It all went down at the speed of light. In only a few hours on Thursday in Kyrgyzstan’s capital Bishkek, the palace was stormed, the tyrant fled and a new order was starting to take shape. Or was it?
The revolution had traveled by bus – 500 winding kilometers from Osh, of Silk Road fame, in the south through high mountain passes to Bishkek – before the planned kurultai (assembly) in front of the presidential palace took a swift, epic turn.
It was all about alleged rigged elections in February and March and astounding corruption exercised by the clan of autocrat president Askar Akayev, who has now fled the country. With his new parliamentary majority, Akayev was practically set to change the constitution – or do one better, appoint his daughter Bermet Akayev to the throne.
Moscow, via Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, had already criticized the European Union and reminded everyone that Bishkek was a partner in a collective security treaty. Russia’s top diplomat Sergei Lavrov accused Javier Solana, the EU’s top diplomat, of being politically incorrect: Solana had insisted that the Kyrgyz elections had not respected Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe criteria. At this crucial juncture, Akayev, 15 years in power, badly overplayed his hand.
Two months ago, Akayev went to Moscow to introduce his son to President Vladimir Putin. He was already plotting a dynastic transfer of power: after all, it had worked with the Aliev clan in Azerbaijan. Akayev again went to Moscow on a secret trip last Sunday, according to the Russian newspaper Vremia Novosti. He tried to meet with Putin, but this time he didn’t make it. He met with Russian diplomats instead.
Back in Bishkek he said he would consider negotiating with the opposition. But as events fast spiraled out of control, he said he would not negotiate with “revolutionaries” who were “financed and controlled by outsiders.” The “revolutionaries” deposed him with a bang. For the West, this is a “Tulip Revolution” (or “Lemon Revolution,” as it’s being called in France and Belgium). For many Russians, on the other hand, this is the work of a bunch of thugs.
Central Asian observers are betting their bowls of laghman (noodles) on what Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev and Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov are thinking right now. Could this be the beginning of (their) end? Could they also be toppled by people-power? Should they consider a move to Lake Geneva – after what happened in the so-called Switzerland of Central Asia? Or should this be the sign to go for all-out totalitarian repression?
Compared to its ultra-hardcore neighbors, Kyrgyzstan was a paradigm of democracy. Now the Kyrgyz opposition – something of an unruly mob, composed of southern barons and former regime stalwarts – has to face other, more pressing problems. The Western media are positively agog because they cannot stamp a “face” to the Tulip Revolution – unlike the photogenic Mikhail Saakashvili in Georgia and the poisoned Viktor Yushchenko in Ukraine. Should it be former prime minister Kurmanbek Bakiyev? Or former foreign minister Roza Otunbaeva? Or maybe Omurbek Tekerbayev? They do not exactly agree with each other. Now they must because they are in power and cannot run the risk of a civil war. Parliament has appointed Bakiyev as acting premier and president.
It’s the economy, stupid
Kyrgyzstan was thrust into independence by the end of 1991 with the distinction of being the only former Soviet republic in Central Asia controlled by a (relative) democrat, and not by a former party apparatchik. Akayev did introduce multi-party democracy. He also went down the privatization road and followed the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF’s) diktats.
In 1998, Kyrgyzstan became the first Central Asian republic to join the World Trade Organization. But then Akayev fell victim to the usury of power and started playing Stalin – politically – and Suharto – economically. The economy became the Akayev clan’s economy.
The IMF one-size-fits-all recipe once again was a disaster. Thanks to the IMF, the tiny republic now has the largest debt per capita in Central Asia. This has also meant a massive loss of jobs and next to 60% of the population living below the poverty line, according to World Bank figures. Increased poverty led to increased dissent. Once again, “it’s the economy, stupid” – nothing to do with Islamic terrorism.
When a credible opponent, former vice president Felix Kulov, appeared in 2000, Akayev put him in jail for “abuse of power.” Kulov, now released, has every chance of becoming the next Kyrgyz leader.
Asia Times Online traveled across Kyrgyzstan in autumn 2003 (see Silk Road Roving). Already at the time, businessmen as well as the urban middle class in the Russified north were fed up with their tight budgets and official corruption.
But that was nothing compared to the south, home of the volatile Fergana Valley – a 300-kilometer lush oasis divided by Josef Stalin among three Soviet republics, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The Kyrgyz Fergana is crisscrossed by a disgruntled, vocal and relatively well-organized Uzbek minority. In Osh and Jalalabad – the capitals of the current Tulip Revolution – everyone complained about their lack of political power in Bishkek, and how there was no investment in their region. One just had to walk the dark, crumbling and empty streets of Osh at night in the freezing cold to prove their point.
A visit to the sprawling Dar Doil bazaar, outside of Bishkek and one of the largest in Central Asia, also proved the point of how a great deal of the Kyrgyz population depends for its survival on commerce with China.
At least 700,000 Kyrgyz out of a population of 5 million have been forced to emigrate to find work. Most survive as clandestine slave laborers at construction sites in Russia or Kazakhstan. The stagnant economy revolves around gold mines, hydroelectric equipment and some tourism. The country’s external debt – US$2 billion – is equivalent to its gross national product.
No Caliphate, thank you
Geostrategically, the Central Asian neighbors plus Russia, China and the US simply cannot afford a chaotic or ethnically fractured Kyrgyzstan. As a side effect of the “war on terror,” Kyrgyzstan is a de facto key pawn for Russia, the US and China in the New Great Game – not least because of its strategic location, squeezed between China and Kazakhstan.
The Russian military base in Kant, 20 minutes away from Bishkek, is described by Defense Minister Ivanov as “a deterrent to international terrorism.” The neighboring American military base at Manas – civilian – airport is theoretically set up as a support for Bagram in Afghanistan, but is more effective as a psychological tool to rattle the Chinese, being so close to Xinjiang. Beijing, not surprisingly, also wants to set up its own Kyrgyz military base.
The Russians were especially caught by surprise with the Tulip Revolution: from the Kremlin to the generals, the mantra was always that the threat to Central Asia came from radical Islam in the Fergana Valley.
Two serious developments could derive from the Tulip Revolution. The aggressive Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the non-violent Hizb ut-Tahrir may advance their agendas: based on the Kyrgyz Fergana, they could spread their influence to southern Kazakhstan, western Tajikistan and even Xinjiang in China.
But one has to remember that the Kyrgyz – descendants of Genghis Khan’s Golden Horde who migrated south from Siberia – are nomads who were absorbed into Islam only in the 15th century. For them the al-Qaeda caliphate world view is totally alien.
A more probable, and much more worrying scenario, would be Kyrgyzstan spiraling down to something like the Tajik civil war of 1992-97, which caused tens of thousands of victims.
One thing is already certain: the Tulip Revolution will inevitably be instrumentalized by the second Bush administration as the first “spread of freedom and democracy” success story in Central Asia. The whole arsenal of US foundations – National Endowment for Democracy, International Republic Institute, Ifes, Eurasia Foundation, Internews, among others – which fueled opposition movements in Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine, has also been deployed in Bishkek. It generated, among other developments, a small army of Kyrgyz youngsters who went to Kiev, financed by the Americans, to get a glimpse of the Orange Revolution, and then became “infected” with the democratic virus.
Practically everything that passes for civil society in Kyrgyzstan is financed by these US foundations, or by the US Agency for International Development (USAID). At least 170 non-governmental organizations charged with development or promotion of democracy have been created or sponsored by the Americans.
The US State Department has operated its own independent printing house in Bishkek since 2002 – which means printing at least 60 different titles, including a bunch of fiery opposition newspapers. USAID invested at least $2 million prior to the Kyrgyz elections – quite something in a country where the average salary is $30 a month.
Opposition leader Otunbaeva has recognized publicly that “yes, we are supported by the US.” The investment will have paid off if a “democratic revolution” can be sold worldwide as the sterling example of a country with a Muslim majority joining the Bush crusade. But the public relations blitz will amount to nothing if the new Kyrgyz order is not immune to corruption and does not try very hard to at least alleviate the widespread sense of economic injustice. Yes, it’s the economy, stupid.