Kyrgyzstan: what is to be done?

The ineptitude of policies championed by the USA is to blame for the political violence in Kyrgyzstan which overthrew the government. Only a long-term vision of radical political change could make amends. David Coombes lays out key priorities
David Coombes
19 April 2010

For the second time in five years, political violence in Kyrgyzstan has deposed an unpopular government, at the price of ruinous disorder, and extensive loss of life. Our first thought is for the dead and wounded, their dependants and dearest, but also for that majority of the local population who have put a brave face on the dire economic and political instability which have plagued their country since the 1990s.

The tragedy of these events is not only that the ordinary Kyrgyz people deserve much better than they have got, but that they represent much more widespread powerlessness, and deprivation, suffered by innocent victims of political change moving in response to global rather local forces. Stoicism is a possible, but inadequate, response to such an increasingly typical contemporary condition of humanity.

We must ask who or what is to blame in this case, and how to make amends. What has happened to Kyrgyzstan must be seen as but the latest excruciating demonstration of the sheer ineptitude, and fallibility, of the policies championed by the USA and its allies in the name of ‘technical assistance for development’ or ‘poverty reduction’.

The more obvious venality – and occasionally vice – of a series of post-communist rulers must not blind us to the guilt, as well as the capacity to make due recompense, attaching to those who have pursued their own selfish material interest in countries like Kyrgyzstan in search of opportunities for profit.

If we care to transform the suffering of the innocent, then let us act now to reveal for the fraud it is the prevailing Anglo-Saxon doctrine that political democracy and economic liberalism not only must needs always go together but also, whenever they do, are sure to guarantee health and happiness for a majority of the population. That academic conjecture has always been dangerous as well as stupid, given the way it has been used to justify the systematic enticement into huge indebtedness and accompanying poverty not just of Kyrgyzstan but similarly weak political entities scattered across the globe.

Such harsh language will not be heard from Rosa Otunbayeva, interim leader of the new provisional government in Bishkek. She is far too practised a diplomat, and skilled politician for that. Indeed, her personality, which is better known and respected internationally, than that of any other prominent politician in Kyrgyzstan, is a fact vital to any attempt to explain the causes, as well as the consequences of recent events.

It is impossible, knowing her views and inclinations, not to assume that her coming to power was both carefully pre-conceived by her and her supporters domestically, and condoned privately by key figures externally. Among the latter we must include foremost the government of the Russian Federation.

Who knows what was said in private, never-to-be-revealed conversations with the UN Secretary-General, himself a recent visitor to Bishkek, who took that occasion to refer frankly to the Bakiyev government’s bad record in human rights and civil liberties ?

It is, at the very least, inconceivable that Rosa Otunbayav would have taken the enormous risks she has taken, without some assurances from international actors, whose support matters, that it would be available in any continuing, or worse, emergency. Indeed, we must pray that this surmise is true, for her sake and that of her country.

Prayer may also be the only hope that the Americans will be guided towards restraint – silence, and above all patience (especially if they may eventually have to sacrifice the military base at Manas). They still have the power to make the tragedy even worse. After all it was they who first loudly supported, then surreptitiously reneged on, former President Akayev, whose removal from power in 2005 so de-stabilised what had previously been Central Asia’s most reformist regime. This time they gambled on Bakiyev, whose family will have made too much money out of their five-years’ tenure in power to give up now without a struggle.

Three priorities for change

If, on the other hand, the new power-holders turn out to be just that, then any such fearful speculation could prove altogether misplaced. It would require a miracle, but what if the present circumstances gave rise at long last to radical political change? The priorities may be reduced to three, and for two of these - again in view of who she is and what she knows – Otunbayeva must look the most likely to succeed yet in the Republic’s short history of independence.

A first priority is to start to acquire genuine autonomy of policy-making, especially in economic affairs. The odds against success here are formidable, not least on account of the massive foreign debt (not much less still than 70 per cent of GDP) into which the state’s previous rulers were seduced by the IMF and World Bank.

On the other hand, the political, as well as social and economic, costs of continuing to meet the restrictive, neo-liberal conditions of such international assistance are too much for any state as weak as this one to endure. Short of dictatorship, that is, but we have seen what happens to a would-be dictator in Kyrgyzstan, when he tries to implement international advice – such as the anti-social doubling of tariffs by a newly-privatised electricity undertaking, from which, as every adult Kyrgyz citizen knows, the political leaders have always derived a steady personal income. At least some politically-active Kyrgyz citizens have shown to what lengths they are prepared to go to get free of such post-imperialism. Perhaps their counterparts elsewhere should – and will – follow their example.   

New constitution

Secondly, however, as a necessary condition of eventual economic self-government, there has to be a new constitution. It needs to be approved after open debate, and by genuine consensus, and not designed to legitimate the personal rule of a single individual or group. A good start was already made on this constitutional process in 2005. The debate must be renewed without delay – and carefully moderated.

To ensure the necessary durable foundation of consensus among as many social and political interests as possible, and res­­­­­­­­tore some confidence among the people, it is time to scrap the presidential system that the Kyrgyz Republic has already tried twice with disastrous consequences.

It is, therefore, highly encouraging, that Rosa Otunbayeva has so far acknowledged in her public statements the priority of strengthening parliament, and moving towards a more pluralistic form of government. Her  vital qualification in this respect is that she belongs to a political party that is already electorally active, in contrast to Kyrgyzstan’s previous rulers who constructed one with the sole purpose of keeping themselves in office.

The myth of nationality

It is with regard to the third priority that Otunbayeva looks much weaker, in view of her previous proclivity to use the rhetoric of emergent nationalism. Kyrgyzstan needs to abandon another western myth that has already wreaked havoc, wherever the greed of American and European entrepreneurs has implanted its seed, namely that a community can govern itself securely and well, only if it is bound together by a common sense of nationality.

National sovereignty supplies the ideal, if not the necessary basis for democracy, according to this myth. This fabrication of western philosophers has regrettably gone far everywhere (and not least in China) to substitute for communism as the ideological means to manage diverse communities in a rapid process of economic development.

Whoever emerge as the new Kyrgyz leaders must resist this seduction too, and in two key respects. The priority is less to construct a sense of solidarity on the basis of Kyrgyz nationality than to develop much better relations with Kyrgyzstan’s neighbours, especially to the north and west.  The leadership needs to show willingness to participate in some kind of regional association, beginning as a common market, perhaps, but moving gradually to political integration, on the model of European Union. Such a pluralistic, power-sharing approach of Bundestreue is no less essential internally, if the very real threat of further violence arising from alienation of the southern provinces of Kyrgyzstan is to be countered.

Some indication would be welcome that new constitutional arrangements might allow for substantial devolution of power. The end result should be to turn the country into a federation of autonomous provinces, rather on the model of another people historically divided by mountains, the Swiss.

None of these priorities might seem realistic today, but such dire circumstances often call for, and reward, exceptional longer-term vision. If it could demonstrate early and committed progress in these directions, a new Kyrgyz government might one day be seen as having offered an experiment from which very many elsewhere could learn and benefit.

Obstacles to change

The obstacles could hardly be more daunting. The new leadership has no easy, short-term way to surmount the country’s pitiful dependence on greater powers internationally, for whom the kind of goals identified above will seem futile, and even obnoxious.

Most disturbing of all is the problem of legitimacy. The ejection of the sitting government last week was far more violent than in 2005. As then, however, the majority of the participants seem to have been not heroic volunteers from civil society, but gangs of male agitators hired for the purpose. The first task, therefore, is how to give assurance that future transfers of power can be accomplished peacefully, and by legal means. The tragedy would be only compounded if the revolution encouraged a political culture in which violent action can be sanctified by success.

That is why I recall the poet Yeats’s admonition, expressing his own acute ambivalence towards a similar violent outburst of civic action on behalf of a similarly small yet brave nation in 1916:

All changed, changed utterly

A terrible beauty is born.


David Coombes is Professor Emeritus of European Studies at the University of Limerick, Ireland. He spent several years in the Kyrgyz Republic earlier in this decade as an international consultant on public administration reform. The views expressed above are offered in a personal capacity, and entail no commitment on behalf of any institution whatsoever.  

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