Not ready

March 23, 2005

IN THE HEART of Central Asia, little Kyrgyzstan is tipping on the edge of a popular revolution. Its instigators hope the landlocked mountain republic is on course to follow the examples not only of Georgia and Ukraine, but also of Afghanistan, Iraq and maybe Lebanon, too. Is this the latest chapter of Democracy on the March?

The short answer is: It might still turn out that way. But if all politics is local, so are all revolutions.

Kyrgyzstan so far has followed a familiar script: two rounds of parliamentary elections, both deeply flawed, followed by street protests. Opposition leaders want the president, Askar Akayev, to resign. But there are no tent cities in Bishkek, the capital. Instead, protesters have stormed government offices and police headquarters in two southern cities, with injuries. They've put together militias, to try to keep order. Yet no natural leader has arisen and no opposition group has shown itself to be well-organized -- in stark contrast to Ukraine's recent experience.

There are other complications: Mr. Akayev started out not as a despot but as a democrat. When the Soviet Union collapsed, he was the only Central Asian leader who hadn't been a Communist Party boss. (He was a physicist, who said he hoped to realize Jefferson's ideal of creating a nation of small independent farmers.) Things have soured since then, but following 9/11, both the United States and Russia established military bases, about 40 miles apart, in suddenly strategic Kyrgyzstan. That may explain why both countries have been relatively quiet so far. A misstep would be easy; waiting and seeing looks like the better part of valor.

The Europeans have been lobbying for peaceful negotiations, and to be sure, Russia has been grumbling about their interference in a sovereign nation's affairs. But Moscow is still hurting from its disastrous backing of the eventual loser in Ukraine and isn't looking for a fight in Asia just now. Washington shouldn't be, either. A "democratic revolution" that starts with riots is at risk of getting off on the wrong foot. Better, for now, to try to get a dialogue going.

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