Kyrgyz vote in bid to banish a corrupt legacy

Medet Rismendiyev has always lived in this impoverished hamlet beneath the snow-capped Tien Shan Mountains, and he's voted in every election since 1937. But his ballot Sunday in Kyrgyzstan's tense post-revolutionary presidential polls may be the first one to make a difference, he says.

"Everyone is very worried about a return to instability," says Mr. Rismendiyev, the village elder of Koitash. "Young people here are all unemployed, with nothing to do but get into trouble. They need a chance for something better."

Like many people here, Rismendiyev says he voted for interim president Kurmanbek Bakiyev, a former prime minister who was vaulted to power by the popular revolt that overthrew longtime leader Askar Akayev last March. Five other candidates are running, but Mr. Bakiyev appears to have convinced many voters that only he can hold the fractious country together and banish Mr. Akayev's baneful legacy.

Nonetheless, few have anything enthusiastic to say about him, while any mention of Akayev - who lives in luxurious exile near Moscow - draws a passionate response. "Akayev oppressed the people for 15 years; he ruined all our hopes," says Sayunbay Toktosunov, a retired farmer. "He must be captured and put on trial."

Rismendiyev is also angry. "He betrayed the country," he says. "Our hopes for a better life [after the Soviets] were crushed."

Unlike elections held under Akayev, Sunday's polls appeared to be going smoothly. "[F]or the first time since independence they present a genuine choice," Bakiyev told reporters after voting. "No one was pressed or told how to vote."

But the winner in Kyrgyzstan, where the average monthly wage hovers around $15, faces overwhelming challenges. In Koitash, a typical mountain village of about 1,000, many say there has been no work since the Soviet-era collective farms were disbanded 14 years ago. Irrigation systems have broken down, and there is little working machinery. No one has money for improvements. "Most people here live on what they can grow on their own plots, and barter surpluses," says Anarbek Abasov. "My children work as vendors in the market in Bishkek. That's the only way we see a little cash."

Kyrgyzstan, a country of 5 million wedged between China and former Soviet Central Asia, has long straddled the main east-west trade route. Akayev led it to independence and for many years enjoyed a reputation as Central Asia's most progressive and democratic leader.

Russia and the US maintain military bases near Bishkek, a symbol of Kyrgyzstan's strategic importance in the global struggles against terrorism and drug smuggling.

Some Kyrgyz snort when asked about Akayev's liberal credentials. "His regime was corrupted, and it spoiled the whole society," says Almaz Beshayev, an election observer for the US-backed Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society. "This is his worst legacy: Everyone, from the youngest to the oldest, believes that anything can be bought and sold, and that it's normal."

Many voters say they hope to put that legacy to rest. "We need to see change," says Rismendiyev. "I believe Bakiyev is a worthy man.... If he fails to solve problems, then he will be overthrown."

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