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New ambassador hails birth of democracy in Kyrgyzstan
The Washington Diplomat / August 2005

By Larry Luxner

It's been a busy month for Zamira Sydykova.

On July 10, the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan held free and fair elections for the first time since independence in 1990.

Two days later at a White House ceremony, the 44-year-old Sydykova presented her credentials to President Bush as Kyrgyzstan's ambassador to the United States. The very next day, July 13, the new ambassador granted her first interview to a U.S. publication, The Washington Diplomat.

"It took us 15 years to get to where we are right now, with freedom of speech and a free press," Sydykova said through her translator and economic attachι, Sarina Abdysheva. "The presence of human rights organizations gave us an opportunity to fight against the dictatorship."

Being interviewed was a new experience for Sydykova, who — as one of Kyrgyzstan's best-known journalists — is more used to asking questions than answering them. That pesky habit landed her in prison during the regime of post-Soviet autocrat Askar Akayev, who fled the country in late March after street revolts in Bishkek, the capital.

Since then, Kyrgyzstan has been ruled by the acting president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who won 88% of the votes in the July 10 election. That compares to only 3% for the second-place finisher and 9% for the other four candidates combined — though Sydykova, democracy activists and foreign monitors agree that the balloting was fair.

"For the first time in the history of our country, the presidential elections were transparent and clear," she said. "Kyrgystan might be one of the few examples, if not the only example, of a democracy in Central Asia. I'm not afraid to say that."

A European-based election observer just back from Kyrgyzstan told the Diplomat that the balloting was "reasonably free and fair" — and "a whole lot better" than parliamentary elections in March.

"There was a real sense of pride, and election workers were absolutely thrilled to show us around," said the observer, who asked not to be identified. "We spent most of election day driving around polling stations 45 minutes from Bishkek. People were out there voting. There were a few problems but nothing that suggested widespread fraud."

Roughly the size of Minnesota and just as cold in the winter, mountainous Kyrgyzstan has 5.5 million inhabitants and is one of the poorest and least-visited of the 15 former Soviet republics. Until recently, its only ruler had been Akayev. First elected in 1991, Akayev was returned to office in 1995 and again in 2000 in balloting that observers widely said were tainted by fraud.

Earlier this year, the Kyrgyz people finally got tired of Akayev's dictatorial rule and forced him out of office in a single day — Mar. 24. That compares to the mass demonstrations in Georgia and Ukraine that went on for weeks before those countries' authoritarian regimes were toppled.

"The force that brought Georgia to revolution began prior to their parliamentary elections. That was the main reason for their uprising," said Sydykova. "In our case, the movement against the old regime began after the unfair parliamentary elections in February. All six districts in Kyrgyzstan participated in the revolution, during which Akayev was left alone with a few supporters and family members who stayed in the official residence."

In her own way, Sydykova — a graduate of Moscow State University's college of journalism — helped get rid of Akayev.

"I first met him when he became president in 1990. I liked him a lot," she said of the former president. "But in 1995, he sued my newspaper, Respublica, which was one of the first independent newspapers in the country, for slander, and deprived me of the right to practice journalism. That's when I realized that his words were in contrast to his actions. He declared that he was in favor of a free press and that everybody could express themselves freely. But in reality, he was the first one who opposed those things. I was kind of naive for believing in him."

Sydykova said she came to understand that through her newspaper, she could contribute to the struggle against Akayev. That struggle was led by President Bakiyev, 55, who, in a speech to reporters, has hailed last month's election as "without exaggeration, a victory for our people and the revolution of Mar. 24."

Yet Bakiyev and his supporters might be guilty of exaggeration anyway.

The official voter turnout of 74% seemed suspicious to many foreign monitors, including Kimmo Kiljunen, head of the observer mission for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), who estimated the actual turnout at 58%.

"The turnout changed quite dramatically at the end," Kiljunen told the Washington Post, adding that the 74% figure seemed implausible.

"It wasn't that high at any of the polling stations we visited, though it certainly exceeded 50%. If it hadn't, then none of the current candidates would have been able to run again, and that would have been a real disaster," said the observer we spoke to, adding that "changes were made on the voters' lists that made it possible to inflate the turnout."

Yet Sydykova insists on the 74% figure.

"I believe this is a true number," said the ambassador, who speaks Kyrgyz, Russian, Turkish and limited English. "You have to remember how many people rose up in the March revolution. People were absolutely tired of not participating in the decision-making process. That's why we had such a big turnout. People finally had the chance to participate."

Bakiyev's immense popularity stems from his credentials as a leader of the uprising against Akayev. He is also a former prime minister with experience, which is something his five rivals lacked.

"He's very soft-spoken and soft-mannered, a very intelligent person. He came from the manufacturing sector, starting as a worker, then an engineer," she said. "He might not be that eloquent as Akayev, and that's why — judging from his background and his character — we're not afraid that he'll turn into a dictator."

Sydykova lives in Washington with her husband Giias, an attorney; the couple has a son currently studying in Florida.

As ambassador, she heads one of the smallest Washington missions of any of the former Soviet republics. The embassy has only six diplomats, compared to the 30 diplomats working at the large U.S. Embassy in Bishkek.

Sydykova said that her predecessor, Baktybek Abdrissaev, who had been in Washington since 1996, was part of the old guard that identified with Akayev and his autocratic style of leadership.

"I cannot say that I have anything personal against [Abdrissaev], but as you know, the ambassador represents the government of his country," she said. "If Akayev was a dictator, then the ambassador represented that dictatorship."

As for Akayev, she said, "he's in Moscow now, giving interviews all over the place, and he's opened his own website. Nobody forced him into exile. He fled the country voluntarily. But I think he's very detached from the reality in Kyrgyzstan."

Bakiyev, meanwhile, has his work cut out for him. Following his scheduled inauguration on Aug. 10, the new president plans on visiting the United States in September to discuss with U.S. leaders, among other things, the battle against al-Qaeda terrorists.

The subject is a familiar one in Kyrgyzstan. In 1999, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) — listed by the State Department as a terrorist organization — launched several attacks into southern Kyrgyzstan.

Two years later, the Kyrgyz government gave permission for the Pentagon to build a large air base at Manas International Airport, about 19 miles outside of Bishkek and only 300 miles from the Chinese border. When completed, some 3,000 U.S. troops will permanently be stationed at the 37-acre facility, known as Ganci Air Base, along with two dozen fighter jets and support aircraft as part of the ongoing battle against terrorism.

"By the time 9/11 happened and the coalition forces were created, we were ready to join those forces and the global war on terrorism," she said.

Another challenge is fighting corruption, which seems to be endemic to the former Soviet republics of Central Asia.

"When people elect a new president, they don't realize that they're electing a dictator. The politicians all say beautiful words, but in my country the major problem is corruption, and we will do everything in our power to fight corruption."

She added that "all the immeidate members of Akayev's family were involved in corruption schemes, and he was enriching his family. He also promoted two of his children to the last parliament."

The Kyrgyz Embassy occupies a four-story building along Wisconsin Avenue. At the entrance is a scale-model yurt, the traditional Kyrgyz nomadic dwelling made of birch poles, bent and tied with rawhide straps, around with a circular trellis wall is erected.

But the building is too small, and Sydykova said she's likely to move the mission to Embassy Row, along Massachusetts Avenue. That move could come as early as December.

"I would like to build a bridge to the United States," said Sydykova, stressing that she sees the United States as an example for Kyrgyzstan to follow. "I came here right after independence as a journalist, and one of the people who brought the seeds of democracy from the U.S. to Kyrgyzstan."

"On the institutional level, there's a real balance here between the branches of power, a strong civil society and strong governance. I consider the United States a real democracy. In my country, we didn't have a true democracy because all the power was concentrated in the hands of one branch of government."

But things will improve, she promises, telling us that "people who lost hope now have big expectations for change."

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