April 09, 2010

Opportunity and Peril in Kyrgyzstan


The dramatic events in Kyrgyzstan, which have apparently led to the overthrow of the administration of President Kurmanbek Bakiev and the installation of a transitional regime, represent a significant diplomatic conundrum for Washington, Moscow and Beijing, Dr John CK Daly comments for ISN Security Watch.

By John CK Daly for ISN Security Watch

Bakiev reportedly has fled to the south of the country, and a provisional government under opposition leader and former foreign minister Roza Otunbayeva is preparing the country for a six-month interim government.

The situation represents both opportunity and peril for the US, Russia and China, which share little in the way of common interests aside from seats on the UN Security Council. Ongoing chaos in Kyrgyzstan is not in their interest, however, and this may forge a common cause in improvising joint solutions to stabilize the new regime and put an end to the cronyism and corruption that destabilized its predecessor.

After 9/11, the Bush administration declared two global polices – a war against terrorism and a relentless push to advance democracy worldwide. Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution, was followed by Ukraine’s early 2005 Orange Revolution, which in turn was followed by Kyrgyzstan’s Tulip Revolution that same year. Kyrgyzstan has produced the second rollback of this agenda, following Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko’s electoral defeat in February, leaving only the beleaguered Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.

The unrest began in the northern Kyrgyz city of Talas on 6 April after the arrest of several opposition leaders, but quickly spread to Bishkek and outlying cities.

Government security forces opened fire with live ammunition, provoking similar violence from the opposition, who seized the national TV, parliament and government buildings. Estimates of the dead range up to 100 killed with over 400 wounded. Unlike western anti-riot police, who use water cannons, teargas, stun grenades and canine forces prior to deploying lethal force, a number of pictures from the demonstrations show police militia at the outset firing sub-machineguns directly into the crowds; others show demonstrators subduing militia armed with rocket propelled grenades.

While analysts argue about the tripwire for this week’s violence, it may well be that, five years after the Tulip Revolution deposed the administration of president Askar Akaev, his successor Bakiev, signally failed to deliver on promises of increased prosperity and anti-corruption, instead pursuing policies similar to, if not worse than, Akaev’s. Nepotism was rife in Bakiev’s administration, with many top jobs going to cronies and family members. Bakiev was also believed to be preparing his son Maxim to inherit power. Indeed, Maxim was visiting Washington when the unrest broke out.

The opposition now controls four out of Kyrgyzstan's seven regions. On 8 April, Otunbayeva declared that her provisional government was dismissing the parliament, establishing a provisional government to spend six months stabilizing the situation and preparing constitution amendments prior to new presidential elections.

Bakiev, apparently no longer in the capital, on 8 April sent an e-mail to Kyrgyz news agency 24.kg stating: “I declare that I did not resign nor do I resign as president… I am ready to bear liability for the recent tragic events, if it is proved through an objective investigation, not using presidential immunity as a cover.”

How will the Russia, China and the US respond?

The US suspended air operations on 7 April through its Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan, and Russia sent 150 paratroopers to safeguard its nearby air base at Kant.

Despite the destruction of Chinese property in Bishkek, the Chinese Foreign Ministry observed only that “China hopes the situation in Kyrgyzstan turns stable at an early date…” According to Kyrgyz Deputy Minister of Economic Regulation Sanjar Mukanbetov, since January 2009, bilateral Chinese-Kyrgyz trade has exceeded $3.45 billion. Accordingly, China, whose Kyrgyz assets are $51.2 million, will be pressing quickly for a quick solution to the unrest, as it has no in-country military assets to protect them.

The chaos provides a unique opportunity for the superpower trio to cooperate. Otunbayeva’s provisional government will be in need of immediate assistance to address the country’s most pressing social concerns. Three countries with a combined population of 1.77 billion and a collective GDP of $25.15 trillion undoubtedly can assist an impoverished nation of 5.4 million, where 18 percent are unemployed and the average monthly wage is around $130. The country’s infrastructure continues to crumble. Furthermore, the UN notes that Kyrgyzstan’s infant mortality rate soared from 20.9 per 1,000 thousand live births to 30.6 in 2007, two years after the Tulip Revolution.

If such demands for justice and fiscal relief are not met by Otunbayeva’s bankrupt government and its successor, then expect similar unrest in 2015, if not sooner.

Dr John C K Daly is a non-resident Fellow at John Hopkins Central Asia-Caucasus Institute in Washington, DC.

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