The developments in Kyrgyzstan in March unleashed the usual torrent of “expert” commentary. Armchair academics and parachute journalists saw the protests against the results of the Kyrgyz parliamentary elections, the flight of President Askar Akayev and the ensuing looting as the third democratic, American-inspired and anti-Russian “revolution” in the CIS, following those in Georgia and Ukraine.
But having spent some five years in Bishkek as a journalist and consultant during the 1990s, I knew that the events had deeper roots and that most of these “experts” had not only never been near Kyrgyzstan, but were also pursuing their own agenda, rather than real analysis.
Disaffection with Akayev goes back a long way and reports of presidential-level corruption have been standard fare in the local press since 1992. The Kyrgyz constitution adopted in 1993 abolished the post of vice president, a move widely interpreted as an attempt to weaken then-incumbent Felix Kulov, probably the ablest and most popular politician in the country.
Akayev is extremely personable, highly educated and familiar with the theories of Locke and Smith. But he rigged referenda and elections in 1994 and 1995 in attempts to extend his presidency, sometimes even achieving Soviet-style results of over 90 percent, provoking strong protests in private to Akayev from the United States.
Local analysts thus argued from the early 1990s that Kyrgyzstan’s image as “an oasis of democracy in Central Asia” was wholly mythical, and that the billions of dollars in aid from Europe and, especially, the United States were predicated on Western naivety – or geopolitical cynicism.
But outside observers continued believing the myth for years. The American lawyer Scott Newton, a frequent commentator and “expert” on the Kyrgyz Republic, stated that the arrest and subsequent imprisonment of Kulov in the late 1990s represented a tidal change in Kyrgyzstan’s politics, while the International Crisis Group did not even bother to read the press of the early 1990s in preparing its 2001 report “Kyrgyzstan at Ten,” and thus concluded that Kyrgyzstan really was an oasis of democracy at that stage.
The sudden collapse of Akayev’s regime might have surprised even local experts. But those same experts had long been forecasting that, with parliamentary and presidential elections due in March and October, respectively, 2005 would be a critical year for the country. Akayev, they predicted, would do all he could to hang on, perhaps by engineering a change to the constitution so that parliament, rather than the people, would elect the president. With a parliament packed with his own supporters, Akayev would, it was argued, obtain yet another term in office and claim that he had been “democratically elected.” And, just in case this plan failed, many argued, Akayev was moving his immediate family and other relatives into senior positions of power so that he could continue to rule as de facto president.
The suggestion that the Kyrgyz “revolution” was anti-Russian is laughable. Roza Otunbayeva, a foreign minister and diplomat under Akayev, and now foreign minister in the interim government, stressed throughout the 1990s and again recently that Russia will remain Kyrgyzstan’s strategic partner, a stance supported by most Kyrgyz politicians and the people.
Russia’s economic recovery from the late 1990s, and particularly in the early part of the new millennium after President Vladimir Putin took office, reflected badly on Akayev. How, people were asking, had he achieved this success after such a short period in office, while Kyrgyzstan’s economy seemed to go from bad to worse from the beginning of Akayev’s reign in 1990?
This obviously ignores the beneficial effects of the high oil prices and ruble devaluation for Russia’s economy. But still, by 2001, many young Kyrgyz were desperate to move to Russia, Europe or the United States and leave a country they thought had no viable future.
The weak economy also explains the looting. The collapse of the Soviet Union shattered the country’s economy, with farmers in this largely agrarian republic losing their captive export markets. With high rural unemployment, large numbers of young, poorly educated men drifted to the cities, often lapsing into crime. Instantly identifiable by their poor Russian and darker skin from third and fourth generation urban Kyrgyz, most of the looters came from this rural background.
Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia are strategically vital, but the geopolitical situation there is equally misunderstood. Islam is weaker in Central Asia than generally supposed, while Russian nationalists fearful of American influence worry unnecessarily. Russia will remain the most important factor in the region by virtue of its proximity, size, relatively large economy and trade and military relations, not to mention the ties of the Russian language and culture.
China’s influence, however, could grow. Kyrgyzstan has a long common border with China, which in the early 1990s, almost unnoticed by the West fixated on Islam and Iran, established embassies in all of the Central Asian republics. China is keen to maintain stability in Central Asia so it can keep a lid on Uighur nationalism in the Xinjiang province and continue importing Caspian oil from Kazakhstan. Numerous Chinese businessmen and women have been working in Central Asia for years.
Ian Pryde is a Moscow-based consultant and journalist who worked in Central Asia for five years in the 1990s.
Special to Russia Profile, an online and monthly print magazine dedicated to Russia and published jointly by RIA-Novosti and Independent Media, Moscow.