NEW YORK-When you think "Jockey," you think "tighy whities." But a few years back, far from the prying eyes of Western business writers, in the dusty capital of the remote former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan, Jockey tried to reinvent itself as a high-end men's formalwear designer.
Electricity was spotty and civil war was raging in neighboring Tajikistan, but Kyrgyzstan was flush with loans from the International Monetary Fund. The mere existence of the Jockey store, overstaffed with supermodel-quality Kyrgyz women wearing identical black microminis, testified to the optimism infecting Bishkek during the giddy summer of 1997. ("Does anybody shop here?" I asked a salesgirl. She assured me that people did. "Do they ever buy anything?" She giggled nervously. An average Kyrgyz worker would have needed a decade's salary to take home a styling Jockey suit.)
Alone among the Central Asian republics that emerged after the 1991 Soviet collapse, Kyrgyzstan was governed by a democratically elected president and genuine parliament. While his neighbors suppressed the news media, created ludicrous Stalinesque personality cults and presided over corrupt, violent police states, Askar Akayev created the "Switzerland of Central Asia," a calm and friendly mountain oasis in a region famous for its misery and obscurity. Absent were the ubiquitous checkpoints, political prisons and KGB-OVIR spies typical of Central Asian republics. The Kyrgyz didn't have oil or gas, but who knew? European mountaineers and whitewater rafting aficionados might trek in tourist money.
The American-run IMF soon realized that rocks, the country's only natural resource, don't make for the best collateral. We pulled the fiscal feeding tube and burst the Kyrgyz economic bubble.
By 1999 the Jockey store was gone, replaced by a café that had evidently followed it into retail oblivion in the middle of a half-eaten lunch. You could have taken a nap in the middle of previously traffic-clogged streets without fear of being disturbed. The nights, however, were punctuated with gunshots.
As unemployment shot up, a radical Islamist militia crossed the southern Kyrgyz frontier from its camps in Tajikistan in an ongoing campaign to overthrow Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov. Militants of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, trained by the Taliban in Afghanistan, were pushed back into southern Kyrgyzstan at the Uzbek border. The impoverished Kyrgyz army, unable to afford heavy artillery, was overrun by both the invasion and the retreat. IMU fighters found sanctuary in the Ferghana Valley, the conservative Muslim heartland of Central Asia centered on the ancient southern Kyrgyz city of Osh.
Though the IMU has been scattered and is considered relatively dormant today (an IMU squad recently engaged U.S. troops in Pakistan's Tribal Areas), their committed agitation between 1997 and 2003 inspired Tajiks and other resentful ethnic minorities by demonstrating the weakness of the Bishkek government. The IMU example also showed conservative Ferghanans, who wanted to replace the region's Soviet-Turkish blend of secularism with south Asian-style Islamic fundamentalism, that Kyrgyz democracy was vulnerable.
Akayev also took note of the IMU incursion. With foreign aid cut off and half the country slipping out of his government's control, he resorted to watered-down versions of the tactics used by his neighboring Central Asian strongmen: jailing former Soviet general Felix Kulov of the opposition movement and stuffing ballots in the March 13 parliamentary elections. That sparked demonstrations by Ferghana-based southerners, who seized Osh and Tokmak before trekking over the Tian Shan mountains to the capital.
Although the quest for freedom is always worthy, recent events in Kyrgyzstan were less of a revolution than a looting raid on the capital by impetuous southerners. The post-Akayev era forces the Kyrgyz to choose between two unpleasant options, autocratic former regime figures like Kulov and the Taliban-influenced Islamists who drove the president from power.
The Kyrgyz rebellion has sent shockwaves throughout the region. Cutthroats like Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev and Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov are likely to draw the conclusion that Akayev's liberalism-even at the end, he refused to permit the police to fire at the rebels-led to his downfall. Increased repression will heighten already growing anti-American sentiments in Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, all of which are unstable U.S.-funded "client states" with ostentatious post-9/11 American military bases. Ensuing revolutions could diminish American influence in those nations, denying us access to untapped oil and natural gas reserves larger than Saudi Arabia and Iraq's combined.
Central Asia provides a case study in the gaping chasm between our high-flying freedom-and-democracy rhetoric and a grim reality in which we cut sleazy deals with thuggish tyrants. We abandoned the democratic role model Akayev created in Kyrgyzstan because it had no direct role in America's strategy of "total energy dominance." We cozied up to the murderous dictators of oil- and gas-rich Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan even though we knew their citizens despised them for funneling their nations' wealth into Swiss bank accounts while most people starved.
Now Central Asia's only democracy is history. The dictatorships are cracking down on Muslims guilty of nothing more than wearing a beard and a skullcap. They're turning moderates into radicals. That sound you hear is Osama laughing. Again.
Never have we Americans talked up our supposed values more than since 9/11. The lesson of 9/11, however, is that the rest of the world watches what we do more than they listen to what we say.