The election of Almaz Atanbaev as president of Kyrgyzstan in what has been recognized by western observer groups and governments as a relatively free election has been generally viewed as a sign that democracy may have a future in Kyrygzstan. Atanbaev’s election also provides another example of how the spread of democracy and the short term goals of the U.S. are often in conflict.
The recent election in Kyrgyzstan presents somewhat of a Rorschach test to observers of political development in Central Asia and democracy generally. The election of Almaz Atanbaev as Kyrgyzstan’s president is another chapter in the country’s political evolution and, not insignificantly, the first peaceful of transfer of power since Kyrgyzstan was part of the Soviet Union. This election was probably the best in recent Kyrgyz history and perhaps the best ever in post-Soviet Central Asia. For these reasons, it is possible to view democracy as moving forward in Kyrgyzstan, which may perhaps have an effect on the region more broadly.
The democratic hopes–as well as the more widespread, but less focused, hopes that Akaev’s resignation would lead to a better life for the Kyrgyz people–had melted away almost entirely. Instead, government, political, and civic leaders whom I spoke to, many of whom I had last seen four years earlier when a sense of real change was possible, talked sadly of lost opportunities, the rise of a more repressive regime, and the violent nature of Kyrgyz politics. Few had much hope for the future. The presidential election, which was only a few weeks away at that time, was broadly understood as a foregone conclusion. Most people assumed that the intimidation and fraud which had already begun would only get stronger as the voting got closer. They were right–the election saw Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev reelected with about 88% of the vote in a deeply flawed election that was neither free nor fair.