I’m no expert on Kyrgyzstan. I only play one on the Internet. In my travels around cyberspace in an attempt at a quick education, I’ve run into a lot of punditry, a whole lot of “What Kyrgyzstan means for the US”, a slew of saucy reductions of the situation into Russia vs. America, the Great Game, Cold War revisited, and a whole lot of stupidity. Sadly, this silencing of Kyrgyzstan is merely a symptom of a more pervasive disease. As Sarah Kendzior wrote on Registan,
Central Asia is the black hole of international media. It is not the “other” but the other’s “other” — Russia’s orient, a region whose history and political complexities are poorly understood even by some who proclaim to be experts; a region whose best-known ambassador is Borat. In the world media, Central Asia is most notable for its absence; the only region not even worthy of inclusion in the international weather report. No one cares if it’s raining in a place that doesn’t, as far as the media are concerned, exist.
The other’s other indeed. I can’t say that I’m not guilty of that. (As an aside, the best places I’ve found for English language information on Kyrgyzstan, and Central Asia in general, are Registan and Eurasianet. Slate has a few good, informative articles for “understanding” the region.)
In her post quoted above, Kendzior rightly urges that we consider “Central Asia in terms of Central Asia.” To do this she asks us to listen to multitude of Central Asian voices now readily available over the internet.
I don’t pretend to hear or even relate those voices. Their multitude is too difficult to distill. That said, I think that to approach understanding of what happened and perhaps what will happen, Kyrgyz politics needed to be shed of its centripetal forces and highlight its centrifugal ones.
To do this, of course, would mean to reject the tidal wave of rhetoric about Manas, the Russia-US geopolitical power game, and more importantly withhold declarations about Kyrgyz new chance at our vision of democracy. The more I read in an attempt to understand “Kyrgyzstan in terms of Kyrgyzstan,” the more I’m convinced that not all is what it seems. What is becoming clear to me is that last weeks events speak to the concept of dual revolution. Meaning that, there was a legitimate, real social explosion from below coupled with a power struggle between elites above. These were not two separate processes. There was a dynamic between the them where the former allowed for the possibility of the latter.
There was a popular uprising in Kyrgyzstan. One could even call it a revolution–with its chaos, blood, marauding, and looting. There are even reports that several thousand Kyrgyz have even started to seize land outside of Bishkek for “unauthorized construction.” Indeed, on the streets the bacchanalia of revolution was and is in the air as people’s pent up frustrations exploded. This was no nice, liberal “colored revolution” where the “people” peacefully gathered and demonstrated against violations of the “democratic process.” Nor were their voices funneled into a reified, safe paradigm of human rights and democracy provided by spokespeople and PR operatives. If there is any proof of the spontaneity of this revolution, it is the fact that, as Luke Harding wrote in the Guardian, the social explosion was “so sudden and ferocious that nobody has had a chance to give it a name yet.” Namely, that there was no time to polish it up, brand it, and sell it to the international, i.e. Western, media. The fact that there is no name speaks to the revolution’s raw materiality, materiality that evades the anesthetizing ether of virtual politics.
The social explosion from below, however, doesn’t preclude the power struggle above. In fact, it only allowed for the latter to fully break out into the open. As people who know something about the politics in this small, landlocked poor ex-Soviet Republic assert, when it comes to the big politics this week’s “revolution” was nothing more than musical chairs between elite clans.
“Let me be clear: What happened on Wednesday was not a revolution — it was a hijacking,” writes Eric McGlinchey, professor of politics at George Mason U, in the NY Times. McGlinchey gives the telling image of his morning jogs in Bishkek’s central stadium. While he laps, members of the Kyrgyz political elite gather and chat. He writes:
Some of my stadium acquaintances hold positions of power. Others do not. This week, those on the in and those on the out swapped places. I’m certain, though, that it will be the same gaggle at the track next week, negotiating ever-changing alliances while the rest of Bishkek sleeps.
For those unfamiliar with Kyrgyz politics, it must appear strange that Roza Otunbayeva, who emerged from this week’s coup as the nation’s interim leader, was foreign minister for both Kyrgyzstan’s first president, Askar Akayev, and for the man who ousted Mr. Akayev, Kurmanbek Bakiyev (who himself was forced to flee Bishkek on Wednesday). Stranger still is that after each stint Ms. Otunbayeva subsequently joined the “opposition” and played a central role in the downfall of her boss.
As my experience at the stadium shows, however, concepts like opposition and political parties prove an uncomfortable fit with Kyrgyz politics. The press would do well to drop these terms and begin to analyze the political dynamic for what it actually is — a handful of political elites going in circles — rather
than in terms suggestive of what we hope Kyrgyzstan can become, a competitive democracy.
Interestingly, this “handful of political elites going in circles” is an opinion expressed by Aleksei Makarkin in Russia’s liberal Ezhednevnyi zhurnal. The conflict between elites appears to be one where Bakiyev’s former allies have ousted him for pushing them out of power:
Events in 2005 were a revolt of the southern clans against the northern ones who were connected to Akaev. Now the situation appears to be mirrored–the north has went against the south. But this outline, for all its strengths, doesn’t explain everything. The issue is that Bakiyev became president thanks to a strong anti-Akaev coalition which put him in power. Along with this, he is not its accepted leader and he took the post as the head of state as the most statutory representative of the winning side (former short-lived ministers under Akaev) and as a “Southerner” went too far in demanding the dismissal of the remaining “Northerner” [i.e. Felix Kulov]. Well, now the coalition has collapsed and the main reason is Bakiyev’s aspirations to take complete control of the republic.
As a result, there are many active participants of the “Tulip Revolution” among many of the opposition leaders. A number of which come from the south. For example, Omurbek Tekavaev, the former speaker of Parliament, left his post after a personal conflict with Bakiyev. Soon after they arrested him in Varshava airport with heroin in his luggage. The politician was quickly released, and after the accusation the leadership of the National Security Service was forced to give their resignation for organizing the frame up. [The leadership] included Bakiyev’s brother who was accused for actively participating in the organization of this scandal (later this same presidential brother headed state security.) Former General Prosecutor Azimbek Beknazarov is a native of the southern Aksyisk district (apropos, those from this district announced their support of the opposition). General Ismail Isakov, who was freed from prison, is one of the most powerful Bakiyev opponents, and was born in Oshsk province. Isakov was the former Minister of Defense after the “Tulip Revolution.” He was put in jail for the illegal privatization of official apartments for his son, but oppositionists think that the military leader has suffered for his politics. Finally, Roza Otunbaeva, the former Minister of Internal Affairs was born in Osh. The opposition asked her to lead the new government. And, in contrast, those forced out of power by the opposition is Prime Minister Daniyar Usenov, a native of the north. Feliks Kulov, another powerful “northerner” and former vice-president, has distanced himself from the opposition (One should note that Bakiyev created a special directorate for the development of small and medium energy technology in 2008.), although he denounced the latest actions by the Bakiyev government.
So, when looking at the elites who now sit in the Provisional Government, certain patterns and relationships emerge that suggest Kyrgyzstan’s “new chance for democracy” might be short lived, if it ever existed at all. Given the importance of personal relations and connections to Kyrgyz politics, the new government’s survival will have to balance two contradictory forces: the interests of elites, which are predicated on cronyism, corruption and vampiric extraction of wealth with those of the people, whose frustrations eminate from that very cronyism, corruption and vampirism.
Will this newest reshuffling of the chairs be able to put the political frustration on the streets back in the bottle? The answer to this remains to be seen.