Will Obama support democracy in Kyrgyzstan?

The ousted president of Kyrgyzstan was charged with murder. Now Roza Otunbayeva is the best hope to lead the country. She’s honest, pro-American, and committed to democracy.

Protesters toppled the corrupt, clannish, and repressive government of Kyrgyzstan’s President Kurmanbek Bakiyev on April 7. And now he’s been charged with mass murder. The new provisional government, headed by Roza Otunbayeva, promises a democratic constitution this June and free elections in October, but is tenuously in control. The revolution presents the US with a unique opportunity to promote democracy, stability, and economic reform in a predominantly Muslim country, while also preserving a US base critical to the Afghan war.

The Obama administration has been slow to recognize and cautious in supporting the provisional government whose method and legitimacy in taking power has been widely questioned. To be sure, it was not a peaceful democratic revolution, but this is no cause for the US to remain aloof.

The democratic activists who challenged Mr. Bakiyev’s authoritarianism had four primary demands: 1. an end to the president’s nepotism and cronyism, 2. the cessation of political persecution; 3. respect for democracy and human rights; and 4. an end to corrupt privatization of state assets.

Bakiyev responded with arrests that only further outraged protesters. Some, armed with stones, clashed with the authorities and stormed government property when Bakiyev’s men opened fire. Presidential guards and police killed 86 protesters and injured scores in defending the kleptocracy.

Despite the looting that followed, most participants were people expressing deep discontent with the economic malaise and the corruption, abuses, and injustice of Bakiyev’s dictatorship. The provisional government is now struggling to control instability fueled by Bakiyev’s allies.

Maintaining stability while pursuing a democratic transition is critical for Kyrgyzstan. Roza Otunbayeva and her collaborators have committed to doing that. The US should lead the international community in recognizing them and supporting stability and democratization through economic incentives to reform. Under joint US, Russian, and Kazakh pressure, Bakiyev has left the country.

Yet contrary to his bold pledge in Cairo in June 2009, Obama has been reluctant in Kyrgyzstan, as elsewhere, to promote democracy. But now is not the time to hold back. Kyrgyzstan’s future, and US interests and ideals, depend on American involvement and commitment to democracy.

Democratic activists and ordinary citizens from Azerbaijan to Kyrgyzstan to Iran look to America to support their pursuit of just, democratic government. By prominently backing the provisional government and actively supporting a democratic transition through political and economic aid, the US will dispel Kyrgyz public sentiment that America cares only about its own geopolitical interests.

America stands to regain some of the legitimacy and credibility for promoting democracy that it once enjoyed throughout Central Asia.

Moreover, Ms. Otunbayeva is the best hope for a new Kyrgyz leader committed to democracy.

In contrast to Bakiyev, who promised to eradicate corruption and democratize but soon slid into the same problems his predecessor had been ousted for when he took power, she has a promising record. Serving under President Askar Akayev in the 1990s, she opposed democratic backsliding. She was a leading democracy activist in the peaceful, civic protests leading up to the 2005 “Tulip Revolution” that overthrew Akayev’s regime. Perhaps most important, Otunbayeva is widely recognized as honest.

She is one of the few former government ministers not tarnished by corruption. She would bring much needed legitimacy and credibility to a new democracy.

Otunbayeva is also pro-American. As foreign minister in the 1990s, she presided over the most Western-oriented period in Kyrgyzstan’s foreign policy. Against many government opponents who were more pro-Russian, she forged the Partnership for Peace agreement with NATO and sought close economic and political relations with the US and Europe.

Although not anti-Russian – no pragmatic Kyrgyz leader can afford to be – Otunbayeva is the best hope for a prodemocratic leader supportive of America’s “Manas” airbase in Kyrgyzstan.

Manas is essential to the ongoing war in Afghanistan, but the revolution puts the base at risk. Many Kyrgyz – including numerous democratic activists and interim government members – have become increasingly anti-American since the US turned a blind eye to Bakiyev’s corruption and abuses during the past five years.

Russia, meanwhile, has long wanted the US evicted and is now offering economic incentives and peacekeeping forces to encourage the fragile provisional government to end the US contract. Given Kyrgyzstan’s political instability and dire economic conditions, and the absence of substantial American political or economic assistance, Otunbayeva may be forced into Russia’s arms. Consequences for US strategic interests would be grim.

Finally, Kyrgyzstan’s latest revolution presents the US with an opportunity to rethink its aid package, something it failed to do in 2005.

In the past, too much foreign aid has been pocketed by corrupt Kyrgyz officials. Government corruption and lack of economic opportunity drove the protesters in 2005 and again this month. Renewed economic aid should bypass the corrupt state, avoid insider privatization, foster transparency, and include microfinancing for small business. Such aid will generate employment and foster middle class growth essential to sustainable democracy.

In short, the US should seize the moment and support Kyrgyzstan’s transition. Doing so serves both Kyrgyz and American interests. Kyrgyzstan has little time to make the transition work.

Kathleen Collins is author of “Clan Politics and Regime Transition in Central Asia.” She is an associate professor of political science at the University of Minnesota. She worked for former foreign minister Roza Otunbayeva as a policy intern in Kyrgyzstan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.