The Kyrgyz Republic’s new leadership has a unique chance to alter the Central Asian nation’s development course – creating an environment where democratic and economic reforms can take root. The Tulip Revolution of 2005 failed to fulfill its democratization potential. The US government must do all it can to help Kyrgyzstan to seize on this second opportunity. In doing so, the United States can demonstrate its longstanding commitment to Central Asia’s stability, and show, more broadly to the world, that the security-democratization debate is not a zero-sum game.
There has been a growing worry within Kyrgyzstan that the United States cares more about its security needs than those of the Kyrgyz people. We must prove this perception false, with actions rather than with rhetoric.
The United States has an important interest in promoting stability, prosperity, security, human rights, and economic and political reform in Kyrgyzstan and greater Central Asia. A stable and prosperous Kyrgyzstan can serve as a model for the region. The ability of Bishkek to live up to its early promise as “an island of democracy” can also assist international stabilization efforts in neighboring Afghanistan.
Real stability can only be achieved when people feel secure in their basic rights and when there is true political and economic opportunity for all. While President Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s rule initially seemed to promise real change for the Kyrgyz people, his actions in the past few years were a disappointing return to the old days. As a result, Bakiyev suffered the same fate as his predecessor, Askar Akayev.
Kyrgyzstan under Bakiyev was heading in the wrong direction. For instance, last July’s presidential election failed to meet the country’s international commitments. It was marred by significant obstacles for opposition parties, intimidation, vote buying and ballot stuffing, and the use of government resources to benefit specific political interests, according to the US State Department’s latest country report on human rights. Kyrgyzstan was recently downgraded to “Not Free” in the annual survey of political rights and civil liberties by Freedom House, a democratization watchdog organization. And freedom of expression and media had been increasingly curtailed during Bakiyev’s rule amid allegations of nepotism and corruption.
Public perceptions in Kyrgyzstan about US intentions have been largely shaped by the drawn-out debate surrounding our access rights at Manas. It is true that the transit center operated by the United States at Manas International Airport is critical to US strategic interests. The center provides vital logistical support to coalition forces in Afghanistan and is an important contribution by the Kyrgyz Republic to security, stability, and reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan and the region. After complaints that American payments did not adequately reflect Kyrgyz contributions, the two governments renegotiated the terms of the deal last summer. The new agreement provides a valuable source of support for the Kyrgyz economy.
At the same time, the United States increased cooperative activities with Kyrgyzstan in a number of areas. For instance, the United States increased counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism assistance and provided significant additional assistance to upgrade air traffic safety and other civilian facilities at Manas Airport. All of these steps contribute to Kyrgyzstan’s long-term security and economic development.
And in the wake of recent violence, the United States is providing medical supplies to the National Hospital and gasoline to the Bishkek City Patrol Police to help treat victims of the violence and help local authorities maintain order.
While the transit center at Manas is important for security across the region, so are the democratic aspirations of the Kyrgyz people. We see no conflict between these priorities because both are served by a Kyrgyzstan that is prosperous and free.
The United States stands for democracy and freedom globally, and we cannot afford to have our principles appear hollow. While our goal is not to impose our political system on other nations, we actively promote good governance and respect for fundamental human rights. Rule of law and democratic institutions are the key to enabling transparent and open investment climates that foster economic growth. We are not afraid to raise these issues privately – or publicly – and have done so consistently in Kyrgyzstan.
The new leaders of Kyrgyzstan have a responsibility and opportunity to bring stability and prosperity to their country. They will need to take concrete action to help liberalize their political and economic systems. Already, provisional government leaders have taken a bold step by restoring Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty programming, which was taken off national airwaves nearly two years ago for political reasons. We hope to see many more such steps in the coming weeks and months. And we will be there as partners along the way.
Sen. John Kerry, Democrat from Massachusetts, is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.