WASHINGTON — Last week's election in Kyrgyzstan began a long battle for the soul of democracy in Central Asia. Spurning the efforts of President Askar A. Akayev to eliminate political opposition, Kyrgyz voters supported an increasingly embattled democratic pluralism. But by driving a political wedge between the government and the electorate, Akayev is also testing the West. If democracy backslides in this poor, small country--if foreign civics lessons about empowering civil society fail--who will pick up the pieces?
Since its independence in 1991, Kyrgyzstan has set itself the task of joining the world, and largely on the world's terms. Surrounded by large, wealthy and powerful neighbors, democracy became the country's slogan and potential salvation. New tax codes, customs regulations, constitutional revisions and large doses of English-language immersion for many of its citizens made Kyrgyzstan and its dozens of ethnic communities the West's darling in Central Asia.
Belatedly, however, Akayev concluded that democratic ideals bring unrealistic expectations. By expanding the powers of his office, Akayev, like many of his less-democratic neighbors, is now reducing the substance of democracy while burnishing its form. Before the election, he undermined the importance of parliamentary contests by pitting state institutions against opposition parties, the media and many nongovernmental groups. Such tactics do no justice to Akayev's, and Kyrgyzstan's, previous accomplishments.
More than half the country's political parties were banned, leaving the Communist Party to bring in the largest number of votes. Akayev's obvious procedural manipulations gave him a platform on which he can fight outdated communist ideology, unhindered by democratic dissent. His quest to take title to Kyrgyzstan's transition has tainted the elections, weakened democratic institutions and potentially compromised the country's relationships with the international community whose friendship it so values.
None of these consequences is trivial. Democracy's prerequisites--open political contests and independent courts--are also the stepping stones for capitalism. But market capitalism has brought more promise than profit. Again and again, Kyrgyz government spokesmen highlight the growing gap between political reform and economic reward both at home and among its neighbors. Foreign observers, they note, have greeted Uzbekistan's recent elections with contempt, and Kazakhstan's with studied derision. Turkmenistan's President Saparmurad A. Niyazov laughs at the mention of popular sovereignty. All three countries, however, are blessed with natural resources that project them onto an international economic stage, leaving Kyrgyzstan in the wings. For a country with limited resources but (until now) seemingly unlimited democratic zeal, the vagaries of Western capitalism seem like object lessons in inconstancy.
The demise of the Soviet Union brought an enthusiasm for political change that has taken root in otherwise obscure places like Kyrgyzstan. Last week's election, to which the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe sent more than 100 foreign observers, was monitored by thousands of independent citizens who believe, as Western assistance preaches, that patience and fortitude are the handmaidens of democracy. Many Kyrgyz citizens, who have endured poverty with the hope that greater freedoms will enhance their future, fear that in the absence of substantial investment, Western dismay with their president's actions will turn into indifference.
Bracing for possible foreign rejection, Akayev has recently reinforced his relationship with Russia, but not without cost. His visit with acting President Vladimir V. Putin in Moscow last month, during a particularly violent week of fighting in Chechnya, undermined Akayev's often-advertised commitment to political tolerance. Kyrgyzstan also seeks to join United Nations efforts to end the war in Afghanistan: an effort made more urgent as sectarian spillover signals a growing security threat to Kyrgyzstan's southern region. (Every coin has two sides: Unrest offered an excuse to expand the armed militia's presence just before the election.)
The irony of this situation--when democratic resolve diminishes, join the global march against drugs and terrorism--is not lost on the country. Kyrgyzstan acquired its Western patrons precisely because it was not associated with ethnic division, sectarian militancy and strident nationalism. These issues, however, lie at the heart of the West's new fascination with preventive diplomacy. As the global attention accorded nascent democracies becomes tinged with impatience and annoyance, this is now the biggest bandwagon on which small, weak and peripheral states can climb.