Friday, April 16, 2010

This Mush Is Certain

Bambino accidentally sent out the above misspelling of "Much" in a recent exhibition title, and I knew immediately I'd steal it one day. It seems, via its fitting confluence of circumstances, the perfect title for this update.

Calm has been restored in Kyrgyzstan after the violent protests starting on April 7 that threw the Central Asian nation into turmoil. Unlike the revolution in 2005, which had been much less violent and saw then-president Askar Akayev flee the country immediately, this time around president Kurmanbek Bakiyev holed up in his Southern home district, refusing to resign and there were talks of civil war breaking out. Yesterday, though Bakiyev too signed a letter of resignation and flew to the neighboring nation of Kazakhstan. Phew!

A lot of the credit for this latest development needs to go to Roza Otunbayeva, leader of the interim administration, for playing tough with Bakiyev (threatening to take him to trial if he didn't leave). I know, from experience, not to underestimate the determination (you could say stubbornness) of a Kyrgyz woman who knows she's right. :-)

The other matter settled by Otunbayeva was the question of whether the US had reason to worry about losing our rented space at Manas, the airbase outside Bishkek. I've been to that airport (looking out onto those air fields at 5:00 am is like watching a scene from a Robert Ludlum-based screenplay directed by Wes Craven...scary CIA and FSB types everywhere you look). Otunbayeva has now said that her government will extend the US's lease on the base for another year.

But what remains somewhat mushy (or, at least unsettled) are two issues.

First, what can the new government do to address the poverty that drives all the frustration. The answer seems to be very little. Not only did the protests make an already
desperate economic situation much worse, but the interim government probably doesn't have the power to do much about it:

The deputy head of the interim government in charge of finance, Temir Sariyev, said that in the coming days a special commission would be set up to assess the damage to the economy.

Talking to Russian newspaper Kommersant, he promised that the new government would help local businessmen, but he did not specify how.

"What should the business community do? Where do we go next? To whom do we complain?" asked Uluk Kydyrbayev, who heads Bishkek Business Club, an association that comprises more than 20 companies.

In 2005, when Kyrgyzstan went through the so-called Tulip Revolution, the mass protests that brought President Kurmanbek Bakiyev to power, the country saw the same post-revolution chaos.

Hundreds of shops were looted and people unlawfully seized land, private property and businesses.

"Back then it took the government three years to reimburse damage to businessmen," Uluk Kadyrbayev said.

"This time we want to help the new government to restore the economy. But for that we need stability, security and legitimacy."

Observers say those things cannot be promised by the interim government, which is faced with the potential escalation of conflict in the country.

And more than that, the biggest question that faces Kyrgyzstan is how to address the underlying lack of governmental strength and lack of democratic structure that have lead to both amazingly fast, absolute corruption in the previous administrations and the resulting frustration that seems only addressable by revolution.

Assistant professor of government and politics at George Mason University, Eric McGlinchey recently explained the underlying problem in an op-ed in The New York Times:
What happened [in Kyrgyzstan] was not a revolution — it was a hijacking.

Being president of Kyrgyzstan shares much in common with being captain of a plane. The president needs a few people to help him rule, say a first officer and a navigator. Should one of these assistants prove problematic, the president can replace him with someone from the passenger cabin. The challenge, though, is that the passenger cabin is small. Eventually, the president must re-use the same people he previously fired or he must fly solo. At the same time, he remains vulnerable to passengers banding together, as they did this week, and tossing him from the plane.

This makes Kyrgyzstan very different from its ex-Soviet neighbors. Why aren’t the presidents of countries like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, both of whom have been in power since the Soviet Union collapsed, so easily tossed from power? The answer is straightforward: the Kazakh and Uzbek presidents have bigger planes — 747s compared to Kyrgyzstan’s Cessna.

Should a minister falter or be seen as disloyal, President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan and Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan can find ready replacements from within the ranks of hundreds of loyal cadres, many of them holdovers from the bureaucracy of the Soviet system. Moreover, because Kazakh and Uzbek ministers know they can easily be replaced, they are far less likely to prove meddlesome in the first place.

Indeed, Otunbayeva had served under both previous Kyrgyz presidents before she joined the oppositions against them. Of course in order to have more ready replacements to ensure less likelihood of resolving political disputes with bloodshed, Kyrgyzstan will need to focus more on providing its citizens with better education. Many Kyrgyz of Otunbayeva's generation were educated in Moscow or then Leningrad. There is little in the way of an educational system that compares in Kyrgyzstan today. And with the economics being as bad as they are, little money to build one.

So it promises to be a vicious cycle. The uncertainty will continue indefinitely. Unless...unless Otunbayeva can renegotiate the terms of her leases with the US and Russia so that funds from those sources go directly into strengthening the education system throughout the country. It's certainly to the US's advantage to have stability within the country. Russia lately seems to be playing the game according to the revolutionary's handbook, allegedly seeing turmoil as its best chance of getting the US out of its former Republic, but even they would then want stability in the country, so they too might as well begin investing in Kyrgyzstan's educational system now.

Image above of a child among adults mourning those who were killed during the protests.

Labels: kyrgyzstan, politics


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks Ed,

This is very an enlightening post on a region of the world many of us in the US are just starting to understand. Hopefully, Central Asia can find its way to democracy and prosperity.

4/16/2010 03:25:00 PM  

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