Saturday, March 26, 2005

The people of Kyrgyzstan have won their freedom in the streets of capital Bishkek and southern cities of Osh and Jalal Abad. President Askar Akayev apparently fled the country and his government resigned. Democratic opposition, which includes the former Vice President Felix Kulov, the former Foreign Minister Roza Otunbaeva and the former Prime Minister Kurmanbek Bakiev, is consolidating power and has been welcomed by Russia. The Parliament chose the former opposition lawmaker Ishenbai Kadyrbekov as acting president. The transition is marred, however, by widespread looting, which needs to be stopped.

A wave of democratic uprisings is sweeping the former Soviet Union. The Kyrgyz call it the Tulip, or Lemon, Revolution — similar to Georgia’s Rose and Ukraine’s Orange Revolutions. It looks like the Kyrgyz will make lemonade out of these lemons after all. However, the Kyrgyz opposition does not have one recognized leader, such as Viktor Yushchenko in Ukraine, or Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia. Thus, free and fair elections for parliament and president will be definitely needed. The United States, the European Union, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and Russia should cooperate in preparing and observing them.

Kyrgyzstan’s Tulip Revolution demonstrated we live in a truly wired world, where President George W. Bush’s words spoken in his Inaugural Address and State of the Union speech resonate even in the mountains of Tien Shan.

People’s power also made Central Asian rulers, such as Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov, Turkmenistan’s Turkmenbashi (head of all Turkmen), and possibly the Chinese next door, quite nervous. Even the Russian Foreign Ministry expressed “deep concern” about “constitutional violations.” They just forgot to do that when President Akayev repeatedly changed the constitution and tampered with elections.

Mr. Akayev has fled the country, with his last service to his people an order to the police not to shoot. In that, he followed the example of his Ukrainian colleague Leonid Kuchma and their Georgian peer Eduard Shevardandze. It looks like the country and the neighborhood will not face a civil war, a bloody uprising or a possible disintegration after all.

It was indeed a heady week for Kyrgyzstan’s secular opposition, which first has taken over the south of the country, including two largest cities Osh and Jalal Abad and sent only a few buses to the capital Bishkek. Mr. Akayev calling his opponents “criminals” and foreign agents did not help.

It didn’t have to be like that. In the early 1990s, mountainous and poor Kyrgyzstan was hailed as an oasis of democracy for its free speech. U.S. bestowed World Trade Organization membership and World Bank credits, but the country remained poor and corrupt. In early 2001, Mr. Akayev jailed Felix Kulov, his former vice president, for challenging him for presidency. The protesters released him Thursday. Now Mr. Kulov is acting interior minister in the new government.

Kurmanbek Bakiev, who had resigned in 2002 after government troops shot six peaceful protesters, now is an opposition leader. Roza Otunbaeva, the former foreign minister whom he banned from running for parliament in favor of his daughter, is among his toughest critics.

Kyrgyzstan was the quintessence of everything wrong with post-communist Central Asian regimes, though hardly the worst offender. The country is poor and corrupt, with one gold mine responsible for 40 percent of hard currency earnings. The elites are essentially Soviet, with a sprinkle of small traders and criminals. Today’s opposition is very much the national nomenklatura — not dissidents like Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel. But they are leaders of popular discontent with the ruling family’s corruption and want more democracy than Mr. Akayev was willing to grant. They are also likely to inject new blood into the corrupt body politic.

The situation in the neighboring Uzbekistan and totalitarian Turkmenistan is even worse: There, the regimes are mowing down any opposition that appears on the horizon. However, they may be digging their own graves, a senior Bush National Security Council official says. The Islamists are lurking in the background with a whole scenario in mind to remove the secular “infidel” state and establish Sharia law.

In Kyrgyzstan and especially in Uzbekistan a global, clandestine radical Islamist party, Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami (Party of Islamic Liberation), is recruiting supporters by the thousands. Two prominent Kyrgyz politicians, including the country’s ombudsman, are Hizb supporters. Hizb’s goal: creation of a worldwide Califate, a military dictatorship based on Islamic law, dedicated to waging “Holy War” (jihad) against the West.

Central Asia, according to Hizb, is getting ripe for an Islamist revolution because of its corrupt “infidel” regimes and U.S. presence due to the war in Afghanistan. Central Asia, with its natural resources, including uranium mines, is as good a bridgehead in global jihad as any. Hizb has declared democracy un-Islamic and is likely to take part in any popular uprising.

Mr. Akayev, who was in power since 1990, was tired of power and the presidency, but was egged on to stay by his influential wife and family, who enriched themselves during his rule. His once-sterling reputation of a democrat, philosopher and writer has decayed like the portrait of Dorian Gray.

Central Asia came on the brink of violence, but backed off. In 1992, ethnic Uzbeks and Kyrgyz were at each other’s throats in Osh, with deaths totaling 2,000. And Kyrgyzstan’s north-south split is significant. The split between northern and southern clans in Tajikistan took more than 100,000 lives in the 1992-1997 civil war. Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan nervously watch developments in their small neighbor republic. They fear the unrest will spread to their poor Muslim Turkic population.

To avoid a catastrophic outcome, Kyrgyzstan’s neighbors, the United States, European Union, OSCE, the United Nations and Russia need to help the new government find a bloodless way to end the current crisis.

It is time to let the Kyrgyz people enjoy their newfound freedom.

Ariel Cohen is a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation and co-author and editor of “Eurasia in Balance” (Ashgate, 2005).

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