11 November 2006

History lesson

In the near future, public memory will likely describes the recent events in Kyrgyzstan as a dispute between the president and the parliament that was ultimately settled by a constitutional compromise. What will probably be forgotten, or minimized, is that grassroots activists and common people created the conditions that allowed that compromise to occur. Historical change can be imposed from above, but democratic reforms that increase popular access to political power are invariably created from below.

While it is premature to access the impacts of the reforms approved earlier this week, the new constitution allows greater political power sharing. Of at least equal importance is that democratic traditions have deepened in this young nation and, as a result, will be more difficult to reverse. For example, the local press, by all local accounts, showed a greater diversity of perspectives and provided more comprehensive coverage than what it did during the Tulip Revolution last year. The opposition movement was relatively well organized and did a good job of policing themselves, particularly it most hot-headed constituents. Police and military forces exercised restraint in the face of angry crowds, which at times numbered between 8,000 and 50,000, depending on the estimate. Some elements of the police, in fact, supported the opposition, preventing the kind of hard battles lines that are often drawn between anti-government demonstrators and the forces of law and order. In fact, it was not uncommon to see members of police and military mingling among and conversing with opposition members.

From the perspective of an outsider, the collective behavior of all parties—the government, a diverse opposition movement, security forces and the news media—exhibited a tolerance for political difference that is sadly lacking in the other nations of Central Asia (and elsewhere) and, more importantly, is an absolute requirement for a political culture of democratic pluralism. And while these behaviors and attitudes can’t guarantee a healthy democracy, they clearly advance that possibility.

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