Kyrgyzstan: Picking up the Pieces

Kyrgyzstan joined the rank of failed states this month: its central government lacks legitimacy and depends heavily on external aid, with the US base looming large, while the people are largely destitute, harassed by local thugs and drug barons, and looking to Moscow for a way out.

Clashes in the south are worse than earlier reported, responsible for more than 300 killed, mostly Uzbeks, and setting off a massive wave of refugees, with 100,000 people crammed in camps on Kyrgyzstan’s border with Uzbekistan and tens of thousands more displaced. The clashes are almost certainly the result of a provocation organised by the clan of ousted president Kurmanbek Bakiyev.

The issues at stake are the referendum next Sunday to legitimise the interim government, and the drug trade, which Bakiyev’s clan still controls and is loathe to give up. Heroin comes from Afghanistan via Tajikistan and is repackaged in Osh before being transported west to Uzbekistan and north to Kazakhstan and Russia, according to the UN. The killing two weeks ago of Aibek Mirsidikov, one of the drug kingpins in the area, threatened the Bakiyev clan’s control. The rest is history.

Jalalabad province commandant and first Deputy Chairman of the Kyrgyz State National Security Service, Kubatbek Baibolov, charged that a group of Tajik citizens, hired by the Bakiyev clan, opened fire indiscriminately on both Kyrgyz and Uzbeks sparking the riots. Former Kyrgyz president, Askar Akayev, told that Bakiyev’s brothers, Ahmad and Janysh, paid criminals and unemployed youths “in suitcases of cash to start bashing people up and set everything on fire.” Bakiyev had cleaned out the banks and the Finance Ministry when he was ousted in April. Days before the current uprising unemployed youth were suddenly flush with cash, said Akayev.

The ex-president’s son Maxim’s indictment by Italian investigators is what sparked his father’s overthrow in April. That the US was not the culprit this time (as opposed to the Tulip Revolution in 2005) is suggested by the fact that the new government continues to threaten to close down the US airbase — this time, if Britain refuses to hand over Maxim, who was arrested Sunday at Farnborough airport when he arrived by private plane, fleeing an Interpol arrest warrant on charges of corruption and misusing state funds. He is, of course, seeking political asylum in Britain. “England never gives up people who arrive on its territory. But since England and the US fight terrorism, and the arrangement with the airbase is one of the elements of that fight, then they must give over Maxim Bakiyev,” warned Azimbek Beknazarov, deputy leader of the interim government.

This is not just a tragedy for the normally peaceful Uzbeks and Kyrgyz, but also an alarming development for the entire ex-Soviet space. Russia is now faced with the worst post-Soviet political crisis in its “near abroad”, where it insists — rightly — that it has special claims, having millions of Russians scattered throughout those countries, with intimate economic and cultural links from centuries of both imperial and state socialist development. But where there are claims, there are also responsibilities.

This is no better illustrated than the call by both sides, Uzbeks and Kyrgyz alike, for Russian peacekeeping troops to be deployed as disinterested mediators who understand the region and can communicate with locals, unlike NATO forces in Afghanistan. The spectre of Russians policing the streets of Osh raises none of the loathing and fear that US and NATO troops patrolling, say, Marja, prompts. The peoples of virtually all the ex-Soviet quasi-states (except the Baltics) would rejoin a Soviet-type union in a flash as opinion polls continue to confirm two decades after its ignominious “collapse”. When Kyrgyzstan twitches, Russia feels it, and vice versa.

Trying to put Humpty-Dumpty together again is impossible at this point. Instead, the Russian strategy since Yeltsin has been to do everything possible to keep these quasi-states stable, whatever their political leanings. Even the Georgian bete noire Saakashvili was left in place during his war with Russia in 2008. But this hands-off approach has left a vacuum that the US has been filling, with its “democracy building”, colour revolutions and bases, oblivious to the fact that the new states it helped give birth to in the first place are more like premmies — fragile and needing careful nurturing, always in danger of dying.

Russia’s approach amounts to propping up dictators no matter how ruthless or bloodthirsty, as long as they acknowledge Moscow’s interests. The nicest of the lot, Kyrgyzstan’s ex-president, Askar Akayev, was overthrown in the US-inspired 2005 coup, which the US now surely regrets, leaving one tolerable one — Nursultan Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan, with Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan frozen in a very nasty time warp.

Can Russia act as “an agent of change, as a force for genuine modernisation, cautiously nudging the local authoritarian regimes to transform, democratise and broaden their socio-political base?” asks Igor Torbakov of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. If Russia keeps referring to this crisis as merely an “internal conflict,” it risks losing face, prestige and the right to claim the leading role in the post-Soviet Eurasia.

Recent weeks have witnessed several other signs of a Russian retreat in foreign policy. It failed to respond to the Brazil-Turkey proposal to defuse the Iranian crisis, voted for sanctions, and cancelled the S-300 missile deal with Iran, admitting to US pressure.

The Arabs have a saying about the rascal who kills the victim and then goes to his funeral. US involvement in Kyrgyz affairs exemplifies this well: destabilise the state and now, like former US ambassador to Russia, James Collins, and Carnegie Russia and Eurasia Programme deputy director, Matthew Rojansky, call for NATO and the US to “immediately engage with regional partners to help restore security.” There are no lines to read between here: NATO should expand even further eastward through its Partners for Peace. Collins/Rojansky magnanimously acknowledge that this is “a responsibility NATO must share with the CSTO and the OSCE”. They blandly call for “the United States and Russia to put aside outdated stereotypes and focus on their fundamentally shared interests in Eurasian security”.

Considering the disarray of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), it is hard to fault the US for using this window of opportunity to move further into the region. This crisis has shown that the CSTO is not a serious regional organisation. The squabbling and suspicious “stan” dictators, Russia, and China have little in common other than their proximity. The CSTO’s response, according to its General Secretary, Nikolai Burdyuzha, is to send “specialists who know how to plan and organise an operation to prevent mass disorder, which would unmask its instigators and localise bandit groups who provoke the situation.”

Is the OSCE an intermediate option, with its 56 member states, including both NATO and CSTO members? Hardly. Russia is the main actor here, with the other Central Asian states also having a pressing need to try to salvage a viable statelet from this tragedy. The NATO quagmire in Afghanistan needs no farcical replay. So the Collins/Rojansky call is really just a call for NATO expansion, pure and simple.

Another possibility is for Turkey to step in. Kyrgyz and Kazakh are both Turkic peoples, whose languages are mutually intelligible. Kyrgyz territory was, in the khanate past, once one with that of the Kazakhs — the entire region was known as Turkestan. During a visit to Kazakhstan this week, Turkish Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, and the Kazakh president supported Kyrgyz plans to proceed with the referendum next Sunday. Davutoglu said, “Immediately after the referendum, we plan together with Kazakhstan to prepare joint actions to show our assistance to Kyrgyzstan.”

If all else fails, there is China, though its presence is problematic, given its suppression of the Uighurs across the border in Xinjiang. But Beijing’s self-confidence and massive economy inevitably give it an outsize influence, especially if Russia and the West continue to flounder.

Eric Walberg is a journalist who worked in Uzbekistan and is now writing for Al-Ahram Weekly in Cairo. He is the author of From Postmodernism to Postsecularism and Postmodern Imperialism. His most recent book is Islamic Resistance to Imperialism. Read other articles by Eric, or visit Eric's website.

3 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozh said on June 24th, 2010 at 9:18am #

    So, as once in bosnia, begs [izet beg ovich; remember prez Izetbegovich? “ov” means “of” and “ich” means “little”] beks are in charge of ‘stans or, rather, US is; while beks and begs being puppets.
    In arab lands, amirs are in charge of their US dependencies. And in nato lands the usual untitled ‘nobles’ are in charge. {amir= commander, i am told}

    But we have untitled robber barons and nato-US dependencies in israel, egypt, jordan, kosovo, ukraine, korea, india, arizona, canada.

    How do i know all this? Well, i just count the tanks. I cld also count warships-planes cruising, land mines, bases, number of generals, etc., but that is too much work for my small brain!
    And as we know, a tank made in bhutan, grenada, or panama is not a tank made in USA.
    And a general in burkina faso, making $890 a yr is not a general in US maiking $250k a yr. I took the last figure outta my head; maybe, it is meagerly $180k.
    I am getting ab $13k, of which i spend only $9k. I take a bath every three months [get the pic ture]; eat lostof beans and as the song goes ” it’s summertime and living is easy”.
    I like that tune! tnx

  2. Rehmat said on June 24th, 2010 at 5:59pm #

    It looks like Washington is replaying its 2005 “Tulip Revolution” against its own puppet, Kyrgyzstan’s president Kurmanbek Bakiyev by using the country’s Opposition leaders as it used Kurmanbek and other Opposition leaders against previous president Askar Akayev in 2005. It is reported that as the result of large-scale protests in Bishhek on Wednesday, president Kurmanbek has fled from the city and Opposition leader Omurbek Tekebaev, the former Speaker of Parliament has demanded that president Kurmanbek and the rest of his government resign. Kurmanbek Bakiyev had angered his masters in Washington when he switched his alliance to Moscow for a US$2.15 billion aid package and demanded the closer of US military base at Manas in 2010. The US military base at Manas is a key transit point for US occupation troops and supplies bound for Afghanistan. Last month alone, 50,000 US and coalition troops passed through Manas enroute to Afghanistan, according to Pentagon source. In March it was reported that Pentagon plans to build a US$5.5 million training facility for Krygyz Special Forces in the southern province of Batken – the home to the so-called “Islamist terrorists”, who are against the occupation of their country by both Russia and the US…….

  3. MichaelKenny said on June 27th, 2010 at 6:23am #

    A small aside. Let me point to, and deplore, the, typically colonial, racist sneer about “quasi-states”. Countries which achieve their independence always have difficulty is establishing themselves. On the basis of the Irish experience, it takes a new state about 75 years to really find its place in the world and if it is a small state, its best hope is to be part of a larger entity such as the EU. The Baltic republics have achieved that. The other former bits of the Russian Empire (aka Soviet Union) and the non-Russian peoples of the Russian Federation will no doubt find their feet in their own way and in their own time. That a colonial “people” like the Canadians might sneer at the “natives” as they try to get their countries off the ground after sometimes centuries of colonialism is deplorable, but, sadly, unsurprising.