Kyrgyzstan’s swift and sudden revolution happened almost before one could have managed to pronounce this obscure country’s name. The chaos in the country where activists chased away their ruling leaders show a country coming to terms with a colonial past and on a quest to find a new identity. Despite the looting and the – tempered- violence, the initial reading of this revolution is that the catharsis might preclude a positive outcome. Not so much only for this tiny country, but more importantly perhaps in the wider context of the rise of democracy in the ex Soviet countries. Even the Russian leader Vladimir Putin has shown a new attitude to regime change in a former Soviet state – vouching support for the new regime and also promising to treat its old leader kindly.
Kyrgyzstan’s revolution likely will have opened the doors to a more pragmatic government that nevertheless will still be leaning on Russia. As such, it will be the third of the ex-Soviet countries that has seen a grassroots revolution within the last 18 months that Russia has had to swallow. Opposition activists took matters into their own hands to ensure –what else- improved living conditions for a people that have become seriously impoverished at the hands of a not so corrupt but still corrupt bunch of leaders.
Kyrgyz nationals followed in the footsteps of Georgian and Ukrainian opposition forces. In Georgia, the opposition - backed by the US government- overthrew their Russian puppet cabinet in 2003. More recently, Ukraine last December held another round of Presidential elections after the pro -Moscow outcome of the first round was contested – putting in place the pro Western Viktor Yuschenko.
Russia’s reaction to the events, which one overseas based Kyrgyz diplomat branded ‘a coup’, can be seen as uncharacteristic. Perhaps issuing a blue print of a new party line – one of utter pragmatism- President Vladimir Putin did not waste many words over the issue. Moscow is ‘ready to work with the Kyrgyz opposition’, he said. He also offered refuge to Akayev. Russia has never been very much interested in this poorest of the five Central Asian states.
Regional organizations aside from Russia that might be called onto for mediation are not immediately considered capable of inventing an adequate solution, observers say. Most of the five central Asian countries have internal problems and have had difficulties in coping with fledgling economies since well before the fall of the Soviet Union. After 1991, the region has failed to develop any robust political and economic institutions with clout and this is believed to have an impact on the economic development of the countries, most particularly that of Kyrgyzstan.
There is also a lot of personal competition between the region's –mostly elderly- leaders and this attitude, which harks back to Soviet days. This highlights why a distinct cooperative atmosphere in Central Asia is simply non-existent. Russian imperialist ambitions never really very strongly connected to Kyrgyzstan, although Russia has some troops on the ground. US troops are also stationed outside the airport in the capital Bishkek in accommodation that recently started to take a more permanent form than the tents the soldiers set up when they first arrived some two years ago, say people who’ve visited the country. The base camp was meant to be a "staging ground" for US troops before the fall of the Taleban in Afghanistan.
All central Asian countries have long been cited to be particularly vulnerable to outside interference from greater powers, yet it’s unlikely that the events we’ve seen this week in Kyrgyzstan were the result of outside meddling. The last years, the country has shown an ambivalence toward anything that reaks of hegemony. On the one hand there has been fear that Russia would step up its influence and at the same time people have wondered what would happen to them if Russian troops would leave.
Kyrgyzstan is the only country in the Central Asian region to have very limited oil reserves –it pumps out 2,000 bpd- and as such it has escaped every foreign power with an interest in the region. Just after the fall of the Soviet Union, an enormous discovery of oil reserves under the Caspian Sea was made, which it was believed would put the region on a par with the Middle East in terms of oil reserves and would make it the number one spot for natural gas in the world. Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazachstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan mutually agreed to carve up the rights to the undersea reserves. The estimates however were somewhat exaggerated and the region’s oil interests are of distinct yet not vital importance.
The events in Kyrgyzstan did surprise the leading parties as much as the rest of the world. The irony in this is that the leaders apparently think they have eternal rule so long as they manage to create the circumstances that keep this situation the status quo. By foregoing their duties to create truly collaborative institutions with their neighboring countries and by failing to instigate domestic democratic support, they relied on mechanisms similar to those their predecessors before them had relied on without considering that their home base was expecting change. Not creating the systems necessary to effect better democracies and market economies, the leaders slowly developed a blind spot for the possibility that a transfer of power might occur. Over time, dramatic catharses tend to be the result as Kyrgyzstan has shown.
Observers say that now it’s likely dawned on everyone that Russia is not going to be able to increase its role in the country and that the US will only lend its support to democratic movements. It’s all up to the people themselves to create a new structure out of what they so joyously went to town on during their short revolution.
The only other source that could manifest an ambition toward becoming a regional hegemony wishing to exert influence is Uzbekistan, which is better equipped on a unilateral level and also happens to be the region’s largest natural gas developer. The country has indicated its wish to improve intimate ties with its neighbours and has on occasion started to officially delineate its borders, an old Soviet way of showing who’s boss. However, after the events in Kyrgyzstan, the country quickly pinpointed on its map where the border had been and closed it off without further deliberation.
Kyrgyzstan’s largely impoverished market economy has hardly got a chance of picking up rapidly and international worries that its largely Muslim dominated population might turn to religion as an alternative to economic prosperity are still downplayed. Even though the initial disappointment over the benefits of independence 15 years ago led to a renewed focus on Russia, if the country’s civil society turns out not to be adequately responsive in soaking up new disappointment and resultant negative sentiment, it’s unlikely that people will turn to their religion. Kyrgyzstan has never really been prone to fundamentalism. By comparison, Uzbekistan poses a way greater Islamic fundamentalist threat, and its leader Islam Karimov is held up as an example of how to manage these sentiments. Should anyone feel the need to create insurgencies, they’d likely team up with the Chinese Western region Xinjiang separatists, who’ve got plenty of experience in this field.
The country’s ethnic differences were also highlighted in its revolution, but are not believed to have been a major factor in the events. People also cited chisms in the Ukrainian population along ethnic lines, yet the recent elections proved the opposite there. It is likely that as soon as people belonging to an opposition find they have a legitimate basis and can go about their business freely, ethnic issues tend to become associated with the old regime. Ethnic Russians living in Kyrgyzstan –what’s a characteristically pieceful country- also are way less overtly Russian still than their peers in Ukraine. They are near assimilated and cross cultural marriages are common.
About the Author
Angelique van Engelen is a freelance writer based in Amsterdam. She runs www.contentClix.com and contributes to a writing ring http://clixyPlays.blogspot.com
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