Declining Democracy

When I first met Ravshan Gapirov I didn't think that I might be helping him to get arrested. Gapirov is the director of a human-rights center in the Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan, long considered the most liberal of the five countries in the region that once were part of the Soviet Union. We met just 10 weeks ago, and I remember him vividly--a small, intense man with a thick black mustache, quivering with energy and the rightness of his quest for justice.

Finding him wasn't easy. I worked my way from contact to contact, quizzing passersby and neighbors. Everyone in the town--a hardscrabble place called Kara Su, which translates as "Black Water"--seemed to have heard of him, but none knew where he lived. Finally, I ended up at his home, a few small buildings and an arid yard tucked away behind a high wall. Across the road, a canal ran between deep concrete banks, and along the far side of the canal is a formidable wire-and-concrete fence. On the other side of the fence lies Uzbekistan, where 25 million people live in a rigorous police state that aspires to regional domination.

Kyrgyzstan, with its population of 4.5 million, is a small, landlocked country, consisting largely of mountains and valleys. In the early 1990s, it became fashionable to call it the Switzerland of Central Asia. The Kyrgyz president, Askar Akayev, appeared to be a thoughtful intellectual fond of quoting from the writings of America's founding fathers. Democracy in Kyrgyzstan seemed to be flourishing. The country lacked industry and infrastructure, but Akayev's free-market rhetoric offered hope for its emergence from centuries of colonial domination by Russia and the Soviet Union. Other countries in the region had huge reserves of oil and mineral resources. Kyrgyzstan had pluck, but not much else.

When I returned to Kyrgyzstan for the first time in eight years last October, I was curious to see how the country was faring. It was fall, and the alpine foothills beyond the capital of Bishkek were stippled with color. A presidential election campaign was a week away, and the government propaganda machine was leaving no doubt about the victor: Akayev, the one-time democrat. The beleaguered opposition told of dirty tricks and government harassment. Ordinary folk shrugged off all questions about politics and turned away in disgust.

As I traveled south into wilder territory, the friendly Kyrgyz regaled me with stories of poverty, corruption and growing ethnic tension. The official average monthly salary in Kyrgyzstan is about $20; in fact, most people have to get by on far less. Unemployment is rife. For many people, the only real hope for making a living lies in the burgeoning drug trade--70 percent of the world's heroin comes from Afghanistan and the lion's share of that amount travels north through Kyrgyzstan en route to points west.

The country's human-rights record, too, has deteriorated badly in the past few years. The Human Rights Watch World Report of 1999 reported that Kyrgyzstan was moving "ever further" from its image as a model new democracy. "Police abuse, religious persecution, trafficking of women and violations of the right to free expression made a mockery of Kyrgyzstan's international reputation," the report said.

In Osh, a city that once marked the easternmost advance of Alexander the Great, the tension was palpable. Osh is one of the largest cities in the Ferghana Valley, a broad, fertile basin shared by about 11 million people in three Central Asian republics (Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan). Its dense population and relative inaccessibility make the valley a kind of pressure cooker. The resulting history of ethnic conflict and Islamic fervor has prompted some experts to predict the outbreak of Balkan-style conflict. In the past two years, for the first time in generations, the area has experienced outright warfare. The culprits are ethnic Uzbek guerrillas, trained by Afghanistan's Taliban and financed by drug money, who say they aim to transform the valley into an Islamic state.

Not surprisingly, this volatile cocktail of Islam, ethnic hatred, drugs and poverty is ratcheting up tensions in the Ferghana Valley. Nowhere is this more evident than in Gapirov's hometown of Kara Su, lying as it does next to Osh and along a border that also marks a regional fault line. "I think that we are in a time of great change in Central Asia," says Shirin Akiner, a University of London expert on the region. "I think that we're now getting the blowback from all of the euphoria of the early years. Hopes were raised far too high with independence at the beginning of the 1990s." Gapirov, a self-styled human-rights activist, has been trying to fight for that hope. For him, that included campaigning against the corruption and authoritarianism of the local police and security services. It meant defending local Islamists--mostly young, undereducated men with no career prospects--who distribute leaflets in the bazaars calling for the (nonviolent, they insist) establishment of an Islamic state. When I met Gapirov at the end of October, he drew a diagram of the explosive social forces in the region, and added a Kyrgyz proverb: "Wealth should not circulate only in the hands of the wealthy."

As tension in the region rises, the Uzbek authorities have been building up fortifications along the once wide-open border with Kyrgyzstan. Wire fences, watch towers and mine fields are only part of it. In Kara Su, a town that depends on cross-border trade for its survival, the Uzbek authorities' decision to destroy a bridge that connected the two countries triggered angry protests from the Kyrgyz side. When photographer Stanley Greene arrived to take pictures of the unrest for NEWSWEEK, members of the security service accused Gapirov of provoking the demonstration. Within days, they arrested him.

Two months later, he remains in detention. His fate is unknown, but human-rights workers familiar with the area fear he has been tortured. According to the Human Rights Watch report, beatings and threats are commonly used by Kyrgyzstan police during interrogation sessions to coerce self-incriminating statements from detainees. And the latest available U.S. Department of State report for Kyrgyzstan cites "credible reports of police abuse and brutality." Notes the 1999 report: "Prison conditions are very poor, and there were cases of arbitrary arrest and detention."

I was not the only reason--or probably even the main reason--for Gapirov's arrest. He had already clashed with local authorities by publishing allegations of corruption against some officials and hosting a human-rights conference that was closed down by the police. However, when photographer Greene saw him about 10 days after my visit, Gapirov mentioned that the police had asked about me. And when local police and plain-clothed security officials tried to stop Stanley taking pictures at the rally, Gapirov yelled at them that Stanley had a right to be there.

Officially, the charge against him is hooliganism. But human-rights organizations working on the case have no doubt the real reason is political. Anyone who's been around the former U.S.S.R. knows that these things are rarely coincidences, and the timing here is too close for comfort. Gapirov's fate, then, stands in part for the larger tragedy of a country, once so promising, that seems now to be losing its way in the thickets of history. But his story is also much simpler: it's about a man struggling to do the right thing under daunting conditions--and paying the price.