As you probably know, I have traveled extensively through Central Asia. Among my favorite nations there is the Kyrgyz Republic. Despite formidable challenges—as one of the Central Asian republics without reserves of natural gas or oil, it is one of the poorest, with an average income of about $30 a month—its people are kind and hospitable. Known as the “Switzerland of Central Asia” because of its beautiful Tian Shan mountains, it is also a mecca for outdoorsmen of all kinds, particularly alpinists and white-water rafters.
I am sad about the violence in Bishkek but optimistic that the results will benefit the Kyrgyz people. That is, as long as the United States stays out of it.
During the 1990s Kyrgyzstan was Central Asia’s great democratic hope: the only CAR with a democratically-elected president, Askar Akayev, a math professor. The other CARs were, and still are, run by Soviet-era Communist Party bosses as authoritarian states.
In the late 1990s the World Bank and IMF pressed loans upon the Kyrgyz government that it could not afford, then imposed structural adjustment policies that precipitated economic collapse.
After 9/11 the Bush Administration pressed Kyrgyzstan to accept a U.S. airbase at Manas Airport near Bishkek to supply the occupation of Afghanistan. In typical Central Asian style, the Kyrgyz accepted nominal rent, then asked for an increase after the troops were installed.
The Bush Administration was incensed. They decided to oust Akayev and, in 2005, CIA-backed insurgents from the Muslim heartland of Osh, in the Ferghana Valley, stormed the presidential palace in Bishkek. Akayev ordered security forces not to fire, and he fled into exile. He is now a mathematics professor at Moscow State University.
An Osh-based politician, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, took over. Proving my oft-stated dictum that any bad situation can become worse, Bakiyev brought authoritarian rule to Kyrgyzstan. Opposition politicians were murdered and “disappeared.” Southern provinces fell under the control of local warlords. Corruption escalated; he was reelected in elections that international monitors described as completely tainted. Bakiyev’s men looted what little was left of the country, plunging the economy into freefall.
Misery escalated, and thousands of men with nothing to lose have been fighting with security forces in Bishkek for the past few days.
At its heart, this is a conflict between the Sovietized secular north, from which Akayev came, and the Muslim south, home to Bakiyev.
The current unrest will have sweeping psychological effects upon neighboring states, as the Kyrgyz are widely considered the peacekeepers of the region. When border disputes break out between other CARs, Kyrgyz mediators are often called in to settle them.
There will also be repercussions for the U.S. Not only could we be ejected from the airbase, anti-Americanism could escalate. After all, Bakiyev and the misery over which he presided was in no small measure the fault of U.S. foreign policy.
The worst-case scenario would be civil war. Bakiyev is said to be hiding in Osh, the country’s largest city. Were he to try to rally his forces to retake the capital, the bloodshed could be extraordinary.
The Obama Administration, closely linked to the Bakiyev regime, would be well advised to stay out of Kyrgyz politics and lock down the airbase at Manas before recognizing whatever new regime takes power. One can only hope that secular democratic forces take over the government and restore Kyrgyzstan to its rightful place as the friendliest, most beautiful nation in Central Asia.
For further information about Kyrgyzstan, the 2005 Tulip Revolution that overthrew President Akayev, and Central Asia in general, please check out my book Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?
Also worth checking out for breaking news from Central Asia is EurasiaNet.org.
PRESS INQUIRIES: I am available for comment and interviews about the situation in Kyrgyzstan. Please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org