Central Asia: One Down

25 March 2005

Central Asia: One Down, Four to Go?

By Gwynne Dyer

Askar Akayev was the nicest of the Central Asian strongmen. Dissidents did not get immersed in boiling water in Kyrgyzstan; statues of Akayev and his family did not litter Bishkek and the country’s other cities; he hadn’t been the local Communist Party leader in Soviet times, as most other Central Asian leaders were. During the 90s, Akayev was even seen as a man with a commitment to democracy and civil rights. Maybe that’s why he got overthrown.

He deserved to be overthrown. By the time the crowds in Bishkek invaded his presidential palace on Thursday, he was well on the way to turning Kyrgyzstan into just another Central Asian autocracy. Last month’s parliamentary election was so shamelessly rigged that Akayev’s supporters won 69 out of 75 seats while key opposition leaders were banned from running — and Akayev’s son and daughter were elected to the parliament.

Observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe condemned the election, and most Kyrgyz suspected that Akayev was packing the parliament so he could push through a constitutional amendment granting him yet another term as president. Even the United States, which has a large military base in the country, was beginning to take its distance from his regime. (Russia, which also has a base in Kyrgyzstan, backed Akayev down to the end.)

In style, the almost bloodless revolution that overthrew Akayev was close to the non-violent popular uprisings that have brought democracy to two other former Soviet republics, Georgia and Ukraine, in the past year and a half. There was the same revolt against a rigged election, the same crowds in the street, even the same use of a symbolic colour to unite all the various strands of protest. And inevitably, the same claims are being made about it.

The Bush administration has not yet officially claimed that it is a result of the beacon of liberty that the US invasion has lit in Iraq, but you know that it’s going to. The Russian government, seeing yet another part of the former Soviet “near abroad” slide out of Moscow’s sphere of influence, mutters darkly about illegitimate American influence behind the revolution. And not much attention is paid to the reality of Kyrgyzstan.

The reason all five Central Asian republics ended up being run by tyrants of greater or lesser nastiness after the fall of the Soviet Union was that the same or very similar tyrants, in four cases out of five, were running them before it fell. Tyrants ran every part of the Soviet Union, of course, but whereas in most places the Communist Party provided the structure, in Central Asia it just wrapped itself around more enduring realities of clan, tribe and language.

The bizarre geography of the Central Asian republics, which interpenetrate and wrap themselves around one another, reflects Stalin’s policy of redrawing the borders to ensure that each major ethnic group was split between several different republics, and only had a bare majority in the republic that actually bore its name. Then the Communist Party recruited heavily from the leading clans of the majority nationality in each republic, who were generally willing to cooperate in order to secure their social position among their own people and their ethnic group’s political domination over the others.

It was a classic colonial policy of divide-and-rule, designed to hold down the Muslim provinces of the old Russian empire that had all rebelled against Moscow during the civil war after the October Revolution of 1917. It worked well for seventy years under the Soviet Union, and it has largely continued to work in the post-Soviet era, both in the sense that the same people stayed in power and that they stayed close to Moscow.

Freed from the discipline of the Communist Party since 1991, many of the leaders have grown deeply corrupt and a few (like Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan, who has taken to renaming the months and the days of the week after members of his family) have turned downright megalomaniacal. They deal with democratic opposition by the same secret police methods that worked in Soviet times, and claim that anybody who opposes their rule is an Islamist terrorist.

And not one of them faces imminent overthrow. Kyrgyzstan was different from the start because Askar Akayev was not a lifelong apparatchik, but a physicist who was chosen president by the first freely elected Kyrgyz parliament in 1991. Kyrgyzstan is also extremely poor, without oil, gas or valuable minerals (apart from a single gold mine that provides 40 percent of the country’s exports), so it has not attracted the same influx of foreign money and is significantly less corrupt.

Kyrgyzstan’s revolution may succeed, although the conflict that underlies it is partly based on clan and region and could tumble into something quite ugly. But it has virtually nothing to do with events far to the west in Georgia and Ukraine, let alone far to the south in Iraq — and the likelihood that it will spread to the other Stans is very, very low.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 8. (“Observers…end”; “It was…Moscow”)