Breakthrough in Bishkek

Editorial

New York Times

March 25, 2005

One more post-Soviet autocracy appeared to have crumbled yesterday as the president of Kyrgyzstan, Askar Akayev, fled with his family while opposition protestors swarmed into the presidential compound in the capital city of Bishkek. It was a shabby but deserved ending to almost 15 years of rule by a man who was once praised as Central Asia's most democratically inclined leader. Of course, that is something of a backhanded compliment in a region where repressive troglodytes are the norm.

Over the years, Mr. Akayev's political views became less enlightened as he grew more attached to the rewards of power. He showed no qualms about jailing opposition leaders, rigging elections and grooming his daughter as a possible successor. The most recent election fraud, in parliamentary voting earlier this month, set off the nationwide protests that finally sent him running.

Kyrgyzstan has now followed the examples of Georgia and Ukraine, which threw out the corrupt cliques that latched on to power after the Soviet Union fell part in 1991. It needs to keep emulating them by holding early elections to establish a democratically legitimate government. Once it does, Kyrgyzstan itself can set a positive example for the remaining misruled and undemocratic post-Soviet republics, particularly its nearby neighbors - Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan. All five Central Asian republics are examples of the kind of despotic misgovernment that the West has been too willing to accept and even collude with in the Muslim world.

It has been Central Asia's unhappy fate over the years to get swept up in rivalries among major powers - initially Russia and Britain; now Russia, China and the United States. That pattern was reinforced after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, when the Bush administration began courting the region's rulers and minimizing their dictatorial abuses to secure air bases near Afghanistan. One particularly useful base is located in Kyrgyzstan, just outside Bishkek. That may explain why the State Department voiced only mild criticism of this month's election fraud, while taking the opposition to task for taking over and trashing government buildings. What a contrast with Washington's forthright support for huge antigovernment protests in Kiev last year and in Beirut earlier this month.

The hasty flight of Mr. Akayev shows just how shortsighted such cynical realpolitik can be. The best thing America can do now for Kyrgyzstan is work with democracies in Europe and elsewhere to help it move from the chaos of this week's upheaval toward a more stable democratic future.