BISHKEK, Kirgizstan - There was nothing in the drear Kirgiz day to warn one.
Like most of the winter here, Saturday, Feb. 1 dawned white and gray. This new little country nestled between Kazakhstan and China's northwest provinces is so far from everything that Westerners like to quip, "This isn't the end of the world, but you can see it from here."
It is also horrendously poor. An average salary here is 150 rubles a month, or $1. And the city streets and buildings are unrelievedly filthy.
So, when the American flag was slowly raised here over the first American Embassy in Central Asia, one had the right to be astonished. U.S. diplomats and a delighted group of Kirgiz sang the two countries' anthems.
My own feeling, as I stood in the biting cold, was that the flag was almost dazzling against the omnipresent drabness of Central Asia. It seemed to cut through all the pain and dirt. And it was then that the tears of joy and pride came, uninvited, to my cheeks.
Kirgiz President Askar Akaev, a genuine democrat who won the presidential elections here last year as the former Soviet republic broke from Moscow, spoke joyfully that day about the importance of the event.
"This is not only a ceremonial event, but an event far from ordinary. . . We are all eyewitnesses to a new geopolitics in the world."
Then the new American charge d'affaires at the embassy, Edmund McWilliams, an experienced diplomat who speaks many of the area's
languages, noted solemnly that "this ceremony marks the beginning of a historical process. We have established our first diplomatic mission in this part of the world.
"Kirgizstan shows that democracy can bloom anywhere. They do not want aid; they want the opportunity to help themselves develop their great new country."
Curiously enough, the embassy, a neat little building that the Kirgiz government worked day and night to put into order, formerly housed the communist youth organization, Komsomol. The former KGB building is one house away. And the street, formerly named after the founder of the KGB, has been renamed "Freedom Street."
The opening of this first embassy in Central Asia - an area now being wooed by Turkey, Iran and the big oil companies - shows how fast things can happen even here. An American diplomatic team arrived on Jan. 20 to look at possible sites. By opening day barely three weeks later, the building was not only ready but had two new Western-style toilets!
But all of this is far more complicated and elusive than the opening of relations, even with all that means to these long-forgotten peoples whose historical identity nearly died in the 70-year Soviet "experience."
Should the United States simply recognize all of these new countries? Secretary of State James Baker III, now in Central Asia, laid down "points" he says must be fulfilled before recognition. These include having nuclear weapons under central control, observing human and group rights, working toward a market economy and having a democratic government in place.
I think those kinds of moral strictures are too judgmental. Some of the new "countries," such as big and crucial Uzbekistan, may not meet all the criteria - but it is very important that we be represented there from the ground up if we are to have influence in this new Central Asia.
Is Central Asia really all that important to us?
One can make the argument that commercially it is only marginally so. The only major contract signed here so far is for a joint venture with Pepsico. In terms of big commercial contracts, in the entire region so far there are only two foreign companies actually pumping oil, and those are in Russian western Siberia. As well, a $10 billion contract was just signed by the new government of Azerbaijan with Amoco. This is to explore for oil under the Caspian Sea and has great potential.
But perhaps the overwhelming diplomatic and geopolitical importance of Central Asia lies in its geographical location. It is the vast, too-long unknown heartland of all of Asia and the Middle East.
If it is unstable, if it is in chaos, if its myriad ethnic groups are massacring one another, then that poison will spread to the borders that we know so much better. Central Asia also holds the key to the future of Islam: Will it be moderate or fundamentalist? Central Asia is, to a great extent, the new "great game."
Still, when I think about this remote area, I will remember Saturday, Feb. 1, in Bishkek: a brilliantly colored flag moving slowly up into the gray fog and the look of wonder and appreciation in Kirgiz eyes.