It’s been a week since the breakout of the political regime in Kyrgyzstan – a small country in Central Asia, previously part of the Soviet Union. There is now an interim government, led by Roza Otunbayeva, while the ousted president, Kurmanbek Bakiev, still refuses to formally resign.
This story may go unnoticed for many. However, what happened in Kyrgyzstan is very important for the future of Central Asia. More, the new “revolution” may show a pattern that can be followed in other countries in the region.
The Politics of Revolution
But why did the revolution happen in the first place? I’ll come back to the Russian influence in this affair later, but the main reason is fragmented political culture. The recent history of Kyrgyzstan saw the failure of a more liberal, pro-Western development model in the 1990s, as well as the failure of two authoritarian regimes under Presidents Akaev and Bakiev in the 2000s.
Fragmented political culture and poor social cohesion are also correlated with poverty, but we don’t really know the direction of causation. In that sense the analysis of Eugene Huskey is on the spot:
“In the rough-and-tumble of Kyrgyz politics, like politics in much of the developing world, personalities and not policies hold together most parties and political movements. But without a dominant personality or a consensus surrounding political values, it is difficult to assure the unity of the opposition and the support of the nation during an election.”
Also in this vein is the statement of one of the rioters in Kyrgyzstan, cited in the excellent report by Ben Judah:
"I don't expect things to really change, but today is a revolution."
The main problem remains the inability of the state to deliver substantial political goods to the population. This has already put Kyrgyzstan in the league of weak states, but recent events point to the chance that Kyrgyzstan may be sliding towards a failed state status. The continuous weakening of the state in Kyrgyzstan was evident back in 2003, when the expert on failed states, Robert Rotberg, said (pdf) that Kyrgyzstan’s ability to emerge from inherited weakness is questionable.
This threat is substantial, and Russian President Medvedev knows what he’s talking about when warning about possible civil war in Kyrgyzstan.
But the revolution in Kyrgyzstan is more than a logical consequence of inherited weakness. As Lauren Goodrich rightly points out, control of Kyrgyzstan equals control of the Fergana Valley, and hence of Central Asia’s core.
This is well known to all major powers in the region. In the last decade both the US and Russia have courted the Kyrgyz rulers in order to secure their communications in the region, and to expand their influence in Central Asia. As Eugene Huskey points out, the Obama administration has continued the policies of the Bush years in Central Asia. The US disengaged from the internal forces for change in Kyrgyzstan in order to secure its military base in the country. Russia on the other hand, in the words of Lauren Goodrich, took a page from the U.S. playbook and sparked a revolution along the lines of the pro-Western color revolutions in Kyrgyzstan.
In this way Russia has legitimized itself at least in northern Kyrgyzstan as the supporter of change and vindicator of nepotism. The Russian problem now will be to engage the South, which is influenced by Uzbekistan and the Islamic world. That is why Mr. Medvedev is so worried about a possible civil war.
The Lessons Learned
One thing is certain – the disengagement of the United States (and the European Union for that matter) from Kyrgyzstan has not helped the country. But arguing that a greater involvement would by itself solve Kyrgyzstan’s problems is also unconvincing. The country was a weak state, and foreign intervention in the form of diplomatic pressure would hardly solve its problems.
A development agenda for Kyrgyzstan would be very difficult to draw up given the small size, lack of resources and fractured society. But now the international community has all the more incentives to prevent the country from collapsing.
From a geopolitical perspective, both the NATO allies and Russia have a lot to lose from a scenario of collapsed Kyrgyzstan. While it is clear that Russia will be more influential in the country, there is a lot of room for engagement of the US and the EU, should they want to participate in a stabilization effort.
The future is uncertain. But in a world where there are 41 countries worse off than Kyrgyzstan, we should pay attention to the events developing in that small nation.