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Kyrgyzstan's Fading Romance With the West
The Kyrgyz leadership is distancing itself from the West to prevent criticism of its record on political rights disturbing two key elections next year, analysts say.
The administration of President Askar Akaev – once the focus of western attention in Central Asia because of its relatively progressive policies – has grown increasingly uncomfortable with the level of outside interest in the way it runs the country.
A parliamentary election in February 2005 is likely to be hotly contested by opposition parties, and gaining a clear victory there will boost the Akaev regime’s chances of winning the presidential poll in October the same year. Akaev has indicated that he will not stand for re-election, and if he keeps to this decision he is likely to seek to secure the election of an anointed successor.
Akaev used a UNESCO conference in Kyrgyzstan on June 10 to deliver a strongly worded message to the international community, which he once courted assiduously.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Kyrgyzstan was the only Central Asian state to show some determination to pursue democratic reforms. Unlike its neighbours it had little oil, gas or cotton wealth and was reliant on western goodwill for soft loans and aid. The vibrant civil society that emerged earned the country the tag of Central Asia’s “island of democracy”.
But in the last few years, increasing international concerns at backsliding on political rights have led to Akaev’s pro-western stance becoming more muted.
In remarks quoted by newspapers in Bishkek and Moscow, Akaev said the West was engaged in what he called an "expansion of revolution", and made it clear that he had no plans to go the way of President Eduard Shevardnadze, ousted in Georgia’s “rose revolution” last November following mass protests against the alleged rigging of a parliamentary election.
“The new international political techniques that are put into practice in nicely packaged formats such as ‘velvet revolution’ are cause for great concern,” said Akaev.
He went on to suggest that democracy in Kyrgyzstan should be allowed develop at its own pace, saying, "I have long been convinced that true people’s power should naturally appear within countries. Pushing this process from the outside – a sort of "export of democracy" – is very reminiscent of the Bolsheviks' ‘export of revolution’."
The president singled out the Organisation for Security and Cooperation, of which Kyrgyzstan is a member and which has an office in the country, as a source of unwelcome criticism.
"Foreign reactions which have little to do with local realities are often seen as interference in [Kyrgyz] domestic affairs. But we still have to take them on board patiently, especially when they comes from an organisation with the authority of the OSCE,” he said.
Omurbek Tekebaev, who leads the opposition Ata Meken party and has a seat in parliament, sees such remarks as a rejection of the democratic process that the international community has tried to promote.
"Recent speeches by Akaev indicated that he has decided to change political tack, and follow an evolutionary path by reinforcing national traditions of state administration," he told IWPR.
Tekebaev believes the president’s comments are part of a broader campaign to prepare for next year’s elections, "The criticism springs from an instinct for self-preservation. The president and his team want to stay in power. So when international non-government organisations call for international standards to be adhered to before and during the elections, it’s described as growing interference in internal political processes."
Tolekan Ismailova, head of the non-government pressure group Civil Society Against Corruption, agrees that the president wants to stay in control.
"Akaev is an autocrat by nature,” she told IWPR. “That is shown by the fact that as soon as the international community started demanding that the principles of free and fair elections should be observed in practice rather than on paper, he revealed his true face and his plans to ‘do democracy the Kyrgyz way’.”
Like many others, Tekebaev has seen many examples of this new policy line being conveyed through the government-controlled the media.
The main targets for this media campaign are international organisations that work with local groups on democracy-building projects. As well as the OSCE, the fire has been directed at the National Democratic Institute, a United States political foundation, NDI, the US government-funded free speech organisation Freedom House, and the Open Society Institute, funded by the financier George Soros.
In a June 4 article, the state newspaper Slovo Kyrgyzstana accused these organisations of pursuing the common goal of overthrowing the current regime, along the lines of the Georgian or Serbian popular revolutions.
"The aim is to orchestrate mass unrest and disturbances, and thus overthrow the legitimate authorities and create a puppet government that is wholly dependent on external forces,” said the article. “This scenario could go even further than the Georgian one.”
The article went on to identify the United States as the source of all the trouble. "The roses of the velvet revolution are blooming at the command of a single foreign centre,” it said, adding that the America was plainly visible behind the activities of Kyrgyzstan’s opposition parties.
The OSCE ambassador in Bishkek, Markus Mueller, sees such forceful statements as part of a regional trend in former Soviet countries.
"Some countries in the region have decided that western path does not really suit them and that are unable to transform themselves at the western pace,” he said in an interview for IWPR. “Maybe they want to go back to bolstering Russia, or maybe they have developed their own vision of the situation.”
Mueller said he recognised that the Kyrgyz authorities were concerned at the role international organisations might play during elections, and that the opposition itself sometimes missed the point of the OSCE, seeing it as a proponent of regime change rather than a neutral player that “supports rather than exports” democracy.
"Despite the critical statements, we will continue working as a neutral, free defender of democratic processes," he said.
NDI’s director in Kyrgyzstan, Amy Schultz, dismissed the hostile newspaper articles as having “nothing to do with reality", and insisted that her institute – a foundation linked to the US Democratic Party which seeks to help the growth of political parties and other democratic processes abroad – had done nothing wrong.
"Our purpose is the promotion and expansion of democracy. We do not attempt and have never attempted to impose our values or to influence domestic policies," she said.
Like other observers, Schultz sees a clear link with the elections, “We don’t know whether these attacks have been orchestrated or whether they are just a string of coincidences. It’s assumed that the increased criticism of the United States and western organisations is linked with the forthcoming elections."
Interviewed by IWPR, President Akaev’s press secretary, Abdil Segizbaev, dismissed the idea that his government had turned against the United States as “completely stupid”.
But he followed by launching a broadside against the Kyrgyz opposition and excessive international influence on it, “They [opposition forces] are the only ones talking about some kind of organised campaign. Their aim is to set our country at odds with others, and isolate it.
“It is not a secret that we have puppet movements emerging not on the initiative of political forces in Kyrgyzstan but on the orders of consultants from outside…. These movements have nothing to do with the interests of our people. Since they are puppets, they pursue the interests of the consultants."
Segizbaev - who previously worked as public relations coordinator for OSI - said foreign organisations working in Kyrgyzstan sometimes portrayed developments there in a biased manner.
"There’s a saying, 'the darker the night, the brighter the stars’. That is, the worse the situation gets, the bigger the budget of these organisations will be,” he said.
Analysts believe that the authorities are likely to continue suggesting that opposition groups are no more than the tools of malign forces abroad, as a way of undermining their credibility ahead of next year’s polls.
Relations with the West and its local representatives in Bishkek can only grow more strained since, as NDI’s Amy Schultz insisted, “international observers will continue calling on the government to adhere to its international commitments on building democracy".
Leila Saralaeva is an independent journalist in Bishkek.
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