Kyrgyzstan After Akayev

— Susan Weissman

KYRGYZSTAN’S MARCH 2005 “Tulip Revolution,” if something less than really a revolution, resulted in its president, Askar Akayev, fleeing the country. Once hailed as the most democratic leader in the region, Akayev was overthrown by spontaneous demonstrations of a population angered by corruption, nepotism, economic despair and demoralization.

For several days there was a political vacuum, and the streets seemed to rule. An interim President stepped in and there was hope that clean elections could be held in July. In June there were several episodes of political-economic violence, including the assassination of an MP and businessman considered close to the ousted Akayev.

The events in Kyrgyzstan have been compared to the Rose and Orange revolutions of Georgia and Ukraine, all three of which are former republics of the former Soviet Union. Common to all three was that the elections were manipulated and the results tainted. The mismanagement of the democratic process and rigged results in all three, coupled with very difficult living conditions, created civil unrest accompanying demands for clean elections.

In all three former republics the population overturned a sham democracy, in the hopes creating of a genuine one.

Following Akayev’s departure, however, to many it seemed that Kyrghysztan’s new political elite was attempting to grab the economic assets and wealth that the Akayev regime and friends had accumulated during his reign in power. People took to the streets in new protest, and the government responded with violence.

Kyrgyzstan is considered important now because of the American base there (established after September 11, 2001), China’s need for oil and gas from Kazakhstan (through Kyrgyzstan) and as Martin Walker suggests, water, which the Kyrghiz have in abundance.(1) China is thirsty, and shares a border with Kyrgyzstan.

On July 10 a new presidential election was held with a purported 75% turnout, though the process was marred by suspicious ballot-counting procedures, “implausible turnout figures” and stuffed ballot-boxes. Unsurprisingly, interim President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, Akayev’s former Prime Minister, won in a landslide (89%).

At his first post-election news conference on July 11, Bakiyev shocked political observers when he stated that the situation in Afghanistan was stabilizing and that the American military presence was no longer needed. Raising the possibility of closing a U.S. military base in Kyrgyzstan was in itself a sign that U.S. geo-political influence was waning in Central Asia.(2)

Another Albania?

In Kyrgyzstan the people in the streets determined events, not any organized political opposition. In Georgia and Ukraine there were NGOs operating;(3) in the more recent events in Uzbekistan, the role of Islam was large.

The Kyrghiz events resembled the spontaneous uprising in Albania in 1997 more than the Rose and Orange revolutions of Georgia (in 2003) and Ukraine (in 2004). This was confirmed by Mark Golovosin, a Russian leftist journalist who covered the Kyrghiz events, in a report-back that I attended in Moscow in April.

Golovosin also insisted that there was a left involved in Kyrgyzstan. Like Albania, this was a social explosion from below, a spontaneous uprising from people who have been stranded by the so-called transition. The pace of events led to the early departure of President Akayev and a political vacuum was created.

Unlike Albania — where soviets (councils and committees) formed with armed workers and dual power existed for a short time — Kyrgyzstan is more mixed. Clan rivalries played a part, though Islamic fundamentalism did not, as it did in Uzbekistan. (Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are the more religious former republics of Central Asia.)

Like Albania until 1996, Kyrgyzstan was a model for the neoliberal policies favored by the IMF and other lending institutions. President Akayev, like President Berisha of Albania, lost the support of his population because of the catastrophic drop in living standards. In Albania the population was robbed by pyramid schemes; in Kyrgyzstan it was the free market policies of a country with no real assets other than hydro-electric power and scenic beauty for a potential tourist industry. (See interview below.)

Where the NGOs have been involved in the pro-democracy movements the political results have been the elections of pro- Western and certainly pro-capitalist governments, usually favoring the monetarist rather than European social democratic models.

NGO-instigated or not, the new governments in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan have not outlined policies that address the grievances of the impoverished population, making further social protests and upheavals likely. Further, there is always the possibility that the demand for real representation and an end to corruption and repression could spread to Russia itself.

Rather than genuine democracy, as so many across the former Soviet Union have taken to the streets to demand, populations are asked to choose between Washington and Moscow: between Western capital and free market ideology plus the war on terror, and Russian style order with state-dominated capital increasingly winning over the oligarchs, plus the war on terrorism.

In Kyrgyzstan the new government will have to prove that the population’s living standard can improve — and not that different hands are raiding the till.

Notes

  1. UPI Editor in Chief, former Moscow Bureau Chief of the London Guardian.
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  2. Uzbekistan also has signaled that the American forces stationed at the Karshi-Khanabad air base were wearing out their welcome. On July 7, the Uzbek Foreign Ministry issued a statement ruling out any possibility of a permanent US military facility on Uzbek soil. It also indicated that Tashkent wanted to renegotiate the lease terms to recoup unpaid take-off and landing fees, as well as other expenses associated with providing base security. (Eurasia Insight, 11 July 2005, eurasianet.org)
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  3. The role of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in support of these mass movements has been well documented. (While these groups represent external political involvement, some argue that this is a better intervention than an invasion a la Iraq.)
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ATC 118, September-October 2005