Two years ago, the ‘Tulip Revolution’ pushed Kyrgyzstan off the path of dictatorship. The subsequent direction the small Central Asian country has taken, and whether the revolution can serve as a model for the region, remain controversial.
And now, with the opposition gearing up for mass demonstrations in April, the most politically lively country in Central Asia is once again reevaluating its colour revolution.
Bakyt Beshimov is a great believer in the Kyrgyz revolutionary model. A former Kyrgyz ambassador to several South Asian nations including India and now vice president for academic affairs at the American University in Central Asia, Beshimov recently spoke about the implications of the Kyrgyz revolution at a Sasakawa Peace Foundation lecture in Washington, DC.
Affectionately describing his fellow Kyrgyz as “the main anarchists of Central Asia,” Beshimov praised the revolution’s democratic spirit and the civil society that has flourished in his country. “Our Central Asian neighbors followed Moscow’s lead and called the colour revolutions instruments of U.S. control,” Beshimov said. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a regional organization of Russia, China, and four Central Asian states, “stressed that the Kyrgyz events are a dangerous source of instability.”
Beshimov strongly disagreed: “The main source of instability in Central Asia is the absence of power transfer and hostility toward dissent.”
“I prefer the instability of the hurricane to the stability of the graveyard that you find in some our neighboring states,” Beshimov continued. “Mass protests in Kyrgyzstan are a true sign of the mass passion and lack of apathy for change in the country.” In March 2005, mass protests in the capital Bishkek led to the ouster of the country’s first democratic president Askar Akaev who had turned increasingly authoritarian since his 1991 election. Crowds returned to the streets last fall as the opposition charged the current president Kurmanbek Bakiev with backtracking on the promise of the Tulip Revolution. The November protests forced Bakiev to sign a new constitution that reduced the powers of the president. Just before the end of 2006, however, the parliament largely restored these powers to Bakiev.
Beshimov invoked his country’s nomadic heritage to explain both the appeal and the pitfalls of Kyrgyz democracy. Kyrgyzstan, which translates roughly into the “land of the 40 tribes,” has a long tradition of respecting majority consensus without trampling on minority opinions. Being anarchists at heart, the five million Kyrgyz “built the strongest civil society in the region,” Beshimov said. Unfortunately, he added, “It also makes us less successful in government building.”
Kazakhstan, the larger and more economically successful neighbor, has taken a different path. The Kazakh model of liberalising the economy first before moving forward with opening up the political sphere also has great appeal for Central Asia, Beshimov conceded. “It is important to be realistic, to establish the rule of law to get more income to people,” he said. “So, one of my key proposals is to recognize the Kazakh model as a way to modernize Central Asia, to use oil revenues to benefit the people.”
Given the appeal of the Kazakh model, how can Kyrgyzstan export its own revolution? Beshimov was modest. He provided an example from his own university in Bishkek. Several students from the authoritarian Turkmenistan attend the American University of Central Asia. “I avoid asking them questions about their home country,” Beshimov said. “The Turkmen students never talk about the situation in their own country but are happy to talk about the situation in Kyrgyzstan. That is our best contribution to their country, to open the minds of their students.”
The exportability of the Kyrgyz model depends a great deal on the attitudes of the major powers, all of whom are paying great attention to the region. “Central Asia has gone from oblivion to the focus of world attention because of rich natural resources – natural gas, uranium, and hydropower,” Beshimov said. “Also there is its geographic location as a trade and transport corridor between China, Russia, and South Asia.”
Central Asia is a source of energy but also potential instability. Russia, China, and the U.S. all share a desire to prevent Islamic fundamentalism from taking firmer root in the region. China is particularly concerned about Central Asian ties to Uighur separatism in its northwest regions. Desire for natural resources and fears of instability have led the great powers to forge ties with undemocratic leaders in the region, such as Uzbek president Islam Karimov.
The U.S. maintains a military base in Kyrgyzstan and sends aid to all of the countries in the region. In the aftermath of the 2005 Andijan massacre, in which Uzbek government forces killed hundreds of unarmed protestors, U.S. relations with the Karimov government cooled. For the region as a whole, the 2008 federal budget allocates 24 percent less aid than 2006.
Nevertheless, Beshimov argued, “The U.S. has a strong foundation on which to build a relationship in Central Asia.”
“U.S. policy in the region has three elements,” noted S. Frederick Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, the event’s co-sponsor. “The first is commercial, economic development. We’ve put a lot of money into Kyrgyzstan. The second is security – theirs as well as ours. And the third is good governance. If you ignore one or two, it won’t work. The successes have come when we advance the three together.”
Kyrgyzstan, with a foreign debt of two billion US dollars has refused to participate in the World Bank and International Monetary Fund programme for heavily indebted poor countries. Beshimov had strong words about the cozy relations between corrupt Kyrgyz politicians and representatives of the U.S. government and international financial institutions. Allegations have emerged of unsavory connections between U.S. military contractors and Akaev’s family.
Kyrgyzstan’s future remains unclear. The opposition, led by Bakiev’s former prime minister Feliks Kulov, is calling for the president’s resignation followed by new elections. Anara Tabyshalieva, a senior research fellow at the Kyrgyzstan Institute for Regional Studies, sees the country at a crossroads. “The best scenario,” she said, “would be an agreement between the president and the opposition to form a coalition government and resume economic reforms. In the pessimistic scenario, a strong presidency will prevail. Or top officials of the security forces might seize power. Or Russia might intervene. The situation will be more unstable this year with the struggle between regional elites complicated by ethnic disputes and criminal groups.”
Tabyshalieva recommended that the international community support negotiations and prevent the intervention of Russia. The U.S., which has proposed cutting its aid to Kyrgyzstan by five million dollars, should provide greater support for civil society and invite more representatives to visit Washington.
Even in the face of the more pessimistic scenarios, Bakyt Beshimov remained upbeat. “I am not comfortable with the current government -it is non-professional,” he mourned. But then, looking into the audience, which included many young Kyrgyz, he brightened. “I can’t believe how many Kyrgyz graduate from the best universities worldwide. It’s enough to create two professional governments!”
Inter Press Service, March 29, 2007