West plays key role in Kyrgyzstan

Posted in Other | 30-Mar-05 | Author: Craig Smith| Source: International Herald Tribune

Kyrgyz women working Monday at a printing press in Bishkek that is financed by the U.S. government and operated by Freedom House, an American organization. An opposition newspaper has been using the press.
Pro-democracy aid led way for activists

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan Shortly before Kyrgyzstan's recent parliamentary elections, an opposition newspaper ran photographs of a palatial home under construction for the country's deeply unpopular president, Askar Akayev, helping set off widespread outrage and a popular revolt in this poor Central Asian country.

The newspaper was the recipient of United States government grants and was printed on an American government-financed printing press operated by Freedom House, an American organization that describes itself as "a clear voice for democracy and freedom around the world."

Western-financed programs to develop democracy and civil society in this country played a key role in preparing the ground for the popular uprising that swept opposition politicians to power.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, this economically crippled country quickly became an aid magnet, with the highest per-capita foreign assistance level of any Central Asian nation. Among the hundreds of millions of dollars that arrived came a large slice focused on building up civil society and democratic institutions.

Most of that money came from the United States, which maintains the largest bilateral pro-democracy program in Kyrgyzstan because of the Freedom Support Act, passed by Congress in 1992 to help the former Soviet republics in their economic and democratic transitions. The money earmarked for democracy programs in Kyrgyzstan totaled about $12 million last year.

Hundreds of thousands more filters into pro-democracy programs in the country from other United States government-financed institutions such as the National Endowment for Democracy. That does not include the money for the Freedom House printing press or Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Kyrgyz-language service.

"It would have been absolutely impossible for this to have happened without that help," said Edil Baisolov, who heads a key coalition of non-government organizations, referring to the uprising last week. Baisolov's organization is itself financed by the United States government through the National Democratic Institute.

American money helps finance dozens of civil society centers around the country where activists and ordinary citizens can go to meet, receive training, read independent newspapers, and even watch CNN or surf the Internet in some. The National Democratic Institute alone operates 20 centers that provide news summaries in Russian, Kyrgyz and Uzbek.

The United States sponsors the American University in Kyrgyzstan, which is created on an American model and whose stated mission is, in part, to promote the development of civil society, and pays for exchange programs that send students and non-governmental organization leaders to America. Kyrgyzstan's new prime minister, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, was one.

All of that money and manpower provided the coalescing Kyrgyz opposition with both financing and moral support in recent years, as well as the infrastructure that allowed them to communicate their ideas to the Kyrgyz people.

The growing civil society, meanwhile, began to have an awakening effect on the country's population just as Akayev and his family grew increasingly enamored of their power. "If none of this had been here, the family would have continued collecting their money and people would have remained passive as they have in other Central Asian countries," said one Western democracy activist this week.

Alexander Kim, editor in chief of the opposition newspaper that printed the photos of the president's house, knows the problem well: In 1999, Akayev's son-in-law took control of his first newspaper, which he and other employees had bought from the state during the privatizations earlier that decade.

He says the son-in-law used fraudulent means, but he was never able to prove it in court. So Kim went on to found another newspaper, which went through several incarnations as the government tried to prevent him from publishing. He has been helped by about $70,000 in American government grants, mostly to pay for newsprint.

The problem, though, was finding a press to print his newspaper: They were all government controlled and refused to print newspapers from the opposition.

Then Mike Stone, Freedom House's representative in Kyrgyzstan, arrived.

"When Freedom House opened their printing press, it was the end of our problems," Kim said, smiling behind his white mustache and goatee.

By January this year, Kim had begun national distribution of the newspaper, called MSN for My Capital News. Opposition candidates in the parliamentary elections bought truckloads of the papers to distribute as campaign literature.

For those Kyrgyz who didn't read Russian or have access to the newspaper, they listened to summaries of its articles on Kyrgyz-language Radio Azattyk, the local United States-government financed franchise of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the pro-democracy broadcaster.

Other independent media carried the opposition's debates: Talk shows, such as "Our Times," produced in part with United States government grants, were broadcast over the country's few independent television stations, including Osh TV in the country's south, where the protests that led to Akayev's ouster began. Osh TV has been able to expand its reach with equipment paid for by the State Department.

"The result is that the society became politicized, they were informed," said Kim. "The role of the NGO's and independent media were crucial factors in the revolution."

As corruption grew worse, the country's non-governmental organizations began speaking out and Akayev grew wary of the foreign pro-democracy assistance he had long allowed.

The published pictures of his house outraged him. Stone, who runs the printing press, was summoned to the Foreign Ministry, where he was berated.

A week later, before the press began printing a 200,000-copy special issue of MSN, the power at the press went out. Radio Liberty was also taken off the air.

Akayev began suggesting that the West was engaged in a conspiracy to destabilize the country. A crudely forged document, made to look like an internal report by the American ambassador, Stephen Young, began circulating among local news organizations. It cast U.S.-financed pro-democracy activities as part of an American conspiracy to topple Akayev.

The American Embassy sent Freedom House two generators the day after the power went out, allowing the press to print nearly all of the 200,000 copies of MSN's special issue. The power was restored on March 8 and Kim's newspaper became one of the primary sources of information for the mobilizing opposition.