Kyrgystan Takes Quiet Path to Democracy

Shadowed by more volatile neighbors, a former Soviet republic emerges as a model of reform


It's a sentiment commonly expressed by Western observers when they stumble across the country of Kyrgyzstan. Even many high-level United States government officials were unaware a year ago of the existence of this obscure former Soviet republic, nestled against China in Central Asia.

Now they are delighted by what they find. Mountainous, landlocked Kyrgyzstan turns out to be a bastion of human rights, economic reform, and social harmony in the midst of the ethnic and religious turmoil and continuing tyranny that characterize much of the vast geographical neighborhood surrounding it.

One of 15 former Soviet states that declared independence when the ``evil empire'' collapsed, Kyrgyzstan has become what US Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott calls ``a remarkable and very promising and admirable'' country.

Forgotten in the turmoil

How the outside world managed at first to overlook a country the size of Minnesota or Britain with 4.4 million literate people is explainable.

With the Soviet breakup, wary Western eyes were fixed foremost on the still-threatening nuclear missiles squatting on the soil of Russia and in the Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. There was little time in those earth-shaking days to take notice of a remote, peaceful, civilized former Soviet republic, which no one had ever heard of before, anyway.

One man suddenly put Kyrgyzstan on the map and into the consciousness of US policymakers: Askar Akayev, a ``remarkable'' 49-year-old physicist and academician, the first freely elected president of Kyrgyzstan.

``President Akayev is a true democrat,'' Mr. Talbott says. ``He is just about the only person in that part of the world who is not a reconstructed veteran of the old regime.''

Akayev is one of the survivors of that strain of independent-thinking reformers and defenders of human rights who developed their convictions in the shadows of totalitarian conformity.

President of the Kyrgyzstan Academy of Sciences, Akayev emerged politically in 1989, when he was elected to the USSR Congress of People's Deputies. In Moscow, he outraged Kyrgyz Communist hard-liners back home by supporting Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms.

The ideas he ``suddenly'' expressed were a continuation of the free-thinking Western values that he had first acquired as a young university student and teacher in the heady if secretive intellectual life of Leningrad in the days of the Krushchev thaw.

Akayev's familiarity with the 18th-century philosophers of the European Enlightenment and the constitutional concepts of America's Founding Fathers matched those of Andrei Sakharov, his hero, mentor, friend, and fellow scientist.

In the fall of 1990, Akayev returned to Kyrgyzstan to confront his hard-line Communist critics. In October, he and his like-minded allies outmaneuvered their foes to elect Akayev the new ``chairman'' of the Kyrgyz parliament - then the same thing as the country's ``president.'' If squabbling among Communist factions made this development possible, so too did Akayev's moral stature and popularity among the Kyrgyz people.

Akayev's time of personal testing, however, came when the August 1991 coup plotters struck not only in Moscow, but also 1,000 miles away in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital.

For three days and nights, military helicopters buzzed Akayev's residence and Soviet troops and KGB agents tried to terrorize him into submission. Akayev, backed by loyal local security forces, held his ground.

Akayev moved swiftly after the coup's failure. Kyrgyzstan declared its independence on Aug. 31, 1991, and on Oct. 12, Akayev became the new republic's first popularly elected president.

The reforms launched by Akayev have set a striking example of progress compared with other former Soviet republics. The US State Department's 1992 survey of world human rights conditions ranks Kyrgyzstan's the best of the former Soviet republics. The country was the first ex-Soviet republic to meet World Bank and International Monetary Fund requirements for obtaining financial assistance.

Kyrgyzstan's progress has not been achieved without struggle and setbacks, and the country still faces formidable problems. Akayev must deal with the same kind of leftover apparatchik parliament that has plagued Boris Yeltsin in Moscow. But for a ``nonpolitician,'' he has threaded his way skillfully through the thickets, managing to win approval for every major legislative initiative he has undertaken, except for a failed effort to privatize agricultural lands.

Recently, when resentment was rising as a result of the declining living standards that are a problem for all the new republics, Akayev abruptly called a national referendum on his leadership, announcing that he would resign if he did not have the support of his people. He won an overwhelming 96 percent vote of confidence in a Jan. 31 plebiscite participated in by 95 percent of the people.

Light years ahead

Typifying the national sentiment, perhaps, was a woman who grumbled, ``Who is rich is richer. Who is poor is poorer. But I support Akayev because no one could do better.''

A high-ranking Western diplomat with hands-on experience in Kyrgyzstan, who declined to be named, says, ``Politically, Kyrgyzstan is light-years ahead of the other new republics. Economically, it is carefully and methodically preparing the way for a market economy - but life is difficult today.''

``It's a rocky road to reform,'' says an official of an international institution who deals directly with the republic. ``Loss of support from Moscow, inflation, rising unemployment, obstructionism from the old economic and political bureaucrats, and confusion about how a free market works - all this confronts the Akayev reformers, But they can yet succeed.''

Akayev says, ``We in Kyrgyzstan have already achieved certain successes in pouring the foundation for democratic society, the purpose of which is to defend mankind, his integrity, his freedom, and his interests.''

Whether it lasts will depend partly on whether his country, so long hidden, can now continue attracting not only the attention but the aid and investment of the outside world.

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