A Chameleon Shows His Jeffersonian Side

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HE can charm American presidents, talk physics with fellow scientists, and gab geopolitics with old friend Boris Yeltsin. An intellectual who spent the bulk of his career outside his homeland, Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev is an anomaly in the rough, insider-dominated world of Central Asian politics.

Mr. Akayev has been both hailed as a liberal reformer and castigated as a would-be dictator. A onetime darling of a West, he's also an adherent of the "Asian values" expounded by Far East autocrats.

No wonder a newspaper recently ran a collage depicting him as a composite of various world leaders. "Akayev has a tendency of picking and choosing bits and pieces of his philosophy from different places," says one Western admirer. "He's a bit of a chameleon. When he's in Indonesia, he's a strong Asiatic leader; when he's in Ashkhabad [capital of Turkmenistan], he's the Muslim; and when he's in America he's a democrat. And they're all true - he just plays to his audience."

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So as he smiles his way through an interview with an American reporter, Akayev showcases his free-market, pro-democracy credentials. He quotes Alexis de Tocqueville, Winston Churchill, and Abraham Lincoln. Akayev is also a big fan of Thomas Jefferson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Four Freedoms, but the 90 minutes are up before he can squeeze them into the discussion.

Yet Akayev has a tougher side as well. "An authoritarian government in the period of transition from a totalitarian communist regime must tell people the truth about the necessity of temporary limits on democracy," he said during a visit to Israel two years ago.

As implemented in Kyrgyzstan, such limits have included harassment of opposition journalists and the increasing concentration of power in the hands of the president. Although Kyrgyzstan remains freer than its neighbors, Akayev must now struggle to prop up his flagging reputation in the West.

"There are different possibilities," he says. "There is the option of rigid restrictions. I meant the gentlest variety. I was merely calling for responsibility."

He's happier to talk about his background as an optical physicist. His speech is sprinkled with scientific metaphors. "Physicists know that you can move from one order of things to another only by passing through a state of chaos," is how Akayev explains his faith in the financial shock therapy that made Kyrgyzstan's currency one of the strongest across the former USSR.

It was chaos that brought Akayev to power in the first place. An early supporter of perestroika, he was a Soviet parliamentary deputy in 1990 when ethnic violence erupted in the Kyrgyz city of Osh. As public protests against Communist rule spread, aides to then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev put Akayev on a plane home and arranged his election to the presidency.

A late arrival into the political arena, Akayev still enjoys playing the antipolitician. He eschews the conspicuous consumption that has made other Central Asian presidents objects of gossip. And alone among leaders in the region, Akayev says he will leave office when his second term expires in the year 2000. He is on the lookout for a youthful successor.

"I have a number of brilliant young ministers. They all speak two or three languages, are at ease in Davos, Paris, New York," he says. So the race for the presidential endorsement is on. A question facing the potential candidates: What does the man who tells you what you want to hear, want to hear?

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