The TNR Primer: Kyrgyzstan

by Seyward Darby | April 9, 2010

Earlier this week, the small Central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan erupted in violence. Days after protests broke out in a few small towns, thousands of people opposed to President Kurmanbek Bakiev's corrupt regime took to the streets of Bishkek, the capital city, and clashed with government forces. At least 75 people have died and hundreds more have been injured. Several government buildings have been set on fire, and countless businesses have been looted. Bakiev has fled to the southern part of the country, and an interim government, led by former foreign minister Roza Otunbayeva, has claimed power. Bakiev, however, says he remains president.

This isn't the first time Kyrgyzstan has experienced upheaval. In 2005, the Tulip Revolution forced then-President Askar Akaev, a notoriously despotic leader, from power and installed Bakiev, who promised to build a democracy. But he quickly broke that promise. When I visited Kyrgyzstan in 2007, just prior to its first parliamentary elections since the revolution, Bakiev was under fire for intimidating his opposition, rigging a referendum on constitutional reforms in his favor, and seeking to similarly engineer the upcoming vote. (He succeeded.) Since then, matters have only gotten worse, culminating in this week's violence.

Now, it's important to examine several questions: What exactly prompted the crisis? Is this a second Tulip Revolution? Is the U.S. military base outside Bishkek, featured prominently in international coverage of the events, really at risk? And, most importantly, what will happen next? Here are some early answers.

What are the roots of the crisis?

Bakiev was never really committed to democracy; from the start, he ruled his country with an eye toward authoritarianism and nepotism. In addition to rigging elections and doctoring legislation to benefit his regime, Bakiev "established a government based on family rule,” Bakyt Beshimov, a former opposition MP in the Kyrgyz parliament, told TNR on Thursday. Bakiev handed the reins of the Central Agency for Development, Investment, and Innovation—a body created to essentially run the country’s economy—to his youngest son Maksim and made his brother Janysh head of the country’s security service. "He set up a very corrupt regime in a very short time," Beshimov says.

He has also set up a violent regime. For his own opposition, Beshimov says he was almost assassinated—twice. "They targeted me … threatened members of my family. For one year, I lived life in hell," he said. Beshimov fled to the United States in 2009; he now lives in exile in Boston. Miriam Lanskoy, senior program officer for Central Asia and the Caucasus at the National Endowment for Democracy, notes that high-profile cases like Beshimov’s offered “real, tangible stories of corruption” that the Kyrgyz public used to form negative judgments about Bakiev. In March 2009, Medet Sadyrkulov, a former Bakiev aide who had become an opposition leader, was killed in a fiery car accident the government is believed to have orchestrated. Then, in December, journalist Gennady Pavluk, who had been critical of the administration, died after being thrown from an apartment building in Kazakhstan, reportedly by members of the Kyrgyz security service. (And these were only the more recent and severe incidents in a years-long campaign of harassment and violence directed at Bakiev's opponents.)

In the months leading up to this week’s violence, the government suspended publication of several newspapers and blocked access to certain news websites. It also hiked utility prices in February—a move that angered many people in poor, rural areas, driving them to protest publicly. There were also protests in Bishkek in mid-March. “These are typical sins of the region, but it was growing, it was overflowing the banks,” Lanskoy says.

Is this a “color revolution”?

Some observers were quick to compare this week's events to movements in other former Soviet states (the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia) that ousted corrupt regimes and ushered in democracy. But one factor in particular separates this upheaval from the so-called "color revolutions": the use of force. Events in Ukraine and Georgia were relatively nonviolent. What’s more, this doesn't seem to be a repeat of the Tulip Revolution. In 2005, politicians who wanted then-President Akaev out of office—so that they could take control of the country—urged their supporters to protest. In contrast, this week’s events, according to an op-ed published by Transitions Online, were more spontaneous and uncoordinated, which led to more violence and uncertainty about who controls the country.

Yet the upheaval “contains within it the possibility of reform,” Lanskoy says, even though its methods thus far have been ugly. “If indeed Bakiev does in the end step down and they are able to form a new government, it may turn out that, having seen the various failure of the Tulip Revolution, they will now build better institutions."

Who exactly is the opposition?

The people who took to the streets of Bishkek aren’t all of the same mind. Some are political opponents of the regime—members of several different political parties. (Otunbayeva is in the Social Democratic Party.) Others are just angry citizens or opportunistic looters. Beshimov says it won’t be clear who will dominate the interim authority until order is restored. Adds Lanskoy, “One of the questions is how long they will be able to be together in this government and to what degree they will compete with each other.”

What will happen to the U.S. base?

U.S. media have focused heavily on what this week’s events mean for Manas, a military base outside Bishkek that is critical to U.S. operations in Afghanistan. The short answer is that no one really knows. Otunbayeva has said the interim government will review the contract that permits the United States to use the base, and Beshimov says its fate depends on who ends up dominating the interim government (some members of the opposition are for the base, while others are against it). But Lanskoy says any Kyrgyz government would be foolish to force the United States to vacate Manas because it would go against the country's national interests. Eviction would severely damage Kyrgyzstan's relationship with the United States—and there are security concerns as well. “If the Taliban succeeds in Afghanistan, it will negatively affect all of Central Asia,” adds Beshimov, pointing out that Afghan militants have infiltrated Kyrgyzstan’s borders before. “[I]t is important to set up very prudent, stable, and long-term relations with the U.S. government.”

What's Russia's game here?

Some observers have said Russia played a key role in the upheaval. “Russia has now added to its repertoire of tools used in the former Soviet states the ability to pull off its own style of color revolution with the toppling of the Kyrgyz government,” a Stratfor Intelligence report said on Friday. Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet republic, sits in an important strategic position, nestled among other Central Asian states with abundant energy resources. Russia has long sought to control the region, and it was angered when, in 2009, Bakiev recanted on his plan to evict the United States from Manas. Bakiev announced the eviction after Russia gave Kyrgyzstan $2 billion in loans, and he retracted it after the United States pledged to pay a much higher rent for the base, along with more aid for economic development, fighting drug trafficking, and renovating Bishkek’s airport. “He tried to manipulate the situation,” Beshimov says. In recent months, Russian media covered Bakiev’s government negatively, and Moscow increased customs duties on the fuel it exports to Kyrgyzstan—all of which put pressure on Bakiev's regime.

A Kyrgyz opposition leader reported meeting with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin just prior to this week's events, and Russia was quick to recognize the interim government. (The United States has not.) Otunbayeva has also thanked Moscow “for its role in ousting Bakiev.” Still, many observers say Russia didn't orchestrate the upheaval; rather, Moscow sees in the Kyrgyz opposition the best chance for the country to stabilize. "Russian support of [Bakiev] pretty much seemed at an end," says Monika Shepherd, Program Manager of the Institute for the Study of Conflict, Ideology, and Policy at Boston University. "They're preserving their own interests by trying to promote a more or less peaceful situation in the country."

What happens next?

So far, Bakiev has insisted that he won’t resign. And, if he doesn’t, there could be more violence. Bakiev is more popular in the southern part of the country, where he has taken refuge, than in the north, where this week’s protests were born. If Bakiev decides to gather forces to defend himself, there could be a civil war. Bakiev could also come to an agreement with the interim authority, such that they can hold power together—although that scenario seems unlikely, given public outrage at Bakiev's crimes. "A lot of members of the opposition and the republic are angry with him and would probably prefer to bring him to trial," Shepherd explains.

Most observers hope that the interim authority prevails, that Bakiev will be forced out of power, and that, as Otunbayeva has promised, Kyrgyzstan will hold new elections in six months—the first step toward building a new democracy.

The most important thing this new government could do would be to stabilize the country—not just Bishkek, but the regions as well. Shepherd points out that, in 2005, Bakiev's new government never fully established control at the local level. "That may be one of the things that began to turn public sentiment against the new government," Shepherd says. "People were out in the regions living in a state of lawlessness."

After restoring order, Beshimov says the government must commit to democratization by discerning who are serious democrats and who might want to build another lucrative, Bakiev-like regime—and then allowing only those that fall into the former group to gain political power. "I believe that she [Otunbayeva] will follow this priority of democratization, but her own personal effort is not enough," says Beshimov.

Shepherd adds that the new government must address the country's energy crisis. Powerful neighbors, namely Uzbekistan, have made it impossible for the country to develop a strong energy sector. People throughout the country are often plagued by shortages and plunged into blackouts—and Bakiev's government did little to assuage the situation, focusing on hydropower development that never really went anywhere. "The West could … try and give support to companies that want to manufacture alternative ways of producing energy," Shepherd says.

What else should the West do to help Kyrgyzstan?

Soon after the Tulip Revolution, Kyrgyzstan fell off the West's radar. The small state didn't have resources—namely, oil and gas—that other countries wanted. What's more, it seemed in relatively good shape compared to its Central Asian neighbors: Turkmenistan ranks up with Burma and North Korea as one of the world's most totalitarian states, Uzbekistan has reportedly boiled opposition members alive, and Kazakhstan is rife with political and economic corruption. "There was the expectation that Kyrgyzstan was doing OK," says Lanskoy. "They had had their breakthrough."

Beshimov says the West was mostly concerned with security in Kyrgyzstan, not democratization. This time around, observers agree that the West should do more to help the country build a strong, free government and civil society—offering financial and logistical support to the state, NGOs, and energy companies eager to create a sustainable way of life for the Kyrgyz people. "Democracies should share their experiences and help fragile countries," Beshimov says. "If this time the Kyrgyz government does not follow a path into real democratization—oh, it will be a tragic story for Kyrgyzstan."

Seyward Darby is assistant managing editor of The New Republic.

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