Change Comes Slowly to Kirghizia but Democratic Movement Finally Reaches the `Most Conservative Corner' of the Soviet Union Series: RIFT in the EMPIRE. SOVIET CENTRAL ASIA. Part 1 of a 3-Part Series. First of Two Articles Appearing Today

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THE Communist Party of Kirghizia rules this Soviet republic from the marble fortress of the House of Soviets in Frunze's central square.

But not 20 minutes drive away, the ugly Soviet apartment blocks disappear. In their place, Kirghiz sheepherders on horseback wearing peaked felt caps guide their flocks across the foothills of the jagged, snow-capped peaks.

Before the revolution, this city was called Pishpek, a tiny outpost of Russian and Ukrainian settlers at the edge of the empire in Inner Asia. They lived amid the nomadic Kirghiz, a Turkic people who have herded across the mighty Tian Shan mountains since at least the second millennium BC.

Although democratization and reform have swept the Soviet Union since 1985, change has come slowly to this Central Asian republic. The combination of Communist Party orthodoxy and deep-rooted culture has earned it the reputation as the most conservative corner of the country.

But perestroika (restructuring) has finally arrived in this mountainous land, personified by the surprising October election of Askar Akayev, a gentle 46-year-old Kirghiz physicist, to the presidency of the republic. Against all odds, and all expectations, he took the job from party leader and government boss Absamat Masaliyev, who had kept Kirghizia as the only republic not to join the wave of nationalism and sovereignty declarations.

"The democrats won over the conservatives," Mr. Akayev says simply, referring to the block of 114 democratic deputies which emerged, seemingly out of nowhere, to spearhead his victory.

Much of the credit for this goes to the fledgling Democratic Movement of Kirghizstan, which was born only this past year, on May 26. It is modeled on the "popular fronts" that have led nationalist revolts in many Soviet republics.

"We were influenced first of all by the Baltic republics, who started to resist the central totalitarian system," says Kazat Akhmatov, the writer and former Communist official who co-chairs the organization.

The movement has its origins in several small groups of activists who began organizing in 1988, Akhmatov explains. The May conference united 22 groups, the most important of which were Ashar, an organization of mostly young people demanding land to build housing; Asaba, a Frunze youth organization; and the Association of Young Historians.

The program set at the May meeting called for a struggle against party rule and the command economy, for complete economic and political sovereignty within a confederation, and for "restoration of national language, history, and culture."

Economic independence, in the view of many Kirghiz, means an end to being virtually a semicolonial dependency of Moscow. In neighboring Uzbekistan, that status means giving over most of agriculture to cotton, which is shipped out raw at fixed low prices. In Kirghizia, cotton, wool, and tobacco are produced, almost none of which is processed here.

"All Central Asian republics are now a source of raw materials," says economist and Deputy Premier Turar Koichuyevich, who heads the commission on economic reform.

Kirghizia, like other Central Asian republics, suffers from a combination of economic backwardness, high population growth, and a shortage of land. The population of 4,260,000 is growing by 100,000 a year, while only 5 to 6 percent of its land is arable, the rest consisting of mountains. According to the latest Soviet census figures, the republic is 52.3 percent Kirghiz, 21.5 percent Russian, 12.9 percent Uzbek, and the rest other nationalities.

These conditions led to the tragic clash between Kirghiz and Uzbeks in the Osh region, where the eastern end of the fertile Fergana Valley extends into Kirghizia. …