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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW

Askar Akayev

Nurturing a Fragile Democracy in Post-Communist Kyrgyzstan

September 07, 1997|ROBIN WRIGH | Robin Wright, author of "Sacred Rage: The Wrath of Militant Islam," covers global issues for The Times. She interviewed Askar Akayev during his recent visit to Washington

Askar Akayev rules over the Celestial Mountains. He also runs a land with twice as many sheep as people, a country where nomads breeding yaks and horses still roam the steppes, where the national culture is based on a folklore tale dating back a millennium, and where the capital, Bishkek, is named after the national drink--mare's milk.

But Akayev, a physicist lured into politics during Soviet perestroika, also now leads the most democratic of the former 15 Soviet republics, a regional trendsetter with importance far disproportionate to its small size or population of 4.5 million. Kyrgyzstan, once famed as a key section of the legendary Silk Road trade route linking Asia with Europe, is again gaining importance as part of the new frontier between East and West.

A soft-spoken man with an impish sense of humor, Akayev, 52, is an unlikely politician. For almost two decades, he taught laser physics in the obscurity of Leningrad's Institute of Precise Mechanics and Optics. But he was greatly influenced by a fellow physicist, Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei D. Sakharov, whome he considers his spiritual mentor. Akayev won election to the Supreme Soviet, and he rose so quickly and to such acclaim that former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991 offered him the Soviet vice-presidency, which he turned down to focus instead on what he called the "silk revolution." in Kyrgyzstan. He went home and won the presidency unopposed. Two years later, President Bill Clinton heralded Akayev's radical political and economic reforms as courageous and a model for the new Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). He and his wife, Mayram, a mechanical engineer, have four children.

Under Akayev, Kyrgyzstan is unique among the four other predominantly Muslim Central Asian republics. It is increasingly referred to as the Switzerland of Central Asia because of its spectacular snow-capped mountains, its comparative political tranquility and the use of referendums as the most frequent means of deciding national issues. In 1995, he was reelected in the region's first multi-party elections.

He has broken the mold in other areas too. In search of technology and expertise to help develop Kyrgyzstan in 1993, he became the first Muslim head-of-state to visit Israel since Egypt's Anwar Sadat historic trip in 1977. His contacts worldwide are now so pervasive that Kyrgyzstan has received more aid per capita from the United States, Europe and Asia than any other Soviet republic, including Russia.

But Akayev and his country, nestled along the Chinese border, have also lately become the litmus test of problems for post-communist societies--and the difficulty of dealing with the slow pace of progress. "If Kyrgyzstan is unable to make progress," said one Central Asian specialist, "it will resonate throughout the former Soviet Union."

Question: The 15 former Soviet republics have now been on their own for almost six years. What have been the highs and lows of breaking with the Soviet system and becoming an independent state?

Answer: Among the lessons of the transformation is what I call the collapse of illusions. The essence of this lesson is that both the West and the post-communist nations naively expected too much in too short a time. The ruling elites in post-communist nations, including Kyrgyzstan, obviously had an exaggerated and simplistic idea about the kind of support they could receive from the West, including some kind of expanded Marshall Plan. And the West underestimated the systemic complexity of change and the degree of resistance from old and still powerful quarters.

American aid programs first assumed that this transition period would last five years. Today [former U.S. National Security Advisor] Zbigniew Brzezinski writes about 10 years of transition for post-communist countries. In fact, longer periods may be required.

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Q: Do you think the Kirghiz, as well as people in other Soviet republics, really understand what democracy is? Are they yet engaged?

A: In Kyrgyzstan the politically active population does not exceed 5% . . . . Our range of 12 political parties is very broad. But the role of these parties is exceedingly weak because of their vague social base. Many are elitist and are made up mainly of city intelligentsia. Their weak position in parliament does not allow them to exert tangible influence on economic, political and other decisions.

The political elites in our country are also still primarily made up of the second echelon of the former Communist Party and the state nomenklatura. Their aspirations and power have limited the reform potential. Their dream is to try one way or another to concentrate power and property in their hands.

Yet our democracy has been rooted. Now I think most people understand democracy is the best way of organizing the state.

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