OR a country with twice as many sheep as people, Kyrgyzstan is at the head of the flock in political development in Central Asia. Despite being the farthest from Europe geographically, Kyrgyzstan is the closest of the five former Soviet states in the region to a Western-style democracy, although it still has a way to go.
Given Kyrgyzstan's rough neighborhood - the country is surrounded by war-torn Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, as well as China - the achievement is considerable. Credit is due Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev, known in the corridors of the State Department as Askar ``Jefferson'' Akaev for his endorsement of a program of multiparty democracy, protection of minority rights, and religious freedom. Mr. Akaev is a ``true democrat,'' says Strobe Talbott, President Clinton's point man for the newly independent states.
Akaev has actively courted support for his policies from the West. He was welcomed at the White House in May, where Mr. Clinton praised him for his ``courageous support for human rights, democracy and market reforms.'' Kyrgyzstan, Clinton said, was a ``model'' for the rest of the former Soviet Union. The Central Asian state, in fact, received the best human rights evaluation of all former Soviet republics in the United States State Department's 1992 survey.
For all the progress that has been made, however, the Soviet legacy in Kyrgyzstan is not easily erased. Like other legislatures in the former USSR, the Kyrgyz congress, elected in multicandidate general elections in March 1990, is dominated by former members of the banned Communist Party. Akaev himself ran unopposed in the October 1991 presidential election, receiving a Stalinist 99.7 percent of the votes. Contrary to repeated reports in the Western press, Akaev, like most of his counterparts in the rest of the former Soviet Union, is an ex-Communist Party official.
Akaev has not been without critics. Some, such as members of the Kyrgyzstan Party of National Regeneration, have argued that he has failed to give priority to ethnic Kyrgyz interests. Others have charged that he is too reliant on former Communist Party officials to run his administration. Elements of the nomenklatura retain positions of influence in local politics and the central security apparatus. Still others have accused him of nepotism in government appointments.
Complaints such as these are not unique to Kyrgyzstan, however, and should be viewed in light of what Akaev has achieved. Indeed, his co-opting of political forces that could otherwise pose a threat stands as a considerable success. His decision Nov. 29 to hold a referendum on his presidency on Jan. 24 is a sign of further political progress.
Kyrgyzstan's biggest problem is its predominantly agrarian economy, which Akaev says is in ``critical'' condition. Kyrgyzstan was the most dependent of all Soviet republics on inter-republic trade, and the breakup of the USSR has had a particularly devastating impact. Exacerbating the problem is the emigration of Russians from Kyrgyzstan; they constitute one-fifth of the country's 4.4 million people. The Russians are fleeing the low and declining living standards and draining Kyrgyzstan of its professional elite.
In an effort to stabilize, Kyrgyzstan became in May the first Central Asian state to establish an independent currency, the som. Monthly inflation since then has slowed from 40 percent to 19 percent. A 7 percent to 8 percent inflation rate is expected for December, according to Almas Chukin, a counselor at the Kyrgyz embassy in Washington. ``I think the worst of the economic situation is past us,'' Chukin said.
His optimistic outlook conforms to an International Monetary Fund assessment which commends Kyrgyzstan's ``significant progress'' in implementing an ``ambitious and comprehensive'' program of economic reform. At the same time, the IMF report warned of the need for a further reduction in inflation and a reversal of output decline.
An even starker picture was presented by a World Bank official, Wilfried Thalwitz, who, according to the newspaper Slovo Kyrgyzstana, argued that reforms in Kyrgyzstan have slowed and are not producing the desired results.
Despite such warnings, the West has provided considerable political and economic backing for Kyrgyzstan and Akaev. The US in particular has provided sizable support: Kyrgyzstan receives the highest per capita US aid of any state in the former Soviet Union, reflecting what the State Department says is a ``very conscious US policy'' to bolster reforms there. Kyrgyzstan also has qualified for a full IMF standby agreement on top of the $240 million credit from the World Bank. Continuing support from the West will be crucial to Akaev's political and economic reforms.
With the rest of Central Asia embroiled in a woolly situation, the region needs a success story. Kyrgyzstan finally has something it can offer apart from an abundance of sheep. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.