Accolades about democracy from American officials are rarely so positive - and perhaps so premature - as they have been about the Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan.
President Askar Akayev was the "Thomas Jefferson ... of Central Asia," with "more than a bit of Benjamin Franklin in him as well," according to US Undersecretary of State Strobe Talbott in 1994, and Kyrgyzstan, a "very promising" beacon of democracy.
But a controversial presidential election on Oct. 29 that extended Mr. Akayev's tenure has turned that appraisal upside down.
Analysts say Kyrgyzstan has joined the regional trend toward deepening authoritarian rule in Central Asia - a region rich in energy resources, with a volatile mix of Islamic militarism and drug trafficking that make it an American security priority.
"Kyrgyzstan used to be an island of democracy, then it became an atoll, and now it is just a reef," says a longtime Western observer in the capital, Bishkek, who asked not to be further identified. "These governments learned it was easy to fool the West, to change outwardly and not internally.
"There is only a facade of openness and democracy, but as soon as they see a [political] threat, anyone willing to stand up gets the full force of the government against them."
Counting on Kyrgyzstan as a model for the region - by all accounts it still remains the most open society, compared with any of its neighbors - the US and Europe have provided the resource-poor nation with $1.5 billion in aid since Central Asian states were created in 1991 after the collapse of the USSR.
Some significant economic reforms were carried out in the 1990s, in this mountainous nation of 4.8 million, and the gilt-edged rhetoric was all about democracy. Though a statue of Lenin still dominates the central square here, uncompromising centrally dictated Soviet politics seemed consigned to the past.
But the presidential vote - and a February-March parliamentary election before it - was marred by allegations of irregularities, ballot stuffing, intimidation of the media, and the exclusion of serious opponents. Incumbent Akayev won nearly 75 percent of votes cast - but forfeited any comparisons to the man who penned the Declaration of Independence.
Senior US officials declared the vote a "setback for the development of democracy" that was "neither free nor fair." Election monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said it "failed to comply" with international standards. An observer team from the Washington-based National Democratic Institute found "serious flaws" and "patterns of state-led interference and political harassment."
"It is certainly a step backwards," says John Schoeberlein, director of the Forum for Central Asian Studies at Harvard University, and head of the Central Asia Program for the International Crisis Group. But there was a tendency to "exaggerate how democratic Kyrgyzstan was before," he notes, so the change is relative.
"This is a high-profile event that shows that Akayev is not committed to pursuing as democratic a path as possible," Schoeberlein adds. "It is quite possible - as in the cases of many Central Asian elections - that he would have won on the basis of popularity, without [rigging]. But it seems the ideal of a clean and fair election is just not flourishing in the minds of the leaders."
Part of the problem regionwide is entrenched patronage systems. Virtually all local officials depend on the president for their position, and therefore work hard to show a "good" result from their areas.
"This is the Kyrgyz reality, and we can't do anything about that until we elevate the minds of the people," says Kouban Taabaldiev, director of Kabar, the state-run national news agency.
"Akayev has a lot of support and would have won, but some local authorities want to make sure he has more support, and don't know democratic rules," he says. But Akayev's aim is good, he contends: "I believe Akayev wants a third term, to finish his reforms and take Kyrgyzstan on a democratic way."
The path followed, however, appears closer to the trend toward despotism in the region, where political power has barely changed hands in a decade.
For example, legislation drafted last spring in Kazakhstan - where President Nursultan Nazarbaev has dissolved parliament twice - ensures the president powers and privileges for life. Last December in Turkmenistan - where political opponents reportedly have been committed to psychiatric wards - the president orchestrated a rubber-stamp vote in the People's Council making him president for life. In Uzbekistan, the sole opponent running against President Islam Karimov in a January election declared that he was not voting for himself, but for the incumbent. In Tajikistan a year ago, the president was reelected by 96 percent in a vote the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe deemed too corrupt to monitor.
The trend in Central Asia "has been the emergence of presidents far more powerful than other branches of government, all of whom have refused to allow genuine electoral challenges," notes a nonbinding resolution passed Nov. 1 by the US House of Representatives.
The Kyrgyz case may irk pro-democracy campaigners most, however, because of hopes of more openness that blossomed for some in the mid-1990s.
Supporters are quick to point out that President Akayev - by all accounts a charming and affable physicist, who promised to bring international aid to help boost his nation's hopes - is up against a diehard Soviet-era legacy.
Still, critics say pre-vote manipulations and election-day irregularities had a distinct Soviet flavor. And there was a new tactic: a closed-door Kyrgyz language test for all contenders, which weeded out several native Kyrgyz speakers but gave Akayev the highest possible score.
"Long before the election, we knew who was going to be president," says Viktor Zapolsky, editor of Delo No. ... (Case No. ...), the capital's combative, biggest-selling Russian-language newspaper. Zapolsky says his publication, which for a decade had been virtually free of official harrassment, became the subject of increasing pressure during the election period.
Zapolsky and his wife, co-editor Svetlana Krasilnikova, say that in the past two months she has been interrogated five times and he at least six times.
Pressure is mounting on the once-vibrant press in this country, analysts say, with harrassment intensifying during the runup to the presidential election.
Zapolsky and Krasilnikova, whose publication is known for its crime stories and investigations into official misdeeds, say their home and offices have been searched, and tax police made a raid. Authorities found only that the newspaper had paid its taxes, but imposed a $28,000 tax - later overturned in court - on losses the paper had accrued.
Repeated calls Sunday to a presidential spokesman for comment on the Delo No. ... affair were not returned.
The two editors see media intimidation as part of a return to Soviet methods.
"At first, [President Askar] Akayev was good," says Krasilnikova. "He was very sensitive to civil rights and freedoms. He was poor, and didn't have a taste for big money or unlimited power. Back then, we were fascinated by the smell of freedom. But Akayev became intoxicated with that smell. Our leaders are very dangerous - to this day, the leader decides everything."
The Constitution allows a leader to be elected only twice, but this last vote was Akayev's third time. Zapolsky says that "if today he [Akayev] violates the Constitution, what can we expect of him tomorrow? The main danger is he will never give up power."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society