Friday, 9 April 2010

Kyrgyzstan: Central Asia’s Poverty-Stricken Roundabout Revolves Again

Pity poor post-Communist Kyrgyzstan.

The bloody events in its capital, Bishkek on Wednesday 7th April are only the most recent round in the political infighting there. Even the flight of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, apparently to his southern stronghold of Osh suggests that continued political violence remains a possibility. But it is the naïve belief fostered by Western media that the violent sacrifice of over 70 lives must mean fundamental change which distracts from understanding the recurring cruel realities of post-Communist politics in Kyrgyzstan.

It is almost exactly five years since Bakiyev’s predecessor, Askar Akaev, took the presidential plane to exile in Moscow. Then the regime-change was greeted as the triumph of “People Power” and the beginning of true democracy and prosperity. This year’s revolution was bloodier than in 2005 but anyone with a memory will recognise not only the street-scenes of pillage and blood-stains but even the faces of the leading revolutionaries.

Despite the new regime’s familiar faces, Western media are reporting the upheaval in Kyrgyzstan as the sign of a geo-political earthquake in the strategically sensitive Central Asian state. Back in 2005, it was quickly clear that the new regime was pro-American. What about 2010’s crop of Kyrgyz revolutionaries and their role in the “Great Game” for control of the Eurasian heartland?

Did the Kremlin’s Hidden Hands pull the rug from under Bakiyev?

The Russian premier, Vladimir Putin, spoke dismissively of the ousted president Bakiyev’s corruption and nepotism on the day of the uprising. Bakiyev’s prime minister complained about Russian media coverage of the crisis as it developed. Putin however telephoned Rosa Otumbayeva, the head of the self-proclaimed interim government and treated her as the legitimate authority in Kyrgyzstan. This showed Moscow imprimatur for the new regime. But are Western conspiracy theorists right to detect the Kremlin’s hidden hand behind the violent events in Bishkek?

The standard explanation by Russophobe media is that Putin was anxious to force the closure of the US airbase at Manas just outside the Kyrgyz capital. The conspiracy theory is that the Russian regime is anxious to make life difficult for the US troops occupying Afghanistan. Since Manas is a key link in the Pentagon’s re-supply route the New Cold Warriors see it as the nodal point of the new “Great Game” between Washington and Moscow for control of the oil, natural gas and opium-rich Central Asian states.[1]

Although Askar Akaev, who was ousted in 2005, has been interviewed by Russia Today[2] saying that his successor had discredited himself by being too close to the United States and by downgrading relations with Russia, official Russia seems to be engaged in much less of a New Cold War than either US neo-conservative ideologists believe or the victims of US-sponsored “colour-coded” revolutions in 2003-05 would like to think.

After all, on the very day of the coup in Bishkek, Russian president Dmitry Medvedev was in Prague to sign the new START nuclear arms treaty with President Obama. Medvedev’s government agreed in 2009 to facilitate the re-supply of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan by allowing transhipment of supplies across Russian territory to Central Asia. If the Kremlin is playing a Machiavellian game to undermine the United States, the only rational explanation of Russia’s direct assistance to the US war effort in Afghanistan is that Medvedev and co. are encouraging Obama’s desire to be bogged down there! Only the more paranoid of the Pentagon’s grand strategists can really believe that is Russia’s game.

Russia’s acceptance of the new regime fits a pattern of acquiescence in US-backed regime change.

In October, 2000, Vladimir Putin sent his foreign minister, Igor Ivanov, to Belgrade to persuaded Slobodan Milosevic to concede defeat in the Yugoslav presidential elections to the US-backed candidate, Dr. Kostunica. In November, 2003, Ivanov went to Tbilisi to tell Eduard Shevardnadze to relinquish office to Mikheil Saakashvili, the US-sponsored leader of Georgia’s “Rose Revolution.” In April, 2004, Ivanov was on hand to usher Saakashvili’s regional rival, Aslan Abashidze, on to his plane and exile in Moscow. In 2005, Russia gave Kyrgyzstan’s Askar Akaev asylum but recognised the regime which came to power in Bishkek even though Western media broadcast pictures of US-funded resources being used to back the opposition to Akaev.[3]

The Moldovan Model

In April, 2009, a violent uprising in the Moldovan capital, Chisinau, prefigured the events in Bishkek on 7-8th April. A year ago in Europe’s poorest country, post-Soviet Moldova, a similar violent scenario was played out. Parliament was stormed and new elections forced. Like Kyrgyzstan, Moldova had been highly praised in the 1990s as a model of economic reform and admitted into the World Trade Organisation by passing laws and regulations embracing pure capitalism while the real economy crashed.

Like Kyrgyzstan, Moldova is dirt poor and under-developing as each year went by since the collapse of Communism. The Moldovan President, Vladimir Voronin, had made the mistake of drifting into economic dependence on Russia as his country’s economy and society imploded under the burden of poverty induced by the shock therapy imposed on the advice of Western experts and the Soros Foundation. The mob in Moldova stormed the Parliament and forced fresh elections. Naked power rather than the people’s will had been demonstrated and the Moldovan electorate wisely voted for the representatives of parties backed by the mob rather than anyone disliked by it. Russia even accepted this outcome. The EU and USA applauded it.

Both Kyrgyz and Moldovan societies were heavily dependent on remittances from migrant workers scratching a living in Russia or other countries. The financial crash of 2008 and the continuing lack of demand for unskilled labour has had a cruel effect on Kyrgyz and Moldovan migrant workers. At the same time, energy prices in particular have shot up. The last straw for ordinary Kyrgyz in their bleak mountainous Central Asian homeland was the dramatic hike in electricity and natural gas tariffs at the start of 2010. With the arrival of spring, the destitute could come out onto the streets to protests.

The problem for ordinary people in Kyrgyzstan as elsewhere in the post-Soviet realm is that popular protests may topple regimes, but “The People” cannot hold power for themselves. Only a few people can actually sit in office as ministers. It is those with “experience,” however dubious, who fill the ministerial posts in any new regime In Bishkek, political insiders who had fallen out with Akaev before 2005 and then Bakiyev afterwards have been scrambling to occupy vacant ministerial posts.

Any consideration of who constitutes the new regime in Bishkek as well as Russia’s track-record of accepting and even facilitating “colour-coded” revolutions since October, 2000, must put the neo-con conspiracy theories aside.

New Regime, Old Faces

The Financial Times quoted the former Soros-supported activist, Edil Baisalov as saying, “"What we are seeing is a classic popular uprising. This is a revolution, and it is bloody."[4] Certainly since the Moldovan events, “velvet revolutions” have gone out of fashion but how much change is really heralded by the bloodshed in Bishkek?

Although in Western media Rosa Otunbayeva’s biography begins in 1991 like so many reformers favoured by Washington, her political career began as an official of the Soviet Communist Party as far back as 1981. Like the rest of the Kyrgyz elite applauded periodically as model reformers since 1991, the current self-proclaimed president’s skills at in-fighting and career-building were not honed in the Westminster school of politics but the Leninist one. Explaining the self-proclaimed interim president of Kyrgyzstan to its readers, the international mining magazine, Mineweb declared that she was already “known as the Thatcher of Kyrgyzstan”![5] In fact, she had served as both Akaev’s foreign minister until 1997and then after a brief interval as an ambassador to the UK for instance, she became leader of the opposition Social Democrats, and foreign minister again after the “Tulip Revolution” in 2005. Later she fell out with President Bakiyev before re-staging her role in this year’s bloody re-run of the Tulip events.

Rosa Otunbayeva told Russian Mir TV, “"The security service and the interior ministry, all of them are already under the management of new people.” But the “new people” turned out to be old-hands in these jobs. For instance, the new defence minister, Ishmail Isakov, was Bakiyev’s defence minister from 2005 until 2008. Last October, he was sentenced to eight years in prison for abuse of office. As in Soviet days, charges of corruption are often made in Kyrgyzstan for political reasons but sadly the facts of corruption by office-holders are commonplace. The new interior minister, Bolotbek Sherniyaov, was key organiser of the 2005 revolution.

These new ministers have Soviet-era pasts which the Kremlin will know about but they have also been deeply-engaged with US government agencies and US-based organisations like the Soros Foundation (in whose office I met Mrs Otunbayeva fifteen years ago, for instance).

The new leadership has reassured his contacts in Washington that Manas can continue to function as the Pentagon’s forward base in Central Asia. Despite their failure to control the anti-Bakiyev crowd, the Kyrgyz special forces trained by US contractors at Tokmok, seen firing their guns, wearing US-style desert fatigues and coal-scuttle helmets on the streets of Bishkek seem set to continue to receive US training and subsidy. Maybe they will do a better job when the next poverty-stricken crowd demonstrates for another regime-change.


New Regime, Old Policies

This rotation within the post-Communist regime’s personnel bodes ill for Kyrgyzstan’s future. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the poverty-stricken Central Asian state has repeatedly undergone traumatic changes. Yet a huge gulf has yawned between Western media coverage of the country and the harsh reality of life there. Worse still, US-funded NGOs specialising in regime-analysis and regime-change show no willingness to learn from their past mistakes nor a readiness to be a little more modest about promoting personalities or policies as the salvation of countries like Kyrgyzstan which have gone downhill following previously approved recipes or leaders. While life has lurched from bad to worse for ordinary people in Kyrgyzstan, on the few occasions the outside world has taken note of events there it has been to announce a re-birth of society and hope rather than to warn against repeating mistakes or following mirages of freedom and prosperity.

The US organisation Freedom House has a dubious track record in the Central Asian state. For years it acted as an advocate of the Akaev regime before suddenly turning on it in 2004 and promoting the regime-change in 2005. At first, Freedom House endorsed the Bakiyev regime but in 2009 it downgraded Kyrgyzstan to a “not free” country.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported on 12th January, 2010, that “Kyrgyzstan -- once the center of pro-democracy hopes in Central Asia -- moved from ‘partly free’ to ‘not free’ category. The downgrade was due… to claims of voter irregularities in the country's July 2009 presidential election, consolidation of power in the executive branch, and new restrictive legislation on freedom of religion. The setback means the entire region of Central Asia is now rated ‘not free.’…” RFE/RL cited Freedom House’s Central Asian analyst Christopher Walker as saying, “the hopes that bloomed in 2005 for Kyrgyzstan and the region are now history.” According to Walker, “Kyrgyzstan has turned out to be a sour disappointment in terms of political rights and civil liberties, and has trended downwards over the last two years.”[6] But such disappointment has not stopped the inter-locking world of US democracy promotion agencies and private foundations like Soros from dropping yesteryear’s favourite and extolling a new champion of freedom.

Remember the “Tulip Revolution.” Dan Fried, still the key State Department architect of US policy promoting so-called “People Power” under President Obama as well as Republican presidents, told us in October, 2005, “Kyrgyzstan experienced what the people there call the March events. Some people call it the Tulip Revolution… An authoritarian president was overthrown because of widespread revulsion at perceived massive corruption and other factors. There followed elections which were just about the freest the region had seen and you have a reformist leadership trying to move the country ahead and trying to get it on its feet.” If the new presidential elections in six months are held and produce another 86% landslide like Bakiyev’s poll in 2005 will the US State Department wait five years to denounce electoral manipulation?

This year’s violent events seem set to repeat the Kyrgyz syndrome of regime change, international approval, followed by further corruption until poverty provides those who lose out in the inevitable in-fighting over the country’s few spoils with enough discontented young men to rush the police cordon around government house. The so-called “Tulip Revolution” in 2005 was, like other “People Power” revolutions, not a fundamental regime-change but a change within the regime. Is the current chaos in Kyrgyzstan the prelude to another game of political musical chairs or something more profound?

North-South Split

One possible spoke in the wheels of the rotation of government posts within the elite is the ousted Bakiyevs refusal to resign. Instead he has fled to his home base in the south of the country protected by Central Asia’s highest mountain chain.

In 2005, there was an initial north-south split. But then, it was Bakiyev’s southern backers who set the revolution rolling. The first sign of the crisis was when crowds attacked government offices and the police in the city of Osh.

Osh at the eastern end of the Ferghana Valley was a key centre in the Central Asian smuggling trade. Situated on the border of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan but also a centre for Afghan and Tajik traders. Bakiyev’s retreat to his homebase raises the risk of a split inside Kyrgyzstan. Certainly in 2005, the smugglers backed him in what was euphemistically called a “free market revolution”! Will the ex-president be able to buy back power? Certainly, the US-led coalition has done nothing to fight the drugs mafia whose smuggling routes criss-cross Central Asia from Afghanistan via Kyrgyzstan to the West – unless verbal denunciations of the evil of opium are to be counted part of the Pentagon’s arsenal of smart weapons. Anyone challenging the Kyrgyz affiliates of the heroin trade would be putting their political careers on the line.

Manna for Manas

What is the role of the Manas airbase which figures so prominently in conspiracy theory accounts of the Kyrgyz coup?

The US military presence in Kyrgyzstan was dramatically increased after 9/11. Until then, small contingents of special forces and intelligence agents – plus “private contractors” – helped train the Kyrgyz security forces and to observe local Islamic militants and events in nearby Afghanistan. The US invasion of Afghanistan after 7th October, 2001, transformed the military relationship between the superpower and the “Switzerland of Central Asia.” The Soviet-built long runway at Manas airport outside Bishkek was ideal for US transport planes. The proximity of Kyrgyzstan to Afghanistan meant that a host of intermediary operations as well as supply from the US homeland could be facilitated through it.

Washington’s local favourite in the 1990s,Askar Akaev, agreed to the US use of Manas for a minimal payment. As the years of Operation Enduring Freedom rolled by he began to ask for a more generous rent. Then his standing as a democrat and economic reformer went into free fall – whither it should have dropped years earlier.

After Akaev’s fall, the Bakiyev regime agreed to keep the base, but his clan too needed cash and Kyrgyzstan has no oil or gas, or even opium of its own, to squeeze as a cash cow.

At first at the start of 2009, it seemed Bakiyev was part of a Russian plot to shut US out of access to Manas. President Medvedev granted Kyrgyzstan a generous line of credit at the height of the crisis with the Pentagon when Bakiyev and his tame parliament had refused to prolong the deal for US use of Manas. But once he had the Russian cash up front, Bakiyev suddenly agreed to let the Pentagon use the air field for US$117 million per annum.

The agreement runs for one year at time. The current agreement runs out in June. Getting in on the negotiations and the sweeteners which drip off such contracts made this spring in Kyrgyzstan particularly tense. Bakiyev’s concentration of economic power and rent-collection in his immediate family and their clan’s hands outraged Kyrgyzstan’s class of reformers who feel entitled to a cut.

It is instructive to contrast Russian and US approaches to the politics of aid. The Russians subsidise societies with loans for projects whereas the Americans buy the political elite with rent. Russia agreed to grant Kyrgyzstan US$2 billion in 2009 but it was tied to economic aid projects while the United States paid US$117m in rent. Even though economic aid would certainly be ruthlessly skimmed by the Bakiyev clan’s control of the economy, the rent for Manas constituted a direct grant to the ruling family. At least if they have lost power, the manna from Manas will cushion their exile.

Anyone wanting to understand the principles of the much-touted reform process now about to re-start in Kyrgyzstan could do worse than listen to Swedish shock therapist turned Washington insider, Anders Aslund. He reassured worried Americans straight away on 7th April itself that the Manas Airbase was safely in their hands. “This is very much on a pecuniary basis.” Aslund added, “The US pays a substantial amount to hold the airbase” and it continue to hold it regardless of regime.”[7]

Reform-Revolution-Reform - - - the Roundabout Revolves Again

Western media seem unable to escape from the stereotype of any and every new Kyrgyz ruler as “reformer.” For instance, Isabel Gorst’s report on the events of 7th April, 2010, carried the sentence, “Mr Bakiyev introduced sweeping government reforms that transferred management of the economy and security to new bodies controlled by his family and close associates”![8] If those were “reforms” what would bad policies be? If past form is any guide, we can expect any successor to Bakiyev to be lauded as the new Jefferson of Central Asia, and so on.[9]

Even as the crisis unfolded, the Peterson Institute reassured Beltway insiders reporting arch-shock therapist, “Anders Åslund says the overthrow of President Baikyev was led by pro-democracy forces that will likely continue reforms and maintain ties with Washington.”[10] In other words, the policies which have impoverished the population and promoted periodic brutal revolt and plundering will continue. Pity poor Kyrgyzstan, with such faithful friends and sponsors in Washington it has no hope of escaping from the syndrome of reform followed by impoverishment and then revolution. The continuation of the downward spiral seems pre-programmed.
Maybe ordinary Kyrgyz would welcome someone who plotted a different course from the tragic one pursued for two decades now, but sadly their tiny in-fighting political class has nothing to gain from abolishing a rent-seeking relationship with the Pentagon or other foreign sponsors. Until Kyrgyzstan stops the cycle of regime-change and finds new political leaders it looks doomed to repeat its unhappy past.

[1] For a British neo-cold warrior version of events, see Simon Tisdall, “Kyrgyzstan: a Russian revolution?The US is on the back foot in Central Asia after Vladimir Putin appears to be winning a round in the new Great Game” in The Guardian (8th April, 2010): http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/apr/08/kyrgyzstan-vladimir-putin-barack-obama
[2] Broadcast 2.30pm GMT, 9th April, 2010.
[3] See Manon Loizeau, Revolution.com. L’evoluzione della Guerra fredda (23rd July, 2007): http://www.ariannaeditrice.it/articolo.php?id_articolo=12759 & http://profile.myspace.com/index.cfm? fuseaction=user.viewprofile&friendid=45233954 for one Bishkek-based Freedom House US activist’s comment, “We’ve got wrapped up in that story of velvet revolutions, orange revolutions. I keep saying, ‘I want to see a green revolution.’ Bring in the money!” as he waves some US currency.
[4] See Isabel Gorst, “Bishkek curfew as dozens shot dead “ FT.com (7th April, 2010): http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/c3b7f250-421e-11df-9ac4-00144feabdc0.html
[5] See Dorothy Kosich, “Kyrgyz revolution unlikely to affect Kumtor – Centerra” Mineweb (8th April, 2010): http://www.mineweb.co.za/mineweb/view/mineweb/en/page34?oid=102291&sn=Detail&pid=102055.
[6] See Nikola Krastev, “Democratic Decline Continues across Former Soviet States” RFE/RL (12th January, 2010): http://www.rferl.org/content/Report_Democratic_Decline_Continues_Across_Former_Soviet_States_/1927675.html
[7] See “Uprising in Kyrgyzstan” Peterson Institute for International Economics (7th April, 2010): http://www.piie.com/publications/interviews/interview.cfm?ResearchID=1538.
[8] See Isabel Gorst, “Bishkek curfew as dozens shot dead” FT.com (7th April, 2010): http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/c3b7f250-421e-11df-9ac4-00144feabdc0.html.
[9] Who has forgotten Strobe Talbott’s ineffable encomium of Akaev in 1994?: “We here in Washington think of President Akaev as the ‘Thomas Jefferson’ of Kyrgyzstan, and of Central Asia— and that's not just because he can quote from the writings of one of our own Founding Fathers. After hearing him engage Vice President Gore in a long and animated conversation about the potential of the information superhighway, I realized that President Akaev has more than a bit of Benjamin Franklin in him as well.”
[10] See “Uprising in Kyrgyzstan” Peterson Institute for International Economics (7th April, 2010): http://www.piie.com/publications/interviews/interview.cfm?ResearchID=1538

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