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One Small Step for Central Asia

In central Asia, a region of authoritarianism and rising Islamic extremism, an unfinished democratic revolution has successfully taken another quarter turn.

On Sunday, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who led last spring's so-called "tulip revolution" in Kyrgyzstan, won a landslide victory as the president of this strategically located, yet impoverished, country. The election, despite inflated turnout numbers, was deemed by outside observers to have reflected the will of voters.

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The balloting marks an important next step for a people who overthrew corrupt former president Askar Akayev, but who still have to live with his stacked parliament and other remnants of his unresponsive regime.

The vote also has a potential to sway autocratic central Asia. In this oil-rich region, old geopolitical rivalries between the strong-arm countries and the West are resurfacing.

Last week, for example, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization - which includes China, Russia, and the four Central Asian "stans" (including Kyrgyzstan) - called on the US and its allies to set a timetable to shut military bases in the region. The US has bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan to support its troops fighting the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

On another foreign policy front, Kyrgyzstan must decide whether to acquiesce to neighboring Uzbekistan, which is demanding the return of more than 100 refugees who fled a recent mass killing of protesters by Uzbek security forces.

So far, Mr. Bakiyev is trying to carefully balance the regional pressures. While he's said he'd like to see Russia's military presence in his country bolstered (Moscow also has a base in this former Soviet republic), he allowed himself wiggle room on the US case. "Now we may begin discussing the necessity of US military forces' presence," Bakiyev told reporters Monday, but "when and how it will happen, time will show."

As the leader of a developing democratic outpost, Bakiyev needs the support of other democracies. The US, for instance, should seriously consider pulling out of Uzbekistan - an ill-fitting partner on human rights grounds. This might help Bakiyev relieve some pressure from Russia and China, while still meeting US military needs in the region - and Kyrgyz needs (the base contributes 7 percent to Kyrgyzstan's gross domestic product).

On the refugee issue, Bakiyev can find United Nations arguments to resist returning these people to likely persecution in Uzbekistan. This week, the UN found that "credible eyewitness testimony strongly suggests that military and security forces committed grave human rights violations" in the Uzbek street killings in May.

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After his win Sunday, Bakiyev pledged to "do our best to expand democratic principles" in Kyrgyzstan. His tentative tone hints at how tough it will be to complete the revolution.