The changes in Kyrgyzstan will test our commitment to the spread of democracy

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The Independent Online

First came Georgia's Rose revolution, then its Orange successor in Ukraine. As opposition protesters in Kyrgyzstan, this time wearing pink and lemon scarves, stormed the government and forced President Askar Akayev to flee, another corrupt and authoritarian regime in the old Soviet borderland entered its death throes.

A domino effect is clearly at work here, as the series of peaceful street revolutions that started early last year in Georgia and then moved to Ukraine sweeps into Central Asia. The reasons behind the trouble in Kyrgyzstan - an astonishingly beautiful but impoverished Central Asian "stan" - resemble those that motivated the earlier protests in Tbilisi and Kiev. In all three countries, frustration with declining living standards combined with anger over a rigged election result to create the ingredients for a popular revolt.

The question is whether the West will welcome the overthrow of President Akayev with the same unclouded enthusiasm with which it greeted the changes in Georgia and Ukraine. In Ukraine in particular, the Americans drew satisfaction from the fall of a regime that clung to Russia and whose successor clearly aimed to move closer to Washington and Europe.

Kyrgyzstan is another story. Here, Russia and the United States have already reached an apparently amicable agreement to share influence - a state of affairs symbolised by the military bases the two countries have built only a few miles apart from one another. Since 11 September, both Russia and the US have come to see this small mountainous country as a vital pawn on the Central Asian chessboard and as an important listening post next door to Afghanistan.

In both Moscow and Washington, there are worries that the fall of a strongman who cannily befriended both of them will destabilise the region. The specific fear is that a power vacuum or period of chaos in Kyrgyzstan will lend succour to the remnants of the Taliban in Afghanistan and open the door to al-Qa'ida sympathisers and other radical Islamists.

Some of these worries are understandable. For all its beauty, the "Switzerland of Central Asia" is an impoverished state with no history of responsible, democratic government and no middle class waiting in the wings to usher it in. Like most of its neighbours, it is ethnically divided, which allowed the Akayev regime to claim that its strong-arm tactics were justifiable in order to keep a volatile collection of tribes in line.

What is vital is that such concerns do not result in any muffling of the broader message that democracy is a good thing, even in parts of the world where its advent may be surprising, or inconvenient.

Though in some ways a rather better government than that of some of its neighbours, Akayev's regime was still a Soviet relic, which should have been consigned to history years ago. His re-election as president earlier this year was, in the opinion of most independent observers, flagrantly rigged. Given the authoritarian character of the regime, the opposition's only choice was to keep quiet or to take to the streets.

It is to be hoped that the President's withdrawal from Bishkek will be a peaceful affair and that his followers will not try to impede the holding of truly free and fair elections. The West must support this process without reserve and not permit any military or strategic considerations to get in the way.

Nor must we try to contain the effects of the revolution to Kyrgyzstan, as it is likely that the events unfolding in Bishkek will have a knock-on effect throughout Central Asia. The dictatorial regime in Uzbekistan, a much larger and more important country, must be trembling in its boots.

Any hesitation on our part in endorsing the changes in Kyrgyzstan would send quite the wrong message to the pro-democracy forces throughout the region. Our own commitment to democracy is on trial in Central Asia, and we must not fail the test.