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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kyrgyz Leader Hopes to Shore Up Image

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — For years, Western diplomats held up President Askar Akayev of Kyrgyzstan as a champion of democracy among a gang of authoritarian leaders who control the other former Soviet republics of Central Asia.

But the image of Akayev and his tiny country have been tarnished in recent months.

Political rivals have been jailed, opposition newspapers and independent television stations have been intimidated and silenced and, most damaging, international observers condemned Akayev's re-election last October as a sham.

The former university professor says he is determined to restore the prestige that he acknowledges he and his country have lost.

Regaining the attention and respect of foreign leaders and international lenders is essential for any hope of prosperity in this nation, which lacks the energy resources of its neighbors.

"We admit that we made mistakes and we are fully committed to correct them and stay on the track of democracy," Akayev said in a 90-minute interview at his residence in an orchard-filled park on the outskirts of Bishkek, the capital.

Akayev then outlined what he knows foreign lenders would like to hear.

His top priority, he said, is a new national plan for micro-credit loans to alleviate the extreme poverty that grips much of the country.

He described the importance of the ombudsman post being created to monitor human rights. And he promised to work with opposition politicians and independent journalists.

"As Victor Hugo said, the real mistake is the one that cannot be corrected," said Akayev, 56, sounding more like a penitent than the autocrat his critics say he has become after nearly a decade in office as Kyrgyzstan's first president after its independence.

"I'm glad to hear that he acknowledges the mistakes because they are obvious and bad," said Christoph Schuepp, country director of Internews, a U.S.-based foundation that promotes press freedom. "But the media is still under enormous pressure."

A Western diplomat gave Akayev credit for some positive steps, like authorizing elections of local officials and adopting a progressive needle-exchange program to combat drug-related diseases.

But he said each step forward seems to be matched by at least one step back.

One of Akayev's earliest supporters, Felix Kulov, is serving a seven-year prison sentence on charges supporters say were trumped up to keep him from opposing Akayev in last year's presidential race.

Kulov was acquitted last August by a military court of charges he abused his office while he was vice president, but an appeals court found him guilty of the same charges and sentenced him to prison.

After the presidential election, Akayev appointed a former Communist Party boss known for his hard-line attitude as his new presidential chief of staff.

Akayev knows democracy is one of the few products Kyrgyzstan has to market, particularly if he wants to keep international aid flowing and tourists arriving to trek in the country's rugged Tien Shan and Pamir mountains.

Kyrgyzstan's only other major resource is the network of rivers and dams that regulate the flow of water essential to the farmlands and cotton fields of the Ferghana Valley and the production of electricity.

The limited resources have left the country with an anemic economy. Per capita income is about $300 a year, less than $1 a day, and it is declining.

The poverty and outbreaks of violence by Islamic insurgents in southern Kyrgyzstan during the past two summers have raised tensions, particularly in southern Kyrgyzstan regions where ethnic Kyrgyz, Uzbeks and Tajiks live in sometimes uneasy proximity.

President Islam Karimov of neighboring Uzbekistan has responded to the Islamic radicals with mass arrests, something Akayev has avoided so far.

The way to counter the appeal of the militants, he said, is by alleviating poverty.

"In some cases these people live in extreme poverty and for that reason the ideas of the Islamic fundamentalists are appealing to them," he said. "Only economic well-being and education will help us in defeating extremism."