Wednesday, 14 April 2010

REVOLUTION, GOVERNMENT INSTITUTIONS, AND THE FATE OF THE KYRGYZ STATE

Published in Analytical Articles

By Roman Muzalevsky (4/14/2010 issue of the CACI Analyst)

In 2005, the Kyrgyz “Tulip Revolution” toppled Askar Akaev’s regime and put Kurmanbek Bakiyev in power, opening for what many hoped would become a more just and democratic government, capable of addressing economic and social ills. But five years on, Kyrgyzstan is even further from democracy and a similar fate has befallen President Bakiyev. Events in the country over the recent years have clearly demonstrated the ineffectiveness of government institutions and policies that failed to ensure stable and democratic functioning of the state and, in so doing, threatened its integrity amidst internal pressures and external designs.

In 2005, the Kyrgyz “Tulip Revolution” toppled Askar Akaev’s regime and put Kurmanbek Bakiyev in power, opening for what many hoped would become a more just and democratic government, capable of addressing economic and social ills. But five years on, Kyrgyzstan is even further from democracy and a similar fate has befallen President Bakiyev. Events in the country over the recent years have clearly demonstrated the ineffectiveness of government institutions and policies that failed to ensure stable and democratic functioning of the state and, in so doing, threatened its integrity amidst internal pressures and external designs.

BACKGROUND: Starting in the northern city of Talas on April 6, the protests then flared up in Naryn and rapidly spread to the capital of Bishkek on April 7. Violent clashes with police and security forces left 80 people killed and 1000 injured. The protests forced President Kurmanbek Bakiyev to flee the capital and seek refuge in the southern region of Jalalabad. The interim government, headed by Roza Otunbayeva, dissolved parliament and undertook a revision of the constitution, promising to hold elections in six months. However, it yet needs to strengthen its internal control and legitimacy internally and externally – something it will likely achieve despite the 16 million Euros left in the treasury and speculations about Bakiyev’s continuing fight for power. The interim government already called on the international community to provide much needed support.

The protests were spurred by high utility prices, increasing authoritarian practices, government crackdown on the media, persecution of opposition leaders, and widespread poverty – conditions that will make it difficult for the president to challenge the new government. Yet Bakiyev’s unwillingness to resign raises concerns about possible cleavages between the north, controlled by the opposition, and parts of the south, Bakiyev’s home region and original support base during the “Tulip Revolution”. This is in spite of Bakiyev’s own acknowledgement that he lacks leverage over the events on the ground.

In response to the developments in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan temporarily closed its border and Kazakhstan tightened security measures. Vladimir Putin, Russia’s prime minister, was first to call Otunbayeva and express support for her interim government. Russia also sent a small contingent of troops to protect the families of the military forces at its base in Kant. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who called Otunbayeva this past Saturday, offered U.S. support for the interim government as well. She sent Robert Blake, Assistant Secretary of state for South and Central Asian Affairs, to Kyrgyzstan.

Meanwhile, some media reports speculate about possible Russian involvement in the unrest. They cite visits by opposition figures to Russia before and after the protests, negative reporting in the Russian press against Bakiyev’s regime, deteriorating relations between Russia and Kyrgyzstan after Bakiyev reneged on the deal to evict the U.S. base from Kyrgyzstan in return for US$ 2.3 billion in loans and grants from Russia. Putin, however, denied any Russian involvement: “The only thing I can say is that neither Russia, nor your humble servant, nor Russian officials have anything to do with these events.” 

The U.S. announcement in March to construct a military center in the south of Kyrgyzstan – where it was previously agreed to host a CSTO base – most likely further enraged Russia. On April 1, Russia terminated preferred customs duties for Kyrgyzstan, leading to increased fuel prices. Coupled with high utility prices and endemic poverty, these developments purportedly contributed to the outbreaks of protests that now also raise speculations about the fate of the U.S. base in Kyrgyzstan.

Reports have also circulated about the negative impact of the US foreign policy on the developments in Kyrgyzstan. They cite a U.S. choice to ignore human rights abuses and growing authoritarianism in Kyrgyzstan in return for rights to continue using its base at Manas that is critical for NATO mission in Afghanistan. They reason that by providing the money to the incumbent regime, it indirectly supported the authoritarian government and growing crackdown on the media, contributing to deteriorating relations of Kyrgyzstan with Russia and neighbors. 

IMPLICATIONS: It is early to speculate about the likely trajectory of Kyrgyz foreign policy or regional dynamics. As far as relations with the U.S. and Russia are concerned, the effects of the U.S.–Russian geopolitical rivalry on the developments in Kyrgyzstan indicate that a more pro-Russian foreign policy line by the interim government is highly probable. Otunbayeva confirmed to Clinton that the government would abide by its promises on the transit center, but these commitments appeared expensive to the Kyrgyz and they have deadlines, as well.

Omurbek Tekebaev, an opposition member, stated there was a “high probability” the U.S. lease “would be cut short.” Unlike Russia, the U.S. currently does not have open and ardent supporters within the interim government. Nor does it enjoy the same level of support among the Kyrgyz population. This will more likely put Kyrgyz foreign policy back on Russia’s tracks, albeit without any immediate threat to the U.S. presence at Manas as the interim government concentrates on consolidation of power.

Regionally, the popular unrest in Kyrgyzstan is unlikely to engulf its authoritarian neighbors. Yet, its echoes will reverberate in Central Asian capitals as a younger generation faces bigger prospects of assuming power in the near future and people are increasingly alienated by authoritarianism.

In Kyrgyzstan, likely internal rivalries within the interim government might well complicate the solidification of the government control and negatively affect regional dynamics. While civil war or small-scale clashes rooted in regionalism, tribalism or ethnic tensions are unlikely given slim popular support for the president, they are not entirely inconceivable.

If the interim government fails to institute order and solidify legitimacy in a quick fashion, especially in the poorly developed South, other regional capitals or organizations might fill the vacuum, with all pertinent implications for the integrity and viability of the Kyrgyz state. The UN, OSCE and CSTO have already agreed to coordinate their activities in Kyrgyzstan, if necessary. Swift resolution of the stalemate between the interim government and de jure President is thus a key in the process.

CONCLUSIONS: The ousted regime was clearly not revolutionary. Abuses of power, disregard for human rights, mishandling of socio-economic conditions and failure to effectively balance geopolitical interests of great powers eventually exposed the inability of the government institutions and the regime in ensuring accountability, just governance, rule of law and decent economic conditions. Any new leadership that is in place in Kyrgyzstan still has the opportunity, and an obligation, to govern justly and successfully without a strong hand. It must build effective government institutions, improve socio-economic conditions, as well as tackle corruption and nepotism to better manage internal challenges and external geopolitical dynamics. It must further focus on its human resources that can better thrive in a democratic rather than authoritarian environment and ensure accountable domestic and foreign policy. The Kyrgyz people deserve to celebrate freedom and opportunity without having to resort to violence – something the new leadership should recognize and ensure in order to provide for the viability and integrity of the Kyrgyz state.

AUTHOR’S BIO:  Roman Muzalevsky is an international affairs and security analyst on the Caucasus and Central Asia. He is also Program Manager at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute.

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