It's a bad time to be Askar Akayev. Since Kyrgyzstan's declaration of independence from the Soviet Union in August 1991, the country's president - a former university professor and Communist Party deputy - has dominated politics in the small Central Asian republic. In the process, he has beaten back challenges from domestic opponents, tightened central control and positioned himself as a player in the U.S.-led war on terror.
But now, Akayev's autocratic government faces a challenge of another sort. After years of sporadic opposition to the government in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan's various civic groups and political factions are organizing, buoyed by the recent examples of democratic transformation in Georgia and Ukraine.
These forces were on display on Sunday, when Kyrgyz citizens went to the polls to elect 75 members of Parliament in a race fraught with political manipulation and undemocratic governmental practices. The message was unmistakable: In more than half of the open electoral districts, no candidate succeeded in gaining majority approval, reflecting a resounding crisis of confidence in the political leadership.
Akayev, however, is working hard to preserve the old order in Bishkek - notwithstanding his public commitment to step down after his current term in office expires this autumn. The Kyrgyz regime has stepped up domestic repression and authoritarian practices, ranging from the harassment of rival political leaders to the passage of new, restrictive government rules limiting political demonstrations. Intimidation of independent television and print media outlets has increased noticeably.
Such activities have been watched with growing concern in many quarters. In a 12-page letter sent to Akayev in early February, Human Rights Watch underscored the increasingly worrisome policies now being implemented in Bishkek, and warned of the potential stakes for Kyrgyzstan. "These elections will test the Kyrgyz government's commitment to democracy and human rights," according to Rachel Denber, the rights group's acting executive director for Europe and Central Asia. "The question is whether the Kyrgyz government will meet public demands for responsive government and fair elections," she said. Akayev, however, appears to have other priorities in mind. With Ukraine's Orange Revolution still fresh in regional memory, the Kyrgyz strongman - like other regional leaders - is concerned with preventing a similar transformation in his country. In late December, after Viktor Yushchenko's landmark victory in Ukraine's presidential race, Akayev had warned publicly about a "need to reject political forces who want to repeat the revolutionary scenarios that were used in Georgia and Ukraine." And since then, hoping to avoid a duplication of the peaceful revolutions in Tbilisi and Kiev, Kyrgyzstan has begun rushing deeper into the Kremlin's embrace.
In mid-February, the Kyrgyz government approved Moscow's bid to expand the number of Russian troops stationed in the Central Asian republic in the coming year. According to Russian military officials, the Kremlin has plans to expand the equipment and double the 500 servicemen now deployed at the Russian airbase in Kant - the Kremlin's first new military outpost on foreign soil since the fall of the Soviet Union - in coming months.
More significant still, Kyrgyzstan seems to be backpedaling on cooperation with the West. Last month, Foreign Minister Askar Aitmatov disclosed that Kyrgyzstan had rejected requests by the United States and NATO to deploy surveillance aircraft in the Central Asian state. Aitmatov made clear that Bishkek is increasingly looking north and east in its foreign policy priorities. "Kyrgyzstan's security is based primarily on cooperation" within the Russia-dominated Collective Security Treaty and Shanghai Cooperation Organizations, Aitmatov said.
The political changes under way in Bishkek should matter a great deal to the United States and its allies across the Atlantic. Over the past three years, by virtue of its strategic location, Kyrgyzstan has assumed an important role in the war on terror. There are 1,000 U.S. and 800 NATO troops deployed in Kyrgyzstan in support of stability operations in Afghanistan, and the country is a crucial antiterror front; officials in Bishkek have warned that their country is increasingly in the crosshairs of regional radicals, from the Al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan to the Islamist organization Hizb-ut Tahrir.
All this means that the political turmoil now visible in Kyrgyzstan, as well as the strategic choices that will be made by Akayev in coming months, is likely to have regional repercussions. Just as important, Bishkek's political stirrings will go a long way toward determining whether its remains an ally in the war on terror or becomes a new regional threat to Western interests.