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Kyrgyzstan: Analysis From Washington -- A Reputation Destroyed

Washington, 24 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Bishkek's arrest of opposition leader Feliks Kulov further undermines Kyrgyzstan's earlier reputation as the one Central Asian country which had been making some progress toward democracy.

But the consequences of this action may be even greater. Kulov's arrest appears likely to lead some to excuse the behavior of other authoritarian regimes in the region or even to write off the future prospects of Central Asia as a whole. Such an approach could effectively condemn the region to chaos, foreign domination or some combination of the two.

On Wednesday, officials of Kyrgyzstan's National Security Ministry arrested Kulov, the leader of the opposition, while he was in a hospital being treated for high blood pressure. As he was being led away, Kulov said "As a man, I am not used to hiding," adding that "I expected this."

A National Security Ministry spokesman said that Kulov has been charged with abuse of power during his earlier service as minister of national security and governor of Chui oblast. But so far, the ministry has not allowed Kulov's lawyer to have any contact with him, a violation of Kyrgyzstan's constitution and laws.

Kulov led in the first round of parliamentary elections in the Talas district but he lost by a suspiciously large margin in a runoff with the man who had placed second in that round.

OSCE Secretary-General Jan Kubis said in Bishkek last week that the results were "a blemish on the president's prestige and that of the government."

And since March 12, opposition groups have mounted protests in Kyzyl-Adyr, a village in Kulov's electoral district, to condemn what they call widespread electoral fraud. Following Kulov's arrest, the Bishkek authorities arrested some 100 demonstrators, destroyed the yurts where they had been living, and burned their posters and signs.

Kulov's arrest is only the latest indication of Kyrgyzstan President Askar Akaev's drift toward authoritarianism. Despite his earlier reputation as a democrat -- former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker once described him as his "favorite" Central Asian -- Akayev ever since has been moving against personal opponents and the institutions of civil society.

In every case, Akaev has justified his behavior by pointing to threats of instability arising from Islamic fundamentalism or crossborder challenges, arguments that have led some if not all Western governments to excuse his behavior.

But at the same time, his democratic rhetoric allowed these same Western governments to have some confidence that Akayev would return to the democratic fold and to use his example to put pressure on other Central Asian leaders who have been considerably less democratic in both rhetoric and practice.

Now, by arresting Kulov as part of a sweeping crackdown against the opposition, Akaev has opened the door not only to an ever more authoritarian Kyrgyzstan but to three other and even more serious developments.

First, Akaev's shift will lead ever more people to conclude that Central Asia is not ready for democracy and that the international community must accept more authoritarian rule there for the immediate future.

Such a conclusion is likely to reduce still further the willingness of Western countries to put pressure on all Central Asian governments to move toward democracy and greater openness or even to get involved with these states on other issues.

Second, by tolerating or even tacitly supporting such authoritarianism, the West is likely to create what it says it fears most: the rise to power of Islamic fundamentalism across this region. In all too many ways, Akaev and the other Central Asian leaders are acting much as did the shah of Iran, creating a fragile stability that will end with their departure from office.

Indeed, these leaders are likely to continue to play on that fear to garner support for their own authoritarianism.

And third, as that prospect becomes more likely, the West may come to view the restoration of Russian domination of this region either indirectly through a revamped Commonwealth of Independent States organization or more directly through a new union as a price worth paying for stability and the containment of Islamist politics.

That attitude is likely to further reduce the West's ability to promote democracy and freedom not only in Central Asia but elsewhere as well.

None of this appears to have been on the minds of those who ordered the arrest of Kulov this week, but all of it becomes far more likely because of this undemocratic act.