Kyrgyzstan Leader Will Meet Bush; Akayev an Ally in the President's War on terrorism.(WORLD)(BRIEFING: WESTERN ASIA)

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Byline: Christopher Pala, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

JALAL-ABAD, Kyrgyzstan - When President Askar Akayev visits Washington for talks with President Bush on Sept. 23, he can expect warm thanks for his help in the war on terrorism and a bit of advice: Try working with your opponents, rather than shooting them.

It all started innocently enough, with an attempt by Mr. Akayev's small Central Asian republic to settle a century-old border dispute with China.

Corrupt police in neighboring Kazakhstan exact such heavy bribes from trucks taking fruit and vegetables to markets in northern Russia that the trade - Kyrgyzstan's main export - is barely profitable. So the government came up with the idea of laying a railway spur to China, permitting exporters to bypass Kazakhstan altogether. But the border dispute had to be settled first.

"Central Asia is trying to revive the old Silk Road - to get more European-Asian trade to pass though here - and good relations with China are essential," said a Western ambassador in Bishkek, the capital.

"China will be displacing Russia as our main trading partner in a few years," predicted Muradbek Imanaliyev, the former foreign minister who negotiated the deal with China over the past five years.

Under terms of the agreement signed three years ago, Kyrgyzstan returned to China 300 square miles of uninhabited mountains in the Tian-Shan range, the northern extension of the Himalayas, and China agreed to drop an ancient claim to twice that much territory.

But the government of Mr. Akayev - an amiable former physicist, who a decade ago seemed the most Western-oriented of the leaders of the five post-Soviet Central Asian republics - simply announced the deal without explaining its long-term benefits to his 5 million countrymen, mired in poverty since independence in 1991.

When the government tried to get the parliament to ratify it this past spring, opposition lawmaker Azimbek Beknazarov began a campaign to have the president impeached for treason for giving away a piece of the motherland to foreigners.

In the atmosphere of cynicism and corruption that pervades post-Soviet Central Asian politics, many now wonder about Mr. Akayev's real motives for the deal.

"I know it's ridiculous, but a lot of people really think that [Chinese President] Jiang Zemin just gave him a couple of million dollars" in exchange for the land, said Nurlan Kachibekov, who runs a 300-acre farm near Bishkek.

"Instead of just announcing a done deal," he said, "they should have had a campaign to explain it - maybe a referendum. They used Soviet methods, when the Soviet Union is dead."

But a referendum, the Western ambassador points out, could have been interpreted as a vote of confidence on Mr. Akayev, whose popularity has been slowly sliding, and it would have been risky.

The government reacted to Mr. Beknazarov's impeachment drive with the usual measure used in the region to deal with political opponents: He was arrested, tried and convicted on charges of corruption that dated from previous years.

"It was a bad idea," said another senior Western diplomat.

The Beknazarov trial revived regional rivalries in a land that is, in effect, two countries linked by a single road that climbs over a high mountain range.

Mr. Akayev is from the north, whose nomadic culture is more Western-oriented, while Mr. Beknazarov is from the more settled, Asian and religious south. …