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March 24, 2005
Lesson #1: Don't Rig Elections

Kyrgyzstan has apparently thrown off its authoritarian government after making the same mistake that led to the collapse of other former post-Soviet strongmen rule -- rigging an election:

KYRGYZSTANS opposition appeared to have seized control of the central Asian country yesterday, making it set to become the third former Soviet state in two years to see its entrenched leadership fall to popular protest after disputed elections.

Following Ukraine and Georgia, the latest revolution was a swift event that was over almost as soon as it began. However, last night outbreaks of serious looting had broken out in the capital, Bishkek, adding a dark note to the political change and underlining the challenges it presents.

Unrest had been growing since elections last month provoked claims of ballot rigging by the government. Calls for Askar Akayev, the president, to stand down were followed this week by opposition protesters seizing control of government buildings and cities in the south.

In fact, the demonstrators yesterday initially were routed by the police. However, after they regrouped and came back, the police essentially surrendered and allowed them to sack the government building. The electoral shenanigans apparently undermined the Akayev government to such an extent that the security forces felt unwilling to do much more than present a single honorable defense before either surrendering or even switching to the opposition.

Now Akayev is on the run, and no one knows for sure where to find him. Delighted opposition activists have freed their leader from prison and the parliament elected an opposition deputy to take charge. Unlike other sudden people-power demonstrations in the former Soviet republics, the Tulip Revolution came so quickly that it had no central personality around which to coalesce, leaving the movement delighted but somewhat rudderless. Ukraine had Viktor Yushchenko to motivate the Orange Revolution, and Georgia's Rose Revolution eventually formed its core with Mikhail Saakashvili. No one knows who will fill the bill for Kyrgyzstan.

As the London Telegraph reports, there may be more parallels to these other revolutions:

Mr Akayev's reluctance to spill blood in defence of his regime was, in many ways, typical of the man, an authoritarian figure but one far removed in character from the despots who hold sway over the rest of the region.

Uniquely among the leaders who came to power in Central Asia after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, he was not a Communist apparatchik and, for many years, he was held up by the West as a shining example of enlightened rule. ...

But under Mr Akayev, Kyrgyzstan was never accused of torturing political prisoners, unlike nearby Uzbekistan. And its leader never encouraged the extravagant personality cults favoured by other neighbours.

Just as in Georgia and Ukraine, the man who inherited the mantle of power in Kyrgyzstan after the collapse of the Soviet empire initially had the respect of the West as we practiced a bit of realpolitik instead of pressing for true democracy. The people eventually tired of waiting for the promise of freedom and instead seized it after watching the charade of a rigged election. Note that the only former Soviet republics to experience this have been those with Western pretenses and relatively moderate autocrats at the helm.

The lesson: if you talk about democracy, you'd better be prepared to deliver it. Otherwise, autocrats should take the Saparmurat Niyazov approach and start building a personality cult forthwith.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at March 24, 2005 8:09 PM

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