No Comment — May 5, 2010, 10:53 am

Building Democracy With Ballots, Not Bullets

In an op-ed in today’s Christian Science Monitor, Kathleen Collins looks at the developments in Kyrgyzstan and offers the Obama Administration some sage advice:

Maintaining stability while pursuing a democratic transition is critical for Kyrgyzstan. Roza Otunbayeva and her collaborators have committed to doing that. The US should lead the international community in recognizing them and supporting stability and democratization through economic incentives to reform. Under joint US, Russian, and Kazakh pressure, Bakiyev has left the country. Yet contrary to his bold pledge in Cairo in June 2009, Obama has been reluctant in Kyrgyzstan, as elsewhere, to promote democracy. But now is not the time to hold back. Kyrgyzstan’s future, and US interests and ideals, depend on American involvement and commitment to democracy.

Democratic activists and ordinary citizens from Azerbaijan to Kyrgyzstan to Iran look to America to support their pursuit of just, democratic government. By prominently backing the provisional government and actively supporting a democratic transition through political and economic aid, the US will dispel Kyrgyz public sentiment that America cares only about its own geopolitical interests.
America stands to regain some of the legitimacy and credibility for promoting democracy that it once enjoyed throughout Central Asia.

Presidential advisor Michael McFaul is in Bishkek now, presenting President Obama’s personal take on the situation to the Kyrgyz leaders. McFaul seems to have taken the lead in the initial slow but at least somewhat thoughtful response to the developments there. He advised avoiding a test of wills between the United States and Russia, suggesting that President Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev develop a joint stance in resolving the initial impasse surrounding the ouster of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev. However, the United States has still been slow to follow up on promises of material support—lagging far behind the Russian government, for instance.

And other initial fragmentary reports of McFaul’s visit are troubling. He appears to be in full denial mode:

Michael McFaul, a senior adviser to President Obama on matters relating to the former Soviet Union who was visiting Kyrgyzstan on Tuesday, denied any corruption in the fuel procurement process and said the American government would publish documents related to the deals, Reuters reported from Bishkek. “I’ve read lots of stories about black holes and corruption and things that happened,” Mr. McFaul said, according to Reuters. “They are not … true.”

It would be good, of course, if there had been no corruption, but the information that has already surfaced will make it hard to convince anyone of that—starting with the U.S. Congress, which is looking into the matter closely. In a report by Arkady Dubnov in Vremya, McFaul is also reported having denied that the Embassy in Bishkek broke off contacts with opposition leaders—something that Professor Eugene Huskey documented meticulously in his testimony. This defensiveness is not surprising. There is no doubt that the relationship was seriously mishandled, and there is an understandable bureaucratic sensitivity about blame allocation.

Collins identifies the correct focus. It’s also one that McFaul understands. I once listened to him deliver an inspiring speech in which he noted how America transformed the world at the end of World War II by treating the subjugated Axis powers not as foes but rather as allies in the making. It promised and delivered democracy, education, and a platform for economic growth and prosperity. The situation in Central Asia calls for an engagement that is laughably modest by comparison, but timing is everything in this venture. The time has come for the United States to shift the focus of the relationship away from groveling about the air base and towards helping the government headed by Roza Otunbayeva achieve its stated goals: creating a new, more democratic constitution, getting it ratified by the voters, and arranging fair, free, and open elections for a new parliament and president. The United States has talked a lot about its support for democracy and transparency. The time has come to deliver on the talk.

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