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Can Russia Embrace A New Model For Central Asia?

A billboard in southern Kyrgyzstan shows Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (right) with Kurmanbek Bakiev, who fled into exile after a bloody crackdown on protesters in April.
A billboard in southern Kyrgyzstan shows Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (right) with Kurmanbek Bakiev, who fled into exile after a bloody crackdown on protesters in April.
I count myself among the many Kyrgyz people who have high expectations that the country's October 10 parliamentary elections will lead to the establishment of the first parliamentary democracy in Central Asia.

Democracy in my country won't look like the classical version found in many European countries. It will have its problems and its shortcomings. But it will be real and it will be ours.

Small and impoverished, Kyrgyzstan has seen two "colored" revolutions in five years, the 2005 Tulip Revolution and the events of April 2010. Now it is on the verge of a historic opportunity to create an island of democracy in a region where for two decades president-dictators have ruled with impunity.

Surprise, Surprise

All these events have played out in the authoritarian shadow of Vladimir Putin's Russia. That example played a significant role in subverting the democratic impulses of the 2005 uprising that ousted President Askar Akaev. Now, in the wake of the April events, at this historical juncture for Kyrgyzstan, Russia again is demonstrating anxiety about the choices of the Kyrgyz people.

The Kremlin (to say nothing of the neighboring Central Asian dictators) does not want the "virus" of parliamentarianism spreading "instability" across the region. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has insulted the Kyrgyz people by asserting that their country's popularly chosen parliamentary system will end in catastrophe. It was more than just a diplomatic mistake.

Moscow backed the April uprising that overthrew President Kurmanbek Bakiev. But now it is becoming clear the Kremlin simply wanted to replace one dictator with another, one who would follow a more "pragmatic" line in relations with Russia. The Kremlin didn't expect that the interim government in Bishkek would seriously move to create an open and representative parliamentary system.

Those moves have caught Russia off guard, and its efforts in the months since April have been widely criticized by the Kyrgyz people. The Kremlin's efforts to secure influence in Kyrgyzstan by any means -- including smearing some leaders through "soft power" tactics -- are producing unanticipated results for Russia.

Throughout its history -- from before the time of Peter the Great and continuing after the collapse of the Soviet Union -- Russia has been an expansionist power. In the Putin period, the Kremlin has sought to assert its power by installing "pragmatic" regimes in neighboring countries and propping them up indefinitely.

But the Kyrgyz people have now twice overthrown corrupt authoritarian leaders. They are clearly thinking in a new way that does not fit in with Moscow's old stereotypes. A billboard featuring a Kyrgyz politician shaking hands with Medvedev is unlikely to win seats in parliament.

Washington Watching

The Kremlin doesn't understand the mood or mindset of the Kyrgyz people. During the April events, 187 people were killed by gunfire. The Kyrgyz people know they have paid a dear price for their new constitution, for this new opportunity. Voters will have this knowledge foremost in their minds as they cast their ballots this weekend.

Unlike Russia, the United States supports the effort to build a parliamentary Republic of Kyrgyzstan. U.S. President Barack Obama met with Kyrgyz President Roza Otunbaeva and expressed his personal admiration for her far-sighted efforts to rebuild democratic institutions in Kyrgyzstan.

Instead of supporting particular parties in the election, the United States is supporting the process, allocating $5 million to help the Kyrgyz government conduct a free and transparent poll. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake said, "The United States sees this as a very significant opportunity to establish the very first parliamentary democracy in Central Asia."

These words and U.S. support have gone a long way toward mending relations between the two countries. Kyrgyz citizens have felt that Washington turned a blind eye to growing authoritarianism under Bakiev because it needed the Manas air base to support its efforts in Afghanistan.

The worst-case scenario for Kyrgyzstan is the destruction of the parliamentary system and the return of a Russia-style, unaccountable presidential regime. But the people know that. They have had enough of revolutions. The interim government has given the country this real opportunity to install a better system. Will Russia be wise enough to see that it is their national interests to let that happen and to make deals with governments that have genuine mandates from the people?

Cholpon Orozobekova is a Kyrgyz journalist based in Geneva. She has worked at BBC radio, RFE/RL, IWPR, and as editor in chief of independent newspaper "De Facto." The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL