The people of Kyrgyzstan have spoken -- and acted.
As they storm presidential palace and government buildings in the capital Bishkek, the government is paralyzed and impotent. The resignation of President Askar Akaev is the best way out of the crisis. Otherwise, the country will be facing a civil war, a bloody uprising, a possible disintegration, or all of the above. What's more, turmoil in Kyrgyzstan may destabilize its large neighbors, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, with catastrophic consequences of inter-ethnic and political violence.
To prevent bloodshed, the US and its allies must act quickly to convince President Akaev to step down or be shunned by the international community.
Akaev's secular opposition has already taken over the south of the country, including the two largest cities Osh and Jalalabad, and is poised to march on the capital Bishkek which is bracing for a large protest this weekend. In response, Akaev calls his opponents "criminals" and foreign agents. He has refused to cancel deeply flawed parliamentary elections or resign. Messrs. Leonid Kuchma, the former President of Ukraine, and Victor Yanukovich, his Prime Minister defeated by Victor Yushchenko in the Orange Revolution, used to do the same in Kyiv.
It didn't have to be like that. In the early 1990s, mountainous and poor Kyrgyzstan was hailed as an oasis of democracy. The US bestowed WTO membership and World Bank credits, but the country remained poor and corrupt. In early 2001 Akaev jailed Felix Kulov, his former vice-president, for challenging him for the presidency.
His former Prime Minister Kurmanbek Bakiev resigned in 2002 after government troops shot up six peaceful protesters, and now is an opposition leader. Roza Otunbaeva, the former Foreign Minister whom he banned from running for parliament in favor of his daughter, is among his toughest critics.
Kyrgyzstan today is a quintessence of everything that is wrong with post-communist Central Asian regimes, although it is hardly the worst offender. It did not have its "velvet revolution". The elites are essentially Soviet, with a sprinkle of small traders and criminals. Today's opposition leaders are very much the national nomenklatura -- not dissidents like Lech Walensa and Vaclav Havel. But they are leaders of popular discontent with the ruling family's corruption and want more democracy than Akaev is willing to grant. They are also likely to inject new blood into the corrupt body politic.
The situation in neighboring Uzbekistan and totalitarian Turkmenistan is even worse: there, the regimes are knocking down any opposition that appears on the horizon. However, they may be digging their own graves, a senior Bush administration National Security Council official says. The current opposition movements in Central Asia are likely to depose the authoritarian ruler and bring new secular elites to power, with at least a chance for democratic development. The Islamists, who are lurking in the background, have a whole different plan: a Shari'a (Islamic Law)-based state which will be a base of Jihad against other infidel regimes in the region.
In Kyrgyzstan and especially in Uzbekistan a global, clandestine radical Islamist party, Hizb ut-Tahrir al Islami (Party of Islamic Liberation), is recruiting supporters by the thousand. Two prominent Kyrgyz politicians are Hizb supporters. Hizb's goal: creation of a worldwide Califate, a military dictatorship based on Shari'a law, and dedicated to waging the Holy War (jihad) against the West.
Central Asia, according to Hizb, is getting ripe for an Islamist revolution because of its corrupt "infidel" regimes and US presence due to the war in Afghanistan. Central Asia, with its natural resources, including uranium mines, is as good of a bridgehead in global jihad as any. Hizb has declared that democracy is un-Islamic, but is likely to take part in any popular uprising, which is likely to happen if Akaev does not negotiate with the opposition.
A wave of democratic uprisings is sweeping the former Soviet Union. The Kyrgyz call it the Tulip, or Lemon, Revolution -- similar to Georgia's Rose one and Ukraine's Orange. But there are no guarantees the Kyrgyz will make lemonade out of this lemon. The two rounds of Kyrgyzstani elections took place February 27 and March 13. In these polls, Akaev packed the parliament with cronies and relatives, including his son and daughter. OSCE and US observers called the elections flawed. The opposition demanded another election (like in Ukraine) and Akaev's immediate resignation (like in Georgia).
According to his entourage, Akaev was considering changing the Constitution for the second time and running for a third term in October, something most Kyrgyz oppose.
Akaev, who is in power since 1991, is tired and not really interested in the presidency, but is egged on to stay by his influential wife and the family, who enriched themselves during his rule. His once-sterling reputation as a democrat, philosopher and writer has shrunk like Dorian Gray's picture.
Last Monday, a senior Kyrgyz official visiting Washington could not answer this writer's question: why is Akaev afraid of the opposition's demand to rerun the elections in a clean way, with numerous foreign observers present? After all, if he enjoys popular support as he claims, there is nothing to worry about. He should also clearly commit not to run in October. The Kyrgyz opposition does not have one recognized leader, such as Victor Yushchenko in Ukraine, or Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia, so a pro-Akaev candidate may have a chance.
Central Asia has been on the brink of violence before. In 1992, ethnic Uzbeks and Kyrgyz were at each other's throats in Osh, with the death toll reaching 2,000. Moreover, the split between the North and South in Kyrgyzstan is significant, like the chasm between East and West in Ukraine, or the split between the northern and southern clans in Tajikistan. There, the 1992-1997 civil war took over 100,000 lives.
Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are nervously watching developments in the small neighboring republic. They are afraid that the unrest will spill over to their poor Muslim Turkic population.
To avoid a catastrophic outcome, Kyrgyzstan's neighbors, the United States, the European Union, OSCE, the United Nations and Russia, need to pressure Akaev to leave in order to let the opposition find a bloodless way out from the current crisis. It is time to let the Kyrgyz people enjoy their freedom.
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is a Senior Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation and co-author and editor of Eurasia in Balance (Ashgate, 2005).