The slightly outlandish idea to establish a parliamentary republic in Kyrgyzstan has revived the debate about democracy and its chances to eventually take root in Central Asia, a region so far impermeable to political reforms and where monocentric, authoritarian regimes have been in control ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union two decades ago.
The rigid, pyramidal power structures of the -"stan" countries (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan) feature an over-dominating executive, with the parliament and the judiciary in a subordinated role. The executive branch is in turn completely controlled by the president. No alternative centre of power is allowed to exist, no independent or autonomous authority. Stability is privileged over reform. Modernization is accepted only to the extent that it is limited to a purely technocratic agenda and does not undermine (and preferably reinforces) the status quo of the power structure.
Not surprisingly, Russia is not pleased with the turn of events. A democratic opening in its backyard is seen by the Kremlin as a recipe for trouble, especially given the highly strategically complex and volatile situation in Central Asia (suffice to say that Kyrgyzstan itself has the rare privilege of hosting both Russian, as well as American bases on its territory; a simple look at the map can speak volumes). Russia's interest is for stability, and stability in the mind of Russian leaders requires a strong hand at the helm; democratic experiments are seen as too big a risk.
And truth be said, Kyrgyzstan has not been a paragon of stability: the ethnic clashes between Kyrgyz and Uzbek populations in the South, which almost derailed the 27 June constitutional referendum, followed shortly after the bloody uprising that toppled the latest strongman, Kurmanbek Bakyiev. Which itself was the second violent regime change in five years, after the "Tulip revolution" that overthrew Askar Akayev.
The new rulers, who initially formed a "provisional government", faced the conundrum of stabilizing the situation and resolving the issue of constitutional legitimacy at the same time. The parliament had been dissolved, the constitutional framework discontinued. Thus, the sense of urgency to proceed with the 27 June referendum, even under very adverse circumstances and notwithstanding the alarm bells sounded by international organizations (e.g. the International Crisis Group urging the government not to press ahead with the referendum in the immediate aftermath of ethnic clashes in the South).
The gamble seems to have paid off, as the referendum went ahead in a smoother way than expected. Incidentally, the country also got the first female president in the sub-region.
But Kyrgyzstan is far from being out of the wood yet. It is still engaged in a high-risk endeavor that could end either with a genuine Central Asian democracy (an oxymoron until very recently), or - admittedly more likely - with a failed state. There are not many options in between.
The stakes are very high not just for the mountainous landlocked country bordering China, but indeed for the West as well, and for the entire region.
The early period after the fall of communism was one of borderless and somewhat naive optimism: that's when Francis Fukuyama's launched his theory about "The End of History", which basically said that liberal democracy had remained the only valid model of society, and that sooner or later all countries would converge towards that model. But by the mid-1990s the mood had changed, in the face of a rather messy transition, consolidation of authoritarian regimes in some countries, emergent nationalism and ethnic wars in the Balkans and parts of the former Soviet Union; the growing skepticism about the convergence theory was illustrated among others by Samuel Huntington's vision of a "Clash of Civilisations".
By the end of the first decade of transition, development organizations had by and large abandoned the idea that Central Asian states are going through a similar post-communist transition to that of Central Europe, and had written them off for Western-type democracy. While Central European countries gravitated towards the Western model, undertaking broad-based political, economic and social reform agendas and joining the EU and NATO, the Central Asian republics saw more of an inspiration in China's example of fast economic development in a politically controlled environment. The very language of "democracy" or "democratic governance" had become politically incorrect there, "good governance" was the preferred syntagm.
But now, it becomes possible for democracy activists to dream again: maybe the values that they believe in do have universal appeal after all. If Kyrgyzstan can make it, then probably anyone can. Could all of Central Asia be again in play? And how about Russia? Or even China?
The seismic change that a pluralistic polity in Central Asia would represent cannot be overstated. It would be probably the most significant historic development in the region since the fall of communism. It would extend the domain of freedom to the hitherto closed, authoritarian and impenetrable Asian heartland. And by doing this, it would irreversibly alter the global balance of power.
But then again: it can still go wrong, very wrong.
But then again: it can still go wrong, very wrong.