A daily bulletin of news & opinion

11 October 2010

The plaques bolted to each of its five bulky printing units say it all: “Property of the United States Government Department of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor”. 

Voters in the tiny mountainous Republic of Kyrgyzstan voted yesterday, in what was arguably the first free parliamentary election in the history of Central Asia. And almost everything they read about half the 29 parties vying for power will have been printed on a press donated by a US government-funded group.

“Looking at the democracy programmes of the Bush years, this is seen as the one example that’s been a success,” says Sam Patten, Eurasia programme manager for Freedom House, which set up the press at the start of the decade. 

In Bishkek on the eve of the election, there was none of the exuberant hope that followed the “Tulip Revolution”, when President Askar Akayev was ousted in 2005. That’s understandable, given the brazen corruption of his successors and the upheavals that have dogged the country this year, with a bloody revolution in April, followed by ethnic violence in the southern cities of Osh and Jalalabad in June. Then more than 400, mostly ethnic minority Uzbek people, died. 

But the election campaign has been more orderly than anyone expected. And the volatile south has, so far, remained quite calm. 

For a country of 5.5 million people, Kyrgyzstan’s elections get a lot of Great Power attention: perhaps that’s because it’s the only country to host both a US and Russian airbase, perhaps because it has some of the strongest democratic leanings of the countries in the former Soviet Union.

But this time at least, any US election engineering by the likes of Freedom House, the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute (all of which are painstaking in not supporting one party over another), has been completely overshadowed by the Russian equivalent (which has no such scruples).

In the days ahead of the election the Russian media blitzed Kyrgyz viewers with images of Omurbek Tekebayev, the head of the most pro-Western party, Ata Meken, in compromising naked positions. Freedom House, in contrast, funded a series of well-meaning debate programmes on corruption, human rights and ethnic tolerance. Nor does the US still own the printing press. It has been handed over to an independent charity, the Media Support Center, and funds itself. They left the plaques, says the Center’s chairman Martin Callanan, a member of the European Parliament, because they thought it would make future governments wary of taking out frustration of negative press with sledge hammers.


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