In democratic countries, elections are an opportunity to change leaders. In authoritarian states — as Iran reminds us — elections may also represent a chance to overthrow a regime. Such is the case today in another Central Asian country, Kyrgyzstan, whose presidential election pits an autocratic incumbent, Kurmanbek Bakiev, against an opposition candidate, Almazbek Atambaev.
The outcome of this election is of primary interest, of course, to the 5 million citizens of this stunningly beautiful Central Asian country. The Kyrgyz removed a corrupt president in the 2005 Tulip Revolution, only to see the new leader introduce an even harsher form of rule. In the last four years, Kyrgyzstan has had 30 politically or financially motivated assassinations, including of four deputies in the 90-member parliament. After the president's former chief of staff began to flirt with the opposition earlier this year, he was found incinerated in his car with a colleague. When I interviewed the leader of an opposition party last summer, he began by pulling a pistol from his pocket and pointing to his Kalashnikov on the table to illustrate the dangers of competitive politics in Kyrgyzstan.
Unlike Las Vegas, what happens in Kyrgyzstan does not stay there, and so a presidential election in this distant and exotic land should be of interest to American citizens as well. The criminalization of public life in Kyrgyzstan is destroying the fabric of government, and as we know from our experience with countries in the neighborhood such as Afghanistan and Pakistan, weak states serve as incubators of terrorism. Already in Kyrgyzstan, the most potent societal organization is not a political party but an underground Islamic movement, Hizb ut-Tahrir, which preaches a contradictory message of nonviolence and religious intolerance.
Today's election will help determine both Kyrgyzstan's political health and its strategic orientation. Until the end of the 1990s, it leaned decisively toward the West, even styling itself as the Switzerland of Asia. As Kyrgyzstan descended into authoritarianism, however, it moved ever closer to Moscow and Beijing, and Russia has moved aggressively in the last two years to integrate Kyrgyzstan into its political and economic orbit.
Immediately after receiving pledges of $2 billion in debt relief and $150 million in cash from Russia this February, President Bakiev announced in Moscow that Kyrgyzstan was expelling Western forces from a base outside the capital that had been used to support American operations in Afghanistan. After much negotiating and a sweetened financial offer, the American government has fended off for the moment the closure of the base. But in return the Russian government extracted a pledge from Kyrgyzstan to open yet another Russian military installation in the country.
While an increasingly authoritarian Russia has expanded its ties across Kyrgyzstan's government and society, the United States has shown little interest in anything but its basing rights. In a meeting in late April, the opposition candidate for president complained to me that he had yet to meet the new American ambassador, who had already been in the country for several months. I heard a similar refrain from the heads of the country's nongovernmental organizations, who in earlier years were in close contact with the U.S. Embassy. Now they are being cultivated actively by Russian diplomats. In pushing the "reset" button with Russia, the Obama administration must not forget to re-engage Russia's neighbors in Central Asia, whose domestic and foreign policies will benefit from a posture of strategic balance between East and West.
We should have no illusions. Today's election will be "won" by Bakiev, who controls the media, the lion's share of campaign resources and, most importantly, the electoral commissions that count the votes. But in elections in authoritarian regimes, as we have seen in Iran and several postcommunist states, the struggle on the streets in the aftermath of the voting is more important than election day itself. Our thoughts — and those of our government — should be with those forces in Kyrgyzstan that are seeking to reset their political institutions.
Eugene Huskey is William R. Kenan Jr. professor of political science and director of Russian Studies at Stetson University in DeLand. He has spent five weeks in Kyrgyzstan in recent months interviewing members of the political opposition.