Friday, September 17, 2010

Could Kyrgyzstan be the democracy in Afghanistan's back yard?

by Thomas A. Daschle

Washington Post
September 17, 2010

Kyrgyzstan rarely makes headlines in the United States. It is a small, landlocked country in Central Asia that is overshadowed by neighbors such as China, Kazakhstan, Pakistan and Afghanistan. When I recently visited Bishkek, the capital, it was clear that Kyrgyzstan's strategic importance and democratic impulses deserve greater attention. At the same time, the people of Kyrgyzstan would rather be recognized for their democratic ambitions than as an asset in the war in Afghanistan.

One narrative among American Kyrgyzstan-watchers goes something like this: Kyrgyzstan is important because it hosts a U.S. airbase, which serves as a key transit point for personnel en route to Afghanistan. Although the rights to this base were reasonably secure under the autocratic administration of Kurmanbek Bakiyev, his ouster in April threw the fate of the base into question. Kyrgyzstan is now ruled by a more democratic but weak interim government that was unable to quell the deadly ethnic violence that erupted in June, has been unable to remove a hostile mayor in the south, has been unreliable about meeting international commitments, and has risked increasing tensions by holding a constitutional referendum in June and scheduling parliamentary elections in October. The narrative's subtext seems to be that this government is less predictable than its authoritarian predecessor. Indeed, a recent headline in The Post described Kyrgyzstan as a "new headache" for U.S. policy.

I see it differently. Kyrgyzstan is important not only because it houses an airbase but also because it has the most democratic potential in the region. Processes and institutions do not yet align with citizens' aspirations, but popular demand and respect for democracy still burn bright. The Bakiyev regime toppled in April at least in part because it failed to deliver on democratic promises and trampled on political freedoms and human rights.