KYRGYZSTAN: 'We are not stepping down from democracy; we are deepening it'
Thomas Cromwell

At the eastern extremity of Central Asia, in a land that used to be part of the Soviet Union's border with China, the mountainous Republic of Kyrgyzstan is slowly taking shape as an independent state. As with its neighbors, the transition to democracy and a market economy after the collapse of the USSR has not been simple or smooth, and there is clearly some distance to be traveled.

But Kyrgyzstan's long-time ambassador to Washington, Baktybek D. Abdrisaev, says that many of the difficulties associated with the development of democracy in his country, some of which have attracted international attention, are nothing more than the teething problems of healthy institutions finding their feet.

On February 27 there will be elections for the 75-seat, unicameral parliament, which in 2004 was changed, by referendum, from a bi-cameral body. Ambassador Abdrisaev points out that the total number of seats was cut by two-thirds by this change, and says that the competition for the 75 seats has been fierce, not only by the opposition challenging pro-government candidates, but also because of intense rivalries among opposition factions, including the Communists.

"The parliament is becoming independent," the ambassador says. "This is a sign of a growing democratic society."

As evidence of this independence, the ambassador points out that last year the republic's president, Askar Akaev, sent a bill to parliament dealing with regulation of the media, but the parliament rejected the bill.

"We are not stepping down from democracy; we are deepening it," the ambassador says. It is part of establishing the balance of power, the checks and balances between the presidency and the parliament, he explains.

Ambassador Abdrisaev, whose personal warmth and affability speak well for his people, says that the recent events in Ukraine, where a popular pro-democracy movement twice forced repeat votes for president, has had an impact in his country, noting that, "The Cold War mentality damaged the cause of democracy."

But for Kyrgyzstan, the neighborhood is very different from that of Ukraine, which sits on the borders of a newly-expanded European Union. To the West of Kyrgyzstan is Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. And then, further west, is Russia. For Kyrgyzstan, Russia continues to play a very important role, as a major trading partner and a force to contend with in all international affairs. "Russia is the closest to the West for us, and it is obvious if you look, for example, to geography" the ambassador points out. "We need dialog with Russia."

He says that in developing its market economy and in trade matters, Bishkek has been ahead of most of its neighbors, joining the WTO in 1998, whereas most of them are still not members. "In order to benefit from that," Ambassador Abdrisaev says, "we have to create a common market with neighbors. Therefore we want the United States to help them, and first of all Russia and Kazakhstan, to join the WTO."

Washington has already taken one important step that the ambassador says has dramatically changed the security situation in Central Asia for the better. In the aftermath of 9/11, Washington and Bishkek agreed to establish a base on Kyrgyz territory to be used to support the anti-Taliban war effort in Afghanistan.

Called Gansi Airbase after a firefighter chief who lost his life in the Twin Towers on 9/11, it is now home to 1600 US troops. Before it was set up, Kyrgyzstan had been the victim of several attacks by Islamist insurgents who used to cross its territory headed to Uzbekistan. The main group was the Al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which killed some 50 Kyrgyz citizens over a three-year period from 1999.

With the base, however, these incursions into Kyrgyzstan stopped and the associated drug and weapons smuggling were also brought largely under control. For Central Asia, the tide of Islamic insurgency had been stopped.

The ambassador says that his government continues to be concerned about a growing threat from radical Islam in the Ferghana Valley, which Kyrgyzstan shares with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. He notes that Bishkek's policy is to work on the economic causes of radicalism, and not to simply resort to strong-arm tactics to suppress Islamists.

The strongest Islamist group is Hizb-ut Tahrir (The Party of Liberty), which he says has grown quite rapidly over the last 12 years. It adheres to a very conservative Wahabi theology, in line with the Saudi doctrine. In other words, it seeks to turn secular countries of the region with dominant Muslim populations into theocracies. For now the organization is peaceful, but the worry is that it will turn violent.

In business, a recent trend in Kyrgyzstan is for Russian companies to invest there. As an example the ambassador notes that a couple of years ago a major Russian dairy firm, Vimm-Bil-Dann, set up a dairy business, buying milk from farmers and selling products in Kyrgyzstan, nearby Almaty and elsewhere.

The ambassador recognizes the problems facing foreign investors (a small market of
5 million people, and limited access to adjacent markets) but hopes that with developments in international trade agreements (especially membership in WTO for its neighbors) that companies will want to take advantage of his country's talented and educated workforce.

In order to develop more trade and economic relations with the United States, Kyrgyzstan has pursued close ties with some states. One of the interesting partnerships of this sort was made with Montana. Starting as a program of cooperation between the Montana National Guard and Kyrgyzstan, cooperation has since broadened into other fields, including agriculture, democratization and education.

The ambassador points to one of the most successful US-backed projects of the post-Soviet era, the American University of Central Asia. Located in Bishkek, half its budget comes from State Department funds, the other half from the Soros Foundation. It has 1600 students now, and "Is raising a new generation of independent thinking young people, future leaders for Central Asia" the ambassador says.

Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to the USA & Canada Baktybek Abdrisaev

His Excellency Mr. Baktybek Abdrisaev became ambassador of the Kyrgyz Republic to the United States and Canada in October 1996.

Born on April 17, 1958, in Bishkek, Kyrgyz Republic, Ambassador Abdrisaev graduated from the Bishkek Politechnical Institute with a specialization in automatics and telemechanics in 1980. He went on to become the junior scientific fellow at the Bishkek Politechnical Institute (now Kyrgyz Technical University).

In 1984, Ambassador Abdrisaev completed post-graduate studies at the institute and in 1987 was the senior scientific fellow. In 1988, he was the scientific fellow at the Institute of Physics under the Academy of Sciences of the Kyrgyz Republic and in 1991 was the senior scientific fellow at the same institute. He has Ph.D from the Institute of Electronics Academy of Science of Belarus in 1999.

In 1992, he was referent of the international relations department of the president's staff and in 1993 became head of that department. He was also a member of the Kyrgyz Parliament. Ambassador Abdrisaev is married and has two children.