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Kyrgyzstan: Third time not-so-lucky

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COMMENTS

15 April 2010 13:32

Michael Clarke is a Research Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute.

Ashley Townshend argued that there are two reasons to be hopeful that the latest round of unrest in Kyrgyzstan will result in the consolidation of a more democratic regime: (1) that the leader of the new government, Roza Otunbayeva, is a 'democrat'; and (2) that as 'Otunbayeva boasts good relations with Russia, the West and the UN', the new government 'will be receptive to the entreaties of foreign stakeholders'.

Neither of these reasons is as much cause for hope as Townshend implies. In fact, recent precedent suggests they may just as easily result in the opposite outcome – the continuation of fragile authoritarian rule in Kyrgyzstan.

Lest we forget, Kyrgyzstan's first president, Askar Akaev, who was ousted in the 2005 'Tulip Revolution' that brought the recently deposed Kurmanbek Bakiyev to power, was also widely touted as the only true democrat of post-Soviet Central Asia. Akaev earned his democratic credentials during the final years of the Soviet Union (he was an important supporter of Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms) and during his first term as Kyrgyz president, when he pursued a program of rapid economic and political liberalisation.

But from the mid-1990s he slipped into an increasingly authoritarian mode to ensure 'stability' in Kyrgyzstan.

Akaev was arguably pulled in this direction by a number of factors, such as the regional and often clan-based nature of Kyrgyz politics (which encouraged him to build patron-client relationships with regional governors and appoint relatives and friends to official positions), the ongoing tensions between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in the south of the country and the failure of his economic reforms. Akaev's efforts could not overcome the inherent problems of the Kyrgyz national economy (resource poor and with inadequate infrastructure) nor the general Central Asian economic crisis in the mid-1990s. These problems persisted under Bakiyev and will also be a great challenge for the new government.

The fact that 'Otunbayeva boasts good relations with Russia, the West and the UN' is also not necessarily cause for optimism.

This was arguably the case during Akaev's first years in power. Akaev was able to deploy his image as a democrat to leverage substantial aid packages from the US and the UN, but these were either embezzled by Akaev and close associates or channeled into shoddy initiatives. This pattern was repeated under Bakiyev.

From initial reports it would seem that Otunbayeva's government may also be trying to leverage the West's desire to promote democracy as a means to extract aid and political recognition from Washington.

The difference between the early 1990s and now, however, is that Kyrgyzstan is caught up in a geopolitical environment assailed by the competing interests of Russia, China and the US. Indeed, there is speculation as to the Kremlin's role in the latest Kyrgyz upheaval, with some suggesting that Russian intelligence services were intimately involved in the overthrow of Bakiyev.

Why would Russia want to oust Bakiyev? A number of developments connected to the issue of the US lease of Manas airport (which the US has used since late 2001 to support operations in Afghanistan) suggest themselves:

  • Bakiyev had promised Russia that he would close it in October 2008 in return for a loan of some US$2 billion to the Kyrgyz Government.
  • He then used this to leverage Washington into tripling its annual rent of the base to US$60 million per year and extending a further US$150 million aid package.

Since Bakiyev's overthrow, it has been reported that Moscow will now seek to move ahead with its loan to Kyrgyzstan. Given that the Kremlin was the first government to recognise the Otunbayeva Government, even before the dust had settled in Bishkek, one wonders what the quid pro quo will be.

China, for its part, while certainly no fan of 'regime change', will also be sure not to lose out to Moscow or Washington in Kyrgyzstan. Of all the external players, Beijing arguably has the most compelling interests to defend. First, it has numerous economic interests in Kyrgyzstan, including energy-related projects and investments to tap into Kyrgyzstan's hydro-electric potential.

Second, since the opening of cross-border trade with China via Xinjiang in the late 1980s, there has been an influx of Chinese traders and businessmen into Kyrgyzstan. Trade with China now not only accounts for a significant portion of all Kyrgyz foreign trade, but some 100,000 Chinese now reside in Kyrgyzstan.

Third, China has continuously pressed Kyrgyz governments on the Uyghur issue. In particular, Beijing has sought assurances from Bishkek since the early 1990s that it will not tolerate pro-independence activities of the significant Uyghur diaspora in Kyrgyzstan.

The Otunbayeva Government confronts not only serious domestic challenges but a complex geopolitical environment. In all likelihood the new government will find it as difficult as its predecessors to balance the competing pressures emanating from Moscow, Beijing and Washington with whatever it defines as its 'national interests'.

Photo by Flickr user neiljs, used under a Creative Commons license.

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