Logic Behind The Kyrgyz Chaos
A Frenchman, a Russian and a Kyrgyz sailed on a ship that sank. All three made it ashore to a deserted island. The Frenchman built himself a villa and set up a vineyard, while the Russian built a dacha with a vegetable patch. The Kyrgyz immediately organized a mob to oust Robinson Crusoe.
To a crowd at a pub in the Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan, this joke neatly summarizes the country’s recent history. However, if you are as unfamiliar with Kyrgyz politics as with their jokes, last week’s dramatic events may seem to have come from the clear blue sky. The country suddenly exploded in uncontrollable rage, the president fled for his life, over 80 people were shot and killed by the security forces while the mob tore through government buildings and shops.
A similar revolution took place five years ago, led by many of the same individuals who have now have established an interim government. More than being simply a sign of endless chaos, there is logic behind what is now happening. To the young men storming everything from police stations to the Presidential Palace, the hopelessness of every-day life was the driving force. Yet, they also formed the front lines in a rescue mission of what was once called an island of democracy.
The meetings on 7 April had been planned for a long time by opposition leaders, but very few Kyrgyzstanis held their breath. The outcome seemed pre-determined after the authorities practically banned any demonstration supporting others than themselves: Typically, a few brave individuals turn up with a handwritten poster in the early morning hours. Twenty minutes, all demonstrators are locked up. Once released, their fine exceeds their regular monthly salary, and all names have been noted by the security services, GSNB.
This round did not end in the usual manner. The arrest of an opposition leader in the small town of Talas the night before provoked demonstrators into attacking the local government administration. Authorities responded by giving them more of the same – security services kicked in the doors of opposition leaders in the capital and dragged them off to jail. This time, however, zero tolerance only served to spur further anger. Demonstrators were left without any other leadership than their own bitterness, and Kyrgyzstan’s second revolution in five years was a fact.
Speculations are numerous as to whether these events were orchestrated from the outside. Particularly, fingers point to Russia. Yet, analysts tend to overlook the weary young men toiling away in Kyrgyzstan’s bazaars with nothing to show. Add the rise in utility prices along with phone taps, attacks on journalists, expulsion of human rights activists, closure of opposition newspapers and blocking of websites, and the cocktail grows deadly. There was little noble about the way the power shifted last week. Furious crowds beating police officers to death and plundering the capital’s struggling businesses is deeply tragic.
In many ways, this is not the second forced shift of power in Kyrgyzstan in the last decade, but the third. The revolution in 2005 was gradually hijacked by President Kurmanbek Bakiev and his circle, who led the country towards more corruption and nepotism than what the people had originally risen against. Indeed, another Kyrgyz joke regards a German tourist who finds Bakiev’s home town Jalalabad empty – the entire city has been made bosses in Bishkek.
Bakiev’s regime has rooted out opposition leaders like weeds in the garden. One after another they found themselves in custody awaiting trial, such as the head of the Green party, arrested when caricature drawings of the president were found in his office. In the US, Bakyt Beshimov turned up, speaking of death threats. His colleague, Edil Baisalov, was soon awarded a diploma as language student in Sweden. Our own office in the Kyrgyz capital was closed by the security services in October 2008, following a process that would astonish Franz Kafka himself.
Human rights activists and opposition leaders did what they could to attract Western attention to the continued drowning attempts at democracy in the country. Although Kyrgyzstan was going full speed ahead towards a police state, their calls mostly went unheeded. Perhaps these April events have derailed the train from reaching that final, dark destination.
The responsibility weighing on this newly formed government is enormous. Kyrgyz society may not survive another disappointment. It is essential that internal conflicts and ambitions are put aside, and that human rights for the ousted are guaranteed from the get-go. Any legal investigation must have reconciliation as its goal – not revenge.
One of the many delicate questions facing Kyrgyzstan is how to balance its relations with the big powers. However, local human rights activists see geopolitical horse trading as the reason why their warning calls were ignored. As one leader recently told US officials, “While trying to preserve the base, you lost the respect of the people.”
If this is the beginning of something good, the West cannot take credit for it. But we can learn. It is too late to express regret after a brooding crisis explodes in violence, especially when international players have limited their support to a few diplomatic frowns. Authorities’ lack of interest for human rights in Central Asia means that not only the interim government has to work hard to reclaim the trust of the people of Kyrgyzstan – so do we.
Ivar Dale, Norwegian Helsinki Committee