What Was The Cost of Kyrgyzstan’s Latest Power Transition?
If you asked the average American to spell the name of the country of Kyrgyzstan, the overwhelming majority would stare blankly in response. A similar reaction would doubtless be forthcoming if they were to be asked to place that small Central Asian country on a map of the world. This would not only be true of your stereotypical “middle American” but would doubtless also be true of those who would consider themselves to be much more educated than average and regularly read such publications as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and others of that ilk.
What this overlooks is that this small, seemingly insignificant country has a fascinating, yet troubled history since it achieved independence during the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. Kyrgyzstan is hailed by some, particularly in the West, as “the only democracy in Central Asia.” But what is this moniker truly worth, at the end of the day? This question should be re-examined in the wake of yet another supposed “democratic protest uprising” that took place in the country in October of 2020. Subsequent events have been showing that this “democratic protest movement,” was, in the end, neither democratic, nor a protest movement. But how did the country get to this point after these past thirty years, and where does it, in fact, go from here?
Kyrgyzstan did not achieve independence as the result of an outcry of popular demand for freedom, in fact the opposite was the case in many ways. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Soviet Union was in the midst of sweeping changes and upheaval, following in the wake of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms of glasnost and perestroika. Questions were beginning to be raised about the future of the Soviet Union itself, questions that had seemed inconceivable only a few years earlier.
It was against this backdrop that, in March of 1991, a referendum was held among all of the constituent republics of the USSR, on whether or not to preserve the Union in its current form. The Kyrgyz Republic voted overwhelmingly in favor, with ninety-six percent of voters for and only four percent against. This was part of a trend throughout this region of the Soviet Union, with the Central Asian republics voting overwhelmingly “Yes” on the referendum, while in contrast, Russia voted at a much lower percentage of seventy-six percent in favor of “Yes” on the referendum.
Why was this the case, when Russia was regarded by conventional wisdom as the “imperial heartland” of the Soviet domain, while the Central Asian republics occupied the farthest reaches of the periphery. Conventional wisdom among Russian nationalists held that the citizens of the Russian republic were tired of subsidizing Central Asia, as the (relatively) wealthier republic compared to the Central Asian “freeloaders” who were, the story goes, content to remain comfortably within the Soviet embrace as it cost them nothing.
While this narrative is a rather crude analysis of the situation at that time, the truth is that the dissolution of the Soviet Union did, in fact, come from the center rather than the periphery. It was the Russian Republic, led by Boris Yeltsin, that “declared independence” from the USSR in late 1991, together with the other “core” republics of the Union, Ukraine and Belarus. In December of that year, the leaders of those three countries signed the Belovezha Accords, which dissolved their ties with the Soviet Union. The other constituent Republics of the USSR were not consulted as part of this decision making process.
Like most of the other former Soviet states, Kyrgyzstan retained its Soviet leadership in the years after independence. Askar Akayev, a physicist by training, had been appointed by the Supreme Soviet of the USSR to lead the Krygyz republic in October of 1990, little more than a year before the Union itself was due to collapse. He would transition seamlessly from this post into the leadership of the newly independent Kyrgystan as its President.
Akayev was a classical liberal in his economic outlook and philosphy, declaring in a 1991 interview with The Christian Science Monitor that “Although I am a Communist, my basic attitude toward private property is favorable. I believe that the revolution in the sphere of economics was not made by Karl Marx but by Adam Smith.”
This seeming contradiction in philosophical outlook was typical of the post-Soviet space, as many government officials who had been trained to be disciples of Marx and Lenin turned on a dime to embrace free market capitalism with open arms (and in many cases enriching themselves in the process). Perhaps the common thread that enabled this was and is the fact that, as pointed out by the legendary Russian dissident author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Adam Smith-style free market capitalism and Soviet Marxism are both, at their core, materialist philosophies with similar underlying metaphysical outlooks and assumptions.
That underlying assumption they share is chiefly that society and people are driven by economic, rationalistic forces, although of course their disagreement is on whether private owners or the state should control the means of economic production. Indeed, Karl Marx took inspiration from Adam Smith in his own writings, seeing himself and socialism/communism as the next step in the evolution of materialistic society.
Akayev set out to fulfill his promises of Adam Smith-style revolution, privatizing state-owned enterprises early on in his tenure. Unfortunately, this did not succeed entirely in increasing the overall wealth of the Kyrgyz nation, as a 2016 IMF report noted that “while extreme poverty has declined, overall povery remains relatively high compared to regional peers.” Nonetheless, some gains were achieved, particularly later in Akayev’s tenure during the early 2000s, as the report notes.
Despite these advances, those years would prove to be Akayev’s last in power. In 2005, Akayev would become the next post-Soviet leader to fall victim to the trend of “Color Revolutions” sweeping the post-Soviet space in the early 2000s. Alleging corruption and election fraud, a protest movement arose that would ultimately force Akayev to step down from power, ultimately fleeing the country to seek asylum in Russia. It was this “Tulip Revolution” that would earn Kyrgyzstan the distinction of beginning to be hailed in the Western press as “the only democracy in Central Asia.” To this day, in the “freedom rankings” of the NGO Freedom House, Kyrgyzstan has the best score, “Partly Free,” of all of the Central Asian former Soviet republics.
It should be noted that Freedom House is not necessarily the neutral arbiter that it purports itself to be, as connections have been alleged between it and the CIA. However, Akayev’s regime was not an implacable enemy of the United States by any means. In fact, it was in 2001, under his Presidency that the U.S. military opened its first outpost on Kyrgyz soil, Manas Air Base, ostensibly to help coordinate anti-terrorist operations in Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11.
It was, in fact, the post-Akayev, “partly free” government of Kyrgyzstan that would begin to call the status of Manas into question. How did this state of affairs come about? MK Bhadrakumar, a retired Indian diplomat stationed in Central Asia for over three decades, has written out his perspective on what took place in Kyrgyzstan in the aftermath of the “Tulip Revolution,” as well as more recently in 2020.
Emerging to lead the country in the chaos and destabilization following the “Tulip Revolution” would be Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who early on in his term would begin threatening to close Manas, although later on he would somewhat backtrack on this policy, allegedly to Russian chagrin. Bakiyev, however, would prove to not be long for the Presidency of Kyrgyzstan himself, as domestic upheaval would force Bakiyev from office in the spring of 2010.
Some commentators in the West alleged at the time that Moscow had had a hand in forcing Bakiyev from office, though Russia certainly did not look favorably on Bakiyev’s immediate successor, the pro-Western Roza Otunbaeva, although they recognized her government almost immediately. Perhaps Russia, defying conventional stereotypes, trusted the democratic process in Kyrgyzstan to work out in its favor. And indeed, the 2011 Presidential election, which received at least a qualified endorsement from international observers, saw the pro-Russian Almazbek Atambayev easily defeat Otunbaeva. It would be Atambayev who would, ultimately, follow through with pushing out the U.S. military presence, with Manas Air Base finally closing in 2014.
Politics in the new Kyrgyzstan, however, do not revolve around an idealistic Jeffersonian discourse, or even necessarily the Cold War (old or new) question of orientation towards the West or East, the United States or Russia (with China increasingly becoming an assertive player in the region as well with the rise of the Belt and Road initiative). Rather, power has been contested between coalitions of different clans, incorporating a geographical rivalry between the country’s north and south.
In recent years this recurring rivalry manifested itself between Atambayev, a northerner, and his former Prime Minister and successor as President in 2017, Sooronbay Jeenbekov, who hails from the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh. Although the two had been onetime political allies (M.K. Bhadrakumar notes in one of his article that these cross-regional alliances of convenience do occasionally happen, saying that Bakiyev’s rise to power years before was enabled by one), once in the Presidency Jeenbekov turned on Atambayev, and in August 2019 the latter was arrested and jailed on corruption charges.
All of this serves as backdrop to the events of 2020, when unrest broke out in the wake of disputed elections that were held in October. The parties that won election were pro-Jeenbekov to varying degrees, with the party winning the most seats, Unity, featuring Jeenbekov’s brother as a member. Almost immediately, protests broke out in the capital city of Bishkek, with protesters, allegedly decrying corruption and vote buying once more, seizing government buildings and an atmosphere of chaotic violence.
Two differing interpretations of these events soon emerged. Western outlets covering the region, such as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which is an official agency of the United States government, hailed the protest movement as idealistic young people with idealistic demands to replace corrupt old politicians. But M.K. Bhadrakumar took a different view. Writing in The Asia Times, he diagnosed the situation as clan rivalry flaring up once again, saying : “The enraged northern clans who were routed in the election and deprived of representation in the new parliament couldn’t take it lying down. Their street fighters took over Bishkek and toppled the government.”
Who is right and who is wrong in diagnosing the events in Kyrgyzstan? One might observe that the act of taking over government buildings within hours would be more easily done by “street fighters” than idealistic young college students. It was also more likely to be street fighters who freed certain key politicians from prison, including the man who has now cemented his hold on power in the new Kyrgyzstan.
Atambayev was among those freed from prison, although he was soon re-arrested. But also among those sprung from prison in the chaos of October was Sadyr Japarov, who would soon find himself occupying first the post of Prime Minister, and then President after Jeenbekov resigned. According to Bhadrakumar, Japarov “is backed by the very same elements close to former President Bakiyev,” with Japarov having served as an adviser in Bakiyev’s administration.
Bhadrakumar also noted the rhetorical support that the U.S. Embassy in Bishkek gave to the anti-government protests early on- the U.S. diplomats on the ground likely shared the same analysis of the situation as the journalists covering it at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. But the coverage of both on the situation turned rather sour as events unfolded in favor of Japarov.
As Japarov rose to power, the tone of coverage towards the protest changed. A lengthy piece appeared on RFE/RL titled “ A Hidden Force in Kyrgyzstan Hijacks The Opposition’s Push For Big Changes,” with a large picture of Japarov beneath it, the clear suggestion being that he, with the backing of these hidden forces (which the article implies to be organized crime) are the hijackers in question.
Japarov certainly has a checkered past, what with his having been in prison on the charge of hostage-taking, due to an incident which arose during protests that he led against the Canadian-owned Kumtor gold mine, one of Kyrgyzstan’ largest. Japarov’s signature political stance in Kyrgyzstan has been to advocated nationalizing this gold mine, and that position is the primary source of his domestic popularity- although he certainly does have clan connections that helped him escape prison and quickly garner power in the wake of October’s unrest.
As the RFE/RL article noted, the U.S. Embassy found itself in the position of having to make an awkward about-face, saying “”The United States supports the efforts of President Jeenbekov, political leaders, civil society, and legal scholars to return the political life of the country to a constitutional order,” mere days after vocally supporting protesters who had sought the ouster of Jeenbekov himself.
In a rare ocurrence in modern geopolitics, the American stance on the situation seemed to find itself intersecting with the Russian one, with Moscow also decrying the country’s descent into chaos. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak flew to Bishkek as the situation unfolded, meeting with both Japarov and Jeenbekov. Japarov has since publicly affirmed that Russia will remain a strategic partner of Kyrgyzstan.
The read on the situation held by M.K. Bhadrakumar that the unrest in Kyrgyzstan was primarily an outbreak of clan rivalry seems to be the correct one, in light of these events. Even if young anti-corruption protesters were a part of the demonstrations, the very fact that they were marginalized so easily shows that they were inconsequential to the real power struggle all along, ultimately well-meaning bystanders in the messy business of power being forcibly transferred from one source to another.
So, is Sadyr Japarov a gangster turned politician, as Pablo Escobar once dreamed of becoming Colombia? Is he a populist firebrand who wants to ensure that his nation’s natural wealth serves its people, in the vein of Hugo Chavez? Is he neither, or somehow both at once? Only history will be able to tell for sure. But the fact is that the institutional observers of the West entirely failed to predict that the events of October 2020 in Kyrgyzstan would lead in the direction that they did.
It is entirely possible that their early rhetorical support of the unrest led, ironically, to an outcome they desired less than even Jeenbekov remaining in power. If Japarov or his supporters are to become a problem for the United States or the West while he is in power, then, due to the misreading of where the unrest of October 2020 would lead, he will be partially a problem of the West’s own making.