The sad fact is that any posting about Central Asia sees my visitor figures plummet. I can please myself and don’t make money from this webiste. But I can see why commercial media ignore Central Asia. And the harsh truth is that, even when a dramatic crisis is occuring and this blog is one of the few sources of informed comment, only a dribble of people bother to google.
A disclaimer – I know Uzbek and Kirghiz people who don’t really understand what is happening. The only journalists who might have a clue are Michael Andersen and Monica Whitlock, and the latter self-censors a lot on Central Asia for family reasons. Disgracefully Britain does not even have an Embassy in Bishkek and “covers it” in the most desultory way imaginable from Astana, more than a thousand kilometers away.
Academic analyses concentrate on “clan systems” which mean nothing to most Kirghiz, who are unaware they belong to separate “clans” according to Western universities.
Even spellings are difficult becase you are transliterating non-Russian names, which had been rendered into Russian Cyrillic, into the latin alphabet. There is therefore no dispute on the Cyrillic spelling of Kyrgyzstan, but I always spelt it Kirghizstan in latin. Similarly the country’s interim leader I always spelt as Rosa Otubaeva, but now she is suddenly in tiny articles in the middle broadsheet pages as Roza Otunbayeva.
I endeavoured to give some background to the current conflict here:
Note the almost total lack of comments. Let me explain a bit more of Kyrgyzstan’s tragedy.
Newly independent Kyrgyzstan had, in Askar Akayev (spellings vary) by far the best President of any of the Central Asian states – out of an incredibly poor bunch. His country is dreadfully disadvantaged geographically. Distance from markets, poor communications and lack of infrastructure are a barrier even to the development of its mineral resources, but he instituted the freest economy in Central Asia and undoubtedly the least oppressed media and civil society.
I have referred before to Murray’s universal seven year rule. All governments everywhere in the world, even if they started clean, are after seven years deeply mired in sleaze. It applies everywhere, includng the UK. The subsidiary rule is that it is the President’s indulgence to his nearest and dearest which allows the poison to spread. I last referred to the rule as spoling the end of the second term of my friend John Kuffour in Ghana. The same happened to Akayev. Censorship crept back apace. Deepening corruption centred on his children, and it was for their political futures that he eventually indulged in vote rigging.
I remain sympathetic though to Akayev. He was eventually overthrown in the 2005 “Tulip revolution”, a coup in which genuine democrats were used by rival oligarchs wishing to take over the state’s resources. Akayev resigned to avoid bloodshed, and went back quietly to being a scientist in Moscow.
His replacement, President Bakiyev, proved worse than the man he had replaced in precisely the areas of vote rigging, media control and corruption which had been the complaints against Akayev. His old democratic allies deserted him and fought the 2009 election against him. Bakiyev’s re-election in 2009 with 83% was widely condemned. Bakiyev was particularly unpopular in the capital Bishkek, though apparently maintaining genuine popularity among rural Kirghiz. Two months ago Bakiyev was overthrown in a second popular revolution.
The interim leader, Rosa Otunbaeva, has announced fresh elections but her government has been overwhelmed by a gathering whirlwind of violence.
It would be wrong to characterise the violence as politically motivated. Ancient ethnic tensions and stereotypes have come to the fore and of course poverty is the root cause. But at the same time it is broadly true that the Uzbeks of the South generally support Otunbaev, while their Southern Kirghiz attackers generally do not and Bakiyev supporters have played some role in stirring up the violence. The ultimate loyalties of the police and army are not absolutely certain at this point.
To complicate things futher, while Osh’s Uzbeks may support Otunbaeva, President Karimov most certainly does not, seeing her as an embodiment of the dangers of democracy to dictators like him. And he most certainly does not want a flood of comparatively democratically sophisticated Uzbeks from Osh into Uzbekistan. That is why, even though Kyrgyzstan opened the border for Uzbeks to escape the violence, Uzbekistan did not. Remember also that Karimov had demolished most of the bridges and mined the entire border (see Murder in Samarkand).
Otunbaeva is a liberal Central Asian and, as typical of her generation, that means she looks to Russia. But Putin dislikes her for the same reasons as Karimov. That is why Putin and Karimov are anxious not to give help to Otunbaeva, but to refer the matter to that appalling dictators’ club, the Shanghai Cooperation Organistaion, whose primary purpose is to stamp on democracy throughout the region (oh, sorry “fight terrorism”)
Bakiyev meanwhile has taken refuge with the dictator’s dictator, Lukashenko of Belarus.
The Americans seem to have a policy of hunkering in their military base in Kirghiz and hoping nobody asks them anything. So far, it is working.