One week ago, demonstrations overthrew the government in Kyrgyzstan and drove the former Soviet republic’s government from power. On Thursday March 24th, Askar Akaev, president of the Central Asian republic for 15 years, was forced to flee the capital, Bishkek, after protesters took the government headquarters. A new government has been proclaimed, although the future for the remote republic is uncertain.
The coverage of these events in the western media is, as one might expect, superficial and misleading. Amidst all the usual sentimental verbiage about “people power” it is impossible to detect the slightest element of a serious analysis. There is no attempt to lay bare what interests are involved, and what the role of the big powers is. Suddenly, without any explanation, Kyrgyzstan’s “tulip revolution” joins Georgia’s “rose revolution” and Ukraine’s orange one. The reader is invited to take solace from the bare assertion that democracy always triumphs in the end, Good defeats Bad, Light over Darkness and so on. In other words, we have not the slightest idea of what is happening.
A global chessboard
In order to understand what is happening in Kyrgyzstan it is necessary to pay attention to what is happening on a world scale and to see that events in Central Asia are only part of a vast geopolitical chessboard, where the destinies of nations is being decided by governments, general staffs and the boards of giant corporations thousands of miles distant.
Recently I coincided with Condoleezza Rice in Pakistan, where the Musharraf dictatorship is firmly supported by the USA. So anxious was Ms Rice to retain the general’s friendship that she gave him a nice little present – the unblocking of the sale of American F-16 fighters. This will bring in very juicy profits to the US arms manufacturers, while keeping Pakistan’s generals happy. The only problem is that the Americans have promised to sell F-16s — a more modern version of the same fighter — to India. This will stoke the flames of a regional arms race that the peoples of India and Pakistan can ill afford.
Evidently, America’s global strategic interests weigh far more heavily in the scales of the Bush administration than any commitment to abstract notions like democracy. It is the same global strategic considerations that have led it to form close friendships and alliances to the undemocratic regimes of post-Soviet Central Asia. They have built a string of bases around the periphery of what used to be the USSR, hemming in the power of Russia and brazenly asserting America’s new role as the region’s arbiter and master.
The regimes in places like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are dictatorships of the most brutal kind. They are places where no opposition is tolerated, where critics of the government disappear overnight and where the most barbaric forms of torture, which would have done credit to Genghis Khan, are practiced routinely. Apparently, among his other innumerable engaging traits is his hobby of boiling people alive in oil. What do George W Bush and Condoleezza Rice, these outspoken champions of democracy, have to say about all this? Nothing at all. Their motto is that which Roosevelt used to say about Somoza, the dictator of Nicaragua: “He may be a son of a bitch, but he is our son of a bitch.”
Kazakhstan is also a very repressive regime. Turkmenistan has been described as a North Korean-style dictatorship. But that does not seem to repel the hoards of US businessmen who are rushing to set up shop there. But Kyrgyzstan was something of an exception in Central Asia, inasmuch as it was supposed to be a democracy. The deposed leader, Akaev, a physicist, won the elections for the presidency in 1990 against a “communist” boss, and his success was confirmed in the popular election in 1991 after the republic gained independence.
Of course, everything is relative! Akaev carried out the usual market reforms and introduced multi-party democracy. But in reality, one corrupt group of gangsters was replaced by another. Naturally, the idea that the people should really have a say in government was as inimical to the new rulers as it had been to the old ones. In the course of the 1990s Akaev became more authoritarian. Kyrgyzstan was a “democracy” in name only.
Elections held in 1995 and 2000 were criticised by observers as less than free and fair. Following unrest in 2002, when an opposition Member of Parliament was arrested on trumped-up charges, Akaev promised reforms. The only result was a rigged referendum that strengthened the presidency and replaced the party-list system with single-member districts for parliamentary polls. This weakened the parties and handed more clout to powerful individuals. Naturally, the rulers wanted their relatives to share in their good fortune. In the time-honoured Central Asian tradition, Akaev’s son and daughter both won seats in this year’s elections.
But last week the accumulated discontent of the people boiled over. Unwilling to accept a fraudulent election, the citizens took matters into their own hands. The turmoil had begun soon after the first round of elections on February 27th, which foreign monitors characterised as deeply flawed. That was an understatement! During the election campaign, state broadcasters openly supported the government, independent media were harassed and opposition candidates were disqualified from standing for petty reasons. The second round, earlier this month, was not much better.
Last Thursday, protests which had begun in the south of the country a few days earlier reached Bishkek, in the north. Demonstrators stormed the “White House”, the government headquarters, making their way past riot police who either melted away or joined the protesters. Akaev was soon nowhere to be seen, and protestors and looters ransacked the building. The fact that the people resorted to looting bears witness to the confused and chaotic character of the movement, its aimlessness and lack of a programme. Such a movement can easily get out of hand. It is clear that the leaders of the opposition, propelled to power on the crest of a wave of popular disturbances, are frightened of this and are striving to get the situation under control as quickly as possible.
After several days of chaos and looting, opposition leaders are now appealing for calm. But while the looting has died down, confusion still prevails at government level. The Supreme Court annulled the flawed elections. But two rival opposition leaders, Kurmanbek Bakiev and Felix Kulov, soon quarrelled on what to do about parliament. Bakiev, a former prime minister, said the old parliament must stay in office. Kulov, a former vice-president who was freed from prison by protestors, said that its term had expired and the new parliament must take over.
In the end Kulov prevailed, but in an apparent deal between the two men, the new parliament has confirmed the old one’s decision to make Bakiev prime minister. However, as a very substantial consolation prize, Kulov, who is also a former police chief of Bishkek, will be in charge of security. The old parliament also named Bakiev interim president, although Akaev has not formally resigned.
The big powers are all watching the situation with more than disinterested concern. Central Asia is an area of vital strategic importance, not only for Russia and the USA but also for China, always worried that turbulence on its borders might stir up the discontented Moslem populations on its western periphery. It is also a potentially important source of oil and other raw materials. Big American oil companies have long been involved in intrigues with Central Asian governments like Turkmenistan, which has huge untapped reserves of oil and natural gas. A not unimportant factor in the US invasion of Afghanistan was the plan to build a pipeline from Turkmenistan to the Indian Ocean, which would have to cross Afghanistan.
The confrontation between the USA and Iran is also connected with these global strategic-economic interests. The USA fears that Iran’s ambitions in Central Asia will complicate its own plans. It sees a long-term threat of Iranian intervention in places like Afghanistan. No doubt Washington’s decision to sell fighter planes to Pakistan was part of its plan to place a cordon sanitaire around Iran. This was indignantly denied by official sources in Islamabad – which leaves one in no doubt that it is true.
Predators on the prowl
Events in Kyrgyzstan are being closely watched both by the big powers and the governments of the neighbouring states. Both America and Russia have military bases near Bishkek. The war in Afghanistan provided the Americans with the excuse they needed to move massively into Central Asia, which has been one of their aims ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union. This has brought them into direct contact with Russia, and the two big powers have been in a very tense relation in the region ever since.
In order to strengthen its hand in the region, America has befriended brutal regimes that are part of the famous “Coalition of the Willing” and champions of the “war on terror”. Kyrgyzstan’s neighbour, Uzbekistan is a particularly nasty dictatorship, whose dictator, Islam Karimov, has cracked down heavily on Islamic militants and all oppositionists. Yet nobody says anything. Far more important than torture and murder is the existence of a string of bases that can enable the USA to deploy its forces throughout the entire region with lightening speed.
For that reason Washington is not particularly overjoyed by the events in Kyrgyzstan and is certainly not talking about spreading democracy throughout Central Asia, as they do in relation to the Middle East. The truth is that Bush and Rice would be horrified at any suggestion that the monstrous regimes of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan should be overthrown by “people power”. After all, a military base in the hand is worth ten democracies in parliament.
All this may explain why the American ambassador in Bishkek, Stephen Young, has been so “admirably frank” with both the press and Mr Akaev’s government about concerns over deteriorating democracy in Kyrgyzstan. He does not want this “people power” to get out of hand. It is alright for a bit of public relations once in a while, but what Central Asia (and George Bush) really needs is not people power but stability, so that the big US corporations that ultimately decide US foreign policy can get on with the serious business of making money in peace and quiet.
In the savannas of Africa, after a lion has made a kill, the hyenas and jackals make their appearance, looking for any smaller pickings that might be left over. The Americans have already taken the lion’s share, both in Iraq and Central Asia. Now it is the turn of the smaller predators. Despite their relative weakness, the European imperialists do not want to be left behind in this race for rich pickings. They have been effectively shut out of Iraq, which is in the hands of the big American construction and oil companies. They do not want to lose out in places like Iran and Central Asia if they can help it. That explains their different attitude towards Iran, as opposed to the bullying belligerence of the Americans.
The German and French capitalists want to get some kind of a foothold in Kyrgyzstan. True, the country is small and remote, and lacks the energy reserves of some of the other Central Asian republics. It is not as good as Kazakhstan or Turkmenistan for oil and gas, but it at least gets one’s foot in the door. So they are rushing to give, not money, but advice – lots of advice. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which monitored and criticised the elections, is kindly offering to help sort out the mess.
Shortly after Akaev was kicked out, Bakiev promised new elections in June. But the OSCE’s ambassador to Kyrgyzstan has complained that this is far too soon. Order must first established! Unfortunately this advice is easier to give than to carry out. The only way the new leaders are likely to restore “order” is by replicating the methods of their predecessors, that is to say, by installing a corrupt and repressive regime. Any resemblance to democracy will only be incidental. But then, nobody is perfect.
The leading clique in Russia is also pursuing its own selfish interests in the region. Moscow had good relations with Akaev, and Vladimir Putin, its president, expressed dismay that yet another former Soviet republic has had its government changed “illegally”. But Putin says he knows the new man and can work with him. The new leaders are mostly former ministers, and so there is no cause for alarm, and every reason to suppose that it will soon be “business as usual.” Both America and Russia will keep their bases in Kyrgyzstan.
Will it spread?
Kyrgyzstan’s neighbours are also watching events there nervously. The country has had problematic relations with Uzbekistan, which even mined the border with Kyrgyzstan to prevent militants from escaping, an act that provoked protests from Akaev. Kyrgyzstan’s other neighbours, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, may well be affected by these tremors. That is why the USA, Europe and Russia are all doing their best to calm things down as quickly as possible.
In Kazakhstan to the north, the president, Nursultan Nazarbaev, has used money and favours extracted from the country’s mineral wealth to keep himself in power. But, as in Kyrgyzstan, opposition is growing. Tajikistan, which is poorer and endured a civil war in the 1990s, could be even shakier. Recent elections (as in Kyrgyzstan criticised by international observers) strengthened the party of the president, Imomali Rakhmonov. He might be the next one to go.
The tremors from all this could therefore be felt elsewhere in Central Asia. But the men and women who control America are not necessarily overjoyed by such a prospect. Despite all the demagogic speeches about spreading democracy all over the world, Washington’s backing for democracy is highly selective. They do not want to see the spread of instability to those dictatorial states of Central Asia that are kindly providing hospitality to their troops, spies and warplanes. Will “people power” spread to the other states of Central Asia? It is possible because of the unstable nature of all these regimes. But if it does, it will be in spite of the “democrats” in Washington, not thanks to them. Such is the kind of cynicism that dictates international policy in our “New World Order”. Machiavelli would have been impressed.