U.S. Programs Aided Kyrgyz Opposition
Apr 1, 4:40 AM (ET)
By STEVE GUTTERMAN
BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan (AP) - The speaker of Kyrgyzstan's
new parliament traveled to the United States last year
on a U.S.-government-funded program to observe the
presidential election. So did the acting president.
Newspapers that railed against President Askar Akayev
in the months before his ouster last week at the hands
of opposition protesters were printed on a U.S.-funded
press. Kyrgyzstan has received more U.S. assistance
per capita than any other ex-Soviet republic in
The upheaval that swept Akayev's foes to power last
week struck a country once squeezed by Akayev's
increasingly control-minded regime and now emboldened
by a promise of change championed by forces that
benefited from U.S. funding.
Among them: a handful of opposition newspapers that
have been rolling off a truck-sized printing press
marked "United States Government Department of
Democracy, Human Rights and Labor," housed at a former
laundry on a remote stretch of road in the capital,
The press has operated since November 2003 under a
program of the New York-based rights and democracy
group Freedom House. The project has received more
than $1 million in U.S. government funding.
At least three of the printing press' 60-odd clients,
project director Mike Stone said, were opposition
papers that fueled growing public anger at Akayev amid
the campaign for the late-winter parliamentary
elections - a vote whose flaws fueled the opposition
push for his ouster.
Those publications embroiled the printing press in a
dispute with Akayev's government, which responded with
a power cutoff, police surveillance, the confiscation
of a truckload of papers and suggestions of censorship
from board members close to the president.
The press, meanwhile, received generators rushed over
by the U.S. Embassy after the electricity was cut off,
allowing it to print 182,000 copies of an opposition
paper ahead of the first round of voting Feb. 27.
The battle became part of a war of words waged by
Akayev against the West, in which he claimed
opposition forces were getting international funding.
The rhetoric is familiar from Russia - where
politicians claimed U.S. money was a major force
behind the protests that swept Western-leaning
opposition leaders to power in Georgia and Ukraine in
the past two years.
"Akayev in his waning days was just as anxious to feed
that thesis ... because it made him seem blameless,"
said an informed Western observer who spoke on
condition of anonymity. According to Akayev, "it was
these pernicious outsiders led by the Americans who
were undermining a perfectly happy country," the
As Kyrgyzstan's biggest donor, the United States is a
fat target. U.S. assistance since the 1991 Soviet
collapse has totaled nearly $800 million, and funding
for democracy development last year was $13.3 million.
The money went in part to U.S. government-funded
groups such as the National Democratic Institute and
the International Republican Institute. U.S. democracy
programs in Kyrgyzstan "focus on improving political
processes and accountability of government
institutions, strengthening civil society and public
advocacy, and supporting independent media," according
to a State Department statement.
Those goals dovetailed with the aims of opposition
leaders fearing electoral fraud. They also ran up
against a government that seemed bent on strengthening
its grip in the parliamentary balloting - and possibly
even retaining it indefinitely despite term limits
that prevented Akayev from running again.
American-funded programs provided training in
political organization and campaigning, but the U.S.
Embassy stressed that the main pro-Akayev party also
took part along with opposition groups. The embassy
said U.S. money could not have been used to feed,
clothe or transport protesters who seized and swarmed
his office because it does not go to specific parties
Edil Baisalov, head of a non-government group called
For Democracy and Civil Society, stressed it was
Kyrgyz people who forced Akayev out, not U.S. cash,
but acknowledged that Western democracy groups have
played a "very important role" in creating an
atmosphere conducive to change. The group worked with
the National Democratic Institute and monitored the
"The West and the United States were big sponsors of
our democratic path of development, supported our
democratic aims," Roza Otunbayeva, a former ambassador
to the United States and Britain and now acting
foreign minister, said Thursday.
Omurbek Tekebayev, the parliament speaker who visited
the United States last year under the State
Department's International Visitors Program, said
other opposition leaders who went included acting
President Kurmanbek Bakiyev and a top aide to Felix
Kulov, a politician released from jail during the
"I'm not sure how much this trip influenced us, but I
found that the Americans know how to choose people,
know how to make an accurate evaluation of what is
happening and prognosticate the future development and
political changes," Tekebayev said Thursday.
Stone suggested the influence of the printing press
"Perhaps the papers - the fact that they existed and
were on the street - may have been a sign of hope for
the opposition," he said.
He stressed that U.S.-financed groups were promoting
"the rule of law, transparent, free elections, free
media: a handful of things that we all take for
"That's the goal of these projects - it ain't regime
change," he said.
But the regime did change, leaving one end of a
cavernous room at the printing press piled nearly
ceiling-high with dozens of huge, half-ton rolls of
With the opposition claiming Akayev would seek to stay
in power past the October election or engineer a
succession, the towering stacks are the products of an
effort to ensure there was enough paper on hand to
prevent the government from shutting the press down
ahead of the vote by blocking deliveries from Russia.
"We anticipated supply problems," said project
assistant Ruslan Yakhtanigov.