THEY HAVE THEIR OWN way of pulling off revolutions in Central Asia, but however peculiar the uprising in Kyrgyzstan has been so far, it holds powerful implications for an entire region of ruthless despots, crooked cops, destitute workers and radical underground Islamists.
It's not quite a new day dawning for the Kyrgyz - not yet, anyway - as the squabbling for power mostly involves opposition leaders who until recently were part of the now-defunct government. They include a former police chief who may have been railroaded into prison by the previous regime but who is, after all, a former police chief. And even though the rebellion began in the streets and was sparked by rigged parliamentary elections, the various factions yesterday all agreed that the results of those elections would be respected anyway and the new and outrageously flawed parliament could set itself up in business. So was this much ado about very little?
No - and here's why. Since 1992, the satraps of Central Asia have been arguing that their authoritarian ways were justified by the threat of Islamic extremism. All opponents, of whatever stripe, were demonized as religious fanatics. The events of September 2001 and the ensuing war in Afghanistan gave this strategy a new and appealing urgency to those wielding it. In truth, Islamic jihadists do haunt the peripheries of Central Asia, but disaffection is hardly limited to their small numbers.
And now along comes Kyrgyzstan, where a corrupt and isolated president is tossed out in a matter of a week and replaced by people who are neither firebrand revolutionaries nor Islamist visionaries. With popular support, politicians are being swept into office - and because of how they got there, they're likely to try to keep that popular support as long as they can, which will be a force for some time to come in favor of something that at least resembles democracy.
Kyrgyzstan is a remote and impoverished country, but if democrats can triumph there, that just about explodes the arguments of leaders in neighboring Kazakhstan and especially Uzbekistan that despotism is the only alternative to religious fundamentalism in their part of the world. Those two countries, by virtue of their resources and location, are far more significant strategically than Kyrgyzstan. And for years, their authoritarian governments have actually stoked the flames of religious fanaticism by suppressing all legitimate forms of dissent.
The United States has a powerful interest in Central Asia, because of the region's oil and gas and because of its proximity to the redoubts of the Taliban and al-Qaida. Washington should help guide its Uzbek and Kazakh allies to an understanding that the open debate of normal politics makes a far better bulwark against extremism than the torture and jailing of any and all opponents.