Lessons from Kyrgyzstan
Nov 21, 2011

Lessons from Kyrgyzstan

A year before the Arab Spring, Kyrgyzstan experienced a populist uprising of its own complete with violent conflict, from both the state and between ethnicities, and resulted in a change of governance. The lessons that can be drawn from the recent history in Kyrgyzstan are useful in putting some of the Arab uprisings into perspective and demonstrating why western governments like the US might be hesitant about such uprisings.

 Almazbek Atambayev
The dominant US interest in the Kyrgyzstan is the massive Manas US air base which is critical in supplying the war in Afghanistan. President-elect Almazbek  Atambayev , a newly elected establishment opposition member, has vowed to let the US contract for the Manas air base end when it expires in 2014, essentially kicking the US out of the country. This issue was a major issue for the spring 2010 protests that resulted in the end of former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, was promised during the campaign, and now has been immediately claimed as a priority now that Atambayev is elected.

A brief, recent history of Kyrgyzstan:
Following 2001, the autocratic ex-Soviet state became one of the most pro-Western and important Central Asian states. The President, Askar Akayev, was enormously corrupt despite the purported shift to the western economic and political system after the break up of the Soviet Union. Probably through assumptions necessity more than malfeasance, the US was very complicit in is corruption. For instance, the US paid about 2 million a year to the state to rent the US of the Manas ariforce base, however they paid in excess of 80 million a year to various companies directly owned by Akayev's family for such things as fuel supply.

In 2005, Kyrgyzstan experienced a series of events known as the Tulip revolution. While there was a corresponding broad populist movement and anger against the corruption of the regime - in particular the corruption at the Manas air force base - the revolution represented more of a changing of the guard (made up of the old communist plutocracy) and saw Bakiyev swept into power. His first speech after the revolution announced that he would renegotiate the terms of the Manas base. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard Myers spend several hundred million in direct payments and loan guarantees in order to ensure continued support. In most respects, the Bakiyev regime followed that of the Akayev regime.

In the spring of 2010, the people rose up again in mass protests against the corrupt regime. The state conducted many of the same suppression techniques utilized in the Arab uprising, killing 76 and injuring 1500, but to no avail. With a speed similar to that of Tunisia, Bakiyev fled the country and the transitional government prepared the way for new genuinely democratic elections which have just now gone off successfully. As mentioned earlier, the newly elected president  Atambayev campaigned on a promise to fight the Manas air base and now promises to let it expire. Whether this will or will not happen remains to be seen.

While many in the west, including myself, watched the events in 2010 with some optimism, it tragically turned for the worse as ethnic conflict broke out in southern Kyrgyzstan. Despite having very close ethnic, linguistic, religious and cultural ties, ethnic Kyrgyz (the majority) had a mass uprising against the Uzbek minority ultimately leading to perhaps 2000 killed and over a quarter million refugees fleeing the country to neighboring Uzbekistan. Previously peaceful, indeed even amicable, neighborhoods were gathering in mobs, burning the houses of their Uzbek neighbors (with retaliations, of course). Because the state was in disarray there was little ability to quell the violen and indeed the corruption in the security forces present was such that Human Rights Watch claims Kyrgyz security forces were involved in deliberate targeting of Uzbeks.

Since then reform has gone moderately well. Enormous pluralities of over ninety percent voted for the constitutional reform proposed by the reform party, the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK). This party formed the government in a coalition in the 2010 parliamentary elections and the SDPK leader  Atambayev has now been elected. It is worth noting that the major pro-Bakiyev party (which did very well in the parliamentary elections despite the revolution) was pushing to have the Manas air force base contract end in 2011 opposed to the 2014 of the SDPK.

Lessons from Kyrgyzstan:
To whatever extent the US regime aims to project military hegemony in the world, it is quite correct to fear the spread of democracy. People, very legitimately, don't find foreign military imperialism to be at all appealing and all around the world when the decisions are left to the people they don't support such bases. This has been shown time and time again in South America and the previous Japanese Prime Minister was forced to resign after a short period in office because he reversed his stance that previously supported ending the agreements over the US's Okinawa military base in that country. Much like Kyrgyzstan, the Arab Spring countries of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain all were US backed dictatorships with important US militaristic and geostrategic interests such as Bahrain hosting the US's sixth fleet. At least in Kyrgyzstan there was a corrupt and poor form of democracy. I believe that the US's belated and hesitant acceptance of the realpolitik of the transformations occurring in the Arab world is because they were very worried, quite rightly, that with the rise of populist democracy would come an intolerance for the military influence the US has in these countries.

Kyrgyzstan paints the picture of being able to punt democratic pressures down the road, but not being able to reverse them. That a half decade after the Tulip revolution there is another mass protest and another revolution still having the Manas base as a core issue demonstrates how these problems will not just go away with a bigger checkbook. The push to democracy and liberalism will continue to happen whether or not we tacitly or genuinely support it.

Atambayev notes in his speech the worries of terrorism against Kyrgyzstan if the base is left open and the close ties to the US maintained. Uzbek legislators said the same thing about the now closed K2 airbase in Uzbekistan. They are right. Such ostensibly secular regimes do have a very real issue on their hands of Islamic radicalism fighting against the perception of US hegemony and one ought to be careful if one is going to support that. Staunch and even violent anti-Americanism isn't some intrinsically Islamic radical thing - indeed it is seen in various ways all over the world - but because of the larger geopolitical situation it has been the Islamists that have been able to most encapsulate this sentiment while some of the secular regimes seem happy to court the US bases in exchange for financial favors.

While this airbase issue has featured prominently in 2005, 2010, and today, it should not be seen entirely in isolation as US-Kyrgyzstan issue. Namely, the other dominant influence in the country is of course Russia which has long wanted to maintain influence - and to decrease US influence - in its former client states. After the Tulip revolution saw Bakiyev extend the Manas base contracts, Russia lobbied to open its own (far smaller and strategically useless) airbase outside of the capital Bishkek. Atambayev is considered to be very pro-Russia and also represents in some sense a changing of the old communist guard as he worked in opposition under Bakiyev. Russian companies, typically very supportive of Russian elite decisions, own much of the media in Kyrgyzstan and coinciding with a lack of movement on the military base issue started a very concerted effort of blasting Bakiyev in the media in spring 2010, at least partially precipitating the mass protests. Much the way we have seen countries like the Ukraine shift back towards Russia, so to does some of this underline exactly what is going on here in Kyrgyzstan.

Ethnic Violence:
Regarding the ethnic violence that followed Bakiyev's ousting, this is a good lesson of what can and sometimes will happen in the absence of a functioning state. We saw a very similar thing after the invasion of Iraq in 2003 where the breakdown of the established state of Saddam Hussein resulted in the enormous flare up of a quintessentially sectarian civil war in that country between predominantly the Shia and the Sunni communities. While the dominant clash in Libya was not ethnic, one negative consequence was a considerable amount of violence done to black migrants in the country and some hundreds of thousands had to flee. So we should recognize that there is a legitimate danger of going down the path of popular overthrow of dictators and that, if possible, pressures for the regimes to change themselves should be preferable. 

Likewise, there is some worry that in a country like Yemen - which is very divided into tribal and clan based loyalties - that should protesters overthrow the US backed Yemeni leader Ali Abdullah Salah then there is the possibility of a descent into major sectarian conflict ala Kyrgyzstan or possibly all out civil war ala Iraq. That said, this worry cannot be an excuse to never do anything and to keep propping up these dictators forever. As we saw in Tunisia, the revolution can be made quick and easy but the longer it gets delayed and drawn out the more likely it is to turn into a Syria.

The story of Kyrgyzstan is best told in tandem with that of its neighbour Uzbekistan. In some ways the best lessons to be drawn come from contrasting the history and situation in these two countries. As such, we will take up the case of Uzbekistan in the next post and consider more lessons from Kyrgyzstan in tandem with Uzbekistan there.

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