and this viciously anti-Semitic and anti-American ideology may fill the vacuum.