Kyrgyzstan’s Leader Backslides on His Western Civics Lessons

Paula R. Newberg has lived and worked in south, central and west Asia, and visited Kyrygzstan prior to its parliamentary elections on behalf of the National Democratic Institute

Last week’s election in Kyrgyzstan began a long battle for the soul of democracy in Central Asia. Spurning the efforts of President Askar A. Akayev to eliminate political opposition, Kyrgyz voters supported an increasingly embattled democratic pluralism. But by driving a political wedge between the government and the electorate, Akayev is also testing the West. If democracy backslides in this poor, small country--if foreign civics lessons about empowering civil society fail--who will pick up the pieces?

Since its independence in 1991, Kyrgyzstan has set itself the task of joining the world, and largely on the world’s terms. Surrounded by large, wealthy and powerful neighbors, democracy became the country’s slogan and potential salvation. New tax codes, customs regulations, constitutional revisions and large doses of English-language immersion for many of its citizens made Kyrgyzstan and its dozens of ethnic communities the West’s darling in Central Asia.

Belatedly, however, Akayev concluded that democratic ideals bring unrealistic expectations. By expanding the powers of his office, Akayev, like many of his less-democratic neighbors, is now reducing the substance of democracy while burnishing its form. Before the election, he undermined the importance of parliamentary contests by pitting state institutions against opposition parties, the media and many nongovernmental groups. Such tactics do no justice to Akayev’s, and Kyrgyzstan’s, previous accomplishments.

More than half the country’s political parties were banned, leaving the Communist Party to bring in the largest number of votes. Akayev’s obvious procedural manipulations gave him a platform on which he can fight outdated communist ideology, unhindered by democratic dissent. His quest to take title to Kyrgyzstan’s transition has tainted the elections, weakened democratic institutions and potentially compromised the country’s relationships with the international community whose friendship it so values.


None of these consequences is trivial. Democracy’s prerequisites--open political contests and independent courts--are also the stepping stones for capitalism. But market capitalism has brought more promise than profit. Again and again, Kyrgyz government spokesmen highlight the growing gap between political reform and economic reward both at home and among its neighbors. Foreign observers, they note, have greeted Uzbekistan’s recent elections with contempt, and Kazakhstan’s with studied derision. Turkmenistan’s President Saparmurad A. Niyazov laughs at the mention of popular sovereignty. All three countries, however, are blessed with natural resources that project them onto an international economic stage, leaving Kyrgyzstan in the wings. For a country with limited resources but (until now) seemingly unlimited democratic zeal, the vagaries of Western capitalism seem like object lessons in inconstancy.

The demise of the Soviet Union brought an enthusiasm for political change that has taken root in otherwise obscure places like Kyrgyzstan. Last week’s election, to which the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe sent more than 100 foreign observers, was monitored by thousands of independent citizens who believe, as Western assistance preaches, that patience and fortitude are the handmaidens of democracy. Many Kyrgyz citizens, who have endured poverty with the hope that greater freedoms will enhance their future, fear that in the absence of substantial investment, Western dismay with their president’s actions will turn into indifference.

Bracing for possible foreign rejection, Akayev has recently reinforced his relationship with Russia, but not without cost. His visit with acting President Vladimir V. Putin in Moscow last month, during a particularly violent week of fighting in Chechnya, undermined Akayev’s often-advertised commitment to political tolerance. Kyrgyzstan also seeks to join United Nations efforts to end the war in Afghanistan: an effort made more urgent as sectarian spillover signals a growing security threat to Kyrgyzstan’s southern region. (Every coin has two sides: Unrest offered an excuse to expand the armed militia’s presence just before the election.)

The irony of this situation--when democratic resolve diminishes, join the global march against drugs and terrorism--is not lost on the country. Kyrgyzstan acquired its Western patrons precisely because it was not associated with ethnic division, sectarian militancy and strident nationalism. These issues, however, lie at the heart of the West’s new fascination with preventive diplomacy. As the global attention accorded nascent democracies becomes tinged with impatience and annoyance, this is now the biggest bandwagon on which small, weak and peripheral states can climb.

On the surface, this is understandable. Kyrgyzstan is not the first state, and will certainly not be the last, to hope the shadow of broader international concerns obscures, if momentarily, its shortcomings and disappointments. But democracy is not a prerequisite for joining the global police action that now passes for multilateral diplomacy; in fact, it may become its first casualty.

Kyrgyzstan’s dilemmas shine a strong critical beam on Western--and particularly U.S.--diplomacy, in at least two ways. First, democracy does not, by itself, make capitalism prosper. When the West sold democratic pluralism as a prerequisite for economic growth, many of its customers believed fairness and prosperity were coincident. The civics lessons that accompanied democracy assistance counseled forbearance and the long view. But across the broad territory where communism once ruled, civil society has come to realize that even diplomatic assistance is difficult to sustain and now fears that without it, the distance between the state and society may shrink long before anyone understands the full dimensions of democratic empowerment.

Second, eroding states, large debts and insecure citizens across so much of the transitional world challenge Western governments to reconsider their responsibilities. Given the high cost of repairing the worst of violence, they have logically looked for new tools to prevent the worst from happening. Each time a government topples or a state implodes, foreign observers quickly look over their shoulders, retrospectively diagnosing insufficient aid, its ill-timed nature and the need to protect against conflict before it occurs.

No amount of foreign attention can buy civic commitment and institutional accountability: This is what good governance is supposed to bring. Indeed, just a few years ago, building democracy was what preventive diplomacy was all about. Liberal economies, prudent states and strong societies were considered the keys to post-Soviet transition and the best insurance against political decay. But where political transition has turned out to be difficult, Western patience is somewhat short. Having once lionized leaders like Akayev, Western governments now sound warning bells of unease, retreat and a lack of sustained will. Building democracy and preventing disaster are set to collide where they were meant to intersect, leaving nascent democracies at the side of the road.


Now that the ballots are counted, foreign observers and Kyrgyz citizens face similar challenges: how to judge the meaning of an unfair election; how to reinforce citizenship rights to rescue earlier democratic gains; and how to use those gains to reform the political environment itself. A quick course correction, with support for the parties and citizens’ groups whose labors make public participation real, can return democratic aspirations to Kyrgyzstan’s political center stage. Otherwise, the democratic legacy so dear to Akayev’s heart will barely be worth defending.