- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 7, 2002

JALAL-ABAD, Kyrgyzstan — When President Askar Akayev visits Washington for talks with President Bush on Sept. 23, he can expect warm thanks for his help in the war on terrorism and a bit of advice: Try working with your opponents, rather than shooting them.It all started innocently enough, with an attempt by Mr. Akayev's small Central Asian republic to settle a century-old border dispute with China.
Corrupt police in neighboring Kazakhstan exact such heavy bribes from trucks taking fruit and vegetables to markets in northern Russia that the trade — Kyrgyzstan's main export — is barely profitable. So the government came up with the idea of laying a railway spur to China, permitting exporters to bypass Kazakhstan altogether. But the border dispute had to be settled first.
"Central Asia is trying to revive the old Silk Road — to get more European-Asian trade to pass though here — and good relations with China are essential," said a Western ambassador in Bishkek, the capital.
"China will be displacing Russia as our main trading partner in a few years," predicted Muradbek Imanaliyev, the former foreign minister who negotiated the deal with China over the past five years.
Under terms of the agreement signed three years ago, Kyrgyzstan returned to China 300 square miles of uninhabited mountains in the Tian-Shan range, the northern extension of the Himalayas, and China agreed to drop an ancient claim to twice that much territory.But the government of Mr. Akayev — an amiable former physicist, who a decade ago seemed the most Western-oriented of the leaders of the five post-Soviet Central Asian republics — simply announced the deal without explaining its long-term benefits to his 5 million countrymen, mired in poverty since independence in 1991.
When the government tried to get the parliament to ratify it this past spring, opposition lawmaker Azimbek Beknazarov began a campaign to have the president impeached for treason for giving away a piece of the motherland to foreigners.
In the atmosphere of cynicism and corruption that pervades post-Soviet Central Asian politics, many now wonder about Mr. Akayev's real motives for the deal.
"I know it's ridiculous, but a lot of people really think that [Chinese President] Jiang Zemin just gave him a couple of million dollars" in exchange for the land, said Nurlan Kachibekov, who runs a 300-acre farm near Bishkek.
"Instead of just announcing a done deal," he said, "they should have had a campaign to explain it — maybe a referendum. They used Soviet methods, when the Soviet Union is dead."But a referendum, the Western ambassador points out, could have been interpreted as a vote of confidence on Mr. Akayev, whose popularity has been slowly sliding, and it would have been risky.
The government reacted to Mr. Beknazarov's impeachment drive with the usual measure used in the region to deal with political opponents: He was arrested, tried and convicted on charges of corruption that dated from previous years.
"It was a bad idea," said another senior Western diplomat.
The Beknazarov trial revived regional rivalries in a land that is, in effect, two countries linked by a single road that climbs over a high mountain range.
Mr. Akayev is from the north, whose nomadic culture is more Western-oriented, while Mr. Beknazarov is from the more settled, Asian and religious south.
In March, police reportedly panicked and fired on Mr. Beknazarov's protesting constituents as they marched on a village near Jalal-Abad, a provincial capital in the Fergana Valley, killing five. The next day, they killed another demonstrator during an even bigger demonstration.
Mr. Akayev was eventually forced to bring charges against the policemen who fired, free Mr. Beknazarov; dismiss the Cabinet and invite the opposition to a series of round-table discussions after its members refused to join the new Cabinet.The result, said Mr. Imanaliyev, who lost his job as foreign minister in the fracas and no longer holds any office, is that the deal with China he proudly put together is under ever-greater attack, including a lawsuit by members of parliament challenging its constitutionality. Still, the treaty was ratified in May.
"The protests would be over long ago if there hadn't been for the shootings," he said during an interview at the U.N. Development Program office in Bishkek. The UNDP is the main foreign agency fighting poverty in Kyrgyzstan, where the average salary is $28 a month."The problem with Kyrgyzstan," said David Akopyan, acting head of the UNDP office here, "is that the head of the system changed, but not the system. So when the president says and means one thing, the system sometimes does something else."
Mr. Akayev's reward for effecting the deepest reforms of any country in the former Soviet Union except the Baltics was access to huge amounts of low-interest loans.
But the currency collapsed in 1998 and the foreign debt became larger than the gross domestic product — about twice as much as is normally acceptable to lending agencies. Still, it was rescheduled this year and the interest payment was reduced to $5 million from $100 million.
Last spring, Kyrgyzstan agreed to allow its largest airport, located near the capital, Bishkek, to be used as the main staging point for continuing air operations against al Qaeda and Taliban stragglers in Afghanistan.
A dozen U.S. F-18 fighter-bombers and six French Mirage 2000D fighters, along with tanker and cargo planes and 2,000 troops from eight countries, have been settled in tents and tentlike hangars at the airport since April.They provide near-permanent overflights of Afghanistan and are armed with laser-guided bombs.
"It wasn't an easy decision to make, and [the government] made it quickly and courageously," said the Western ambassador, who helped negotiate the lease on the base. "The coalition owes Kyrgyzstan a lot for that."
Mr. Bush is expected to express his appreciation for that assistance when Mr. Akayev comes to Washingon on his first official visit this month, according to a diplomatic source. But he will also get some advice on how to deal with opposition protests.
The opposition has promised more protest demonstrations for Sept. 17 — the six-month anniversary of the killings — and how the police handle them is likely to influence just how cordial Mr. Ayakaev's host will be.

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