Wednesday, April 21, 2010

WATCHING KYRGYZSTAN

In the late 1980s, President Mikhail Gorbachev introduced social and political reform to the Union of Soviet Social Republics (USSR) through perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness). By 1990, Communism had fallen and the Cold War had ended. At that point, various megalomaniacs -- that is, men who wanted to be presidents rather than prime ministers, governors or generals -- set about exploiting ethnic nationalism in order to tear the centuries-old Russian Federation apart.

By the end of 1991, Kyrgyzstan was independent under the leadership of Askar Akayev, an intellectual and scientist appointed by Gorbachev. Kyrgyzstan was unique amongst its neighbours in that it was the only Central Asian former Soviet Republic not under the control of a former Soviet apparatchik (i.e. not a professional functionary of the Communist Party).

Akayev introduced multi-party democracy and encouraged a degree of openness unknown to Kyrgyzstan's neighbours. In 1998, Kyrgyzstan became the first Central Asian republic to join the World Trade Organisation.

Corruption takes over

In December 2001, America established a Transit Centre at Manas air base on the outskirts of the capital, Bishkek (also spelled Bishek), from where it could supply US troop in Afghanistan.

In an article entitled The Truth Behind The Recent Unrest in Kyrgyzstan (13 April 2010, first of a 3-part series), investment analysts with oilprice.com note: "Cozying up to the presidential administration Washington quickly allowed the administration of President Askar Akayev and its cronies to take over the lucrative refueling and provisioning rights for the bases, paying inflated prices for landing rights and fuel provided by companies under the presidential family's control." And so, as oilprice.com notes, the contracts for the US base at Manas became "a direct source of corruption", whereby Akayev's family profited "by owning the companies with exclusive rights to refuel NATO aircraft."

Repression escalates

But corruption and openness don't mix -- and so in order to allow corruption to flourish, Akayev had to roll back openness and liberty.

Akayev also learned he could play the "Cold-War-isn't-over-yet" game, pitting Russia and the US against each other for financial gain. In September 2003, he upset Washington by signing a bilateral agreement with Russia for the establishment of a Russian military base at Kant, also on the outskirts of Bishkek and only some 30km from Manus (map).

US monies however, did not benefit the Kyrgyz population. The masses remained impoverished while the Akayev clan grew very rich and very powerful. Corruption, cronyism and nepotism advanced at the expense of the impoverished and now harshly repressed masses. Discontent rose as hopes for human rights and democracy faded.

REVOLT

The March 2005 "Tulip Revolution" that ousted Akayev was not a US-sponsored "colour revolution". Rather it was a people's revolt, a coup that, despite its violence and expressions of ethnic Kyrgyz nationalism, won the support of the US which claimed it was part of the domino effect of democracy.

See :
The Tulip Revolution takes root
By Pepe Escobar, Asia Times online, 26 March 2005

KYRGYZSTAN’S REVOLUTION: BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR
A EurasiaNet Commentary, by Justin Burke, 25 March 2005

Corruption takes over


According to oilprice.com, after the "Tulip Revolution" Washington simply : "rewrote its cozy contracts with the Baikyev administration for Manas, delivered intermittent harangues on democracy and human rights, and essentially ignored the country". Subsequently, President Kurmanbek Bakiev became even more corrupt than the man he had deposed. His son, Maksim Bakiev, reportedly earned himself as much as $8 million a month monopolising the sale of fuel to the base.

See:
Kyrgyzstan: Business, Corruption and the Manas Airbase
oilprice.com 15 April 2010

Meanwhile, the masses remained impoverished with unemployment hovering around 18 percent. Discontent was growing. History was repeating itself and for all America's human rights rhetoric, it clearly saw the transit centre at Manas as a higher priority -- something not lost on the repressed and abused masses of Central Asia.

Repression escalates

As corruption, repression and hardship escalated, the masses (especially in the more devoutly Muslim south) increasing leaned towards the 'Islam-is-the-solution' message preached by the Islamic fundamentalists of the Ferghana Valley (southern Kyrgyzstan) -- specifically the jihadist Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and revolutionary Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT).

To counter their influence, the Bakiev regime further escalated repression -- a strategy that only served to fuel the cycle. On 12 January 2009, a highly repressive Religion Law was enacted.

See:
Kyrgyzstan: putting the repressive religion law in context
By Elizabeth Kendal, 10 February 2009
World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty News & Analysis

As Forum 18 reported at the time (13 January 2009): "Provisions that have caused concern to religious communities and human rights defenders include: a ban on children being involved in religious organisations; a ban on 'aggressive action aimed at proselytism'; a ban on the distribution of religious literature, print, and audio-video religious materials; and de facto compulsory re-registration of all registered religious organisations.

"The 12 January [2009] announcement on the presidential website trumpets the fact that 200 adult citizens permanently living in Kyrgyzstan will now be required before a religious community can apply for state registration, compared to 10 in the current Law. It says 10 registered religious organisations will be needed to form a 'religious association'."

While the law's primary target was the Islamic revolutionary Hizb-ut-Tahrir -- which had been provoking serious unrest in the south -- Protestant Christians (around 0.5 percent) have been caught in its anti-'new', anti-'foreign', anti-'small gatherings', anti-'religious literature', anti-'missionary' net. And because Protestant Christianity is "divisive" -- winning converts amongst Muslims and Russian Orthodox -- the regime exploited repression and persecution of Protestants as a convenient and easy means of appeasing aggrieved elements.

The last straw

In late 2009, confident that there was no organised opposition, Bakiev increased taxes and the cost of utilities. The first price hike came on 1 January 2010, the second would hit six months later. Thus in the middle winter, as temperatures dipped to minus 20 degrees Celsius, Kyrgyz citizens found their heating costs rising by at least 500 percent; electricity by 170 percent, hot water by 100 percent. Many people found themselves forced to choose between spending 80 percent of their salary of utilities, or turning off the gas, electricity and hot water.

See:
KYRGYZSTAN: UTILITY PRICE HIKE SQUEEZES CITIZENS
Liat Asman, Eurasianet, 8 February 2010

REVOLT

On 6 April 2010, anger and despair spilled into the streets. The protests escalated rapidly until the security forces, under the control of President Bakiev's brother, Zhanybek Bakiev, opened fired on the protesters, killing more than 80 and wounding hundreds more. Ultimately however, Bakiev was ousted, retreating south to his home base of Jalal-Abad.

See:
Eyewitness: Bishkek Unrest
Kyrgyz journalist recounts confrontation between protesters and government troops on the streets of Bishkek. By Urmat Imanaliev in Bishkek.
Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) 10 April 10

US reaps bitter harvest from 'Tulip' revolution
By M K Bhadrakumar, Asia Times online, 10 April 2010

Stefan J Bos, in Kyrgyzstans for BosNewsLife reports that throughout the crisis churches have been active caring for the injured, visiting hospitals, holding prayer vigils, assisting with efforts to clean up the streets and repair damage to public facilities.

After fleeing south, Bakiev discovered he had little support left there either.
See: Bakiev Resigns After Support Crumbles
President leaves country, steps down following failed attempt to rally support in southern heartland. By Dina Tokbaeva in Bishkek.
Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), 15 April 10
(update: Bakiev has since renounced his resignation.)

While Bakiev has since found refuge in Belarus, there are calls for him to be extradited to Kyrgyzstan to stand trial for his crimes.

Heading into the future

The new inclusive interim administration led by Rosa Otunbayev will hold democratic elections and a referendum on an amended constitution later this year. This provides a wonderful opportunity for religious liberty to be restored.

See:
Kyrgyzstan: Omurbek Tekebaev speaks about draft Constitution
Ferghana.Ru 19 April 2010

Kyrgyzstan: Another Chance at Democracy
Getting it right this time will depend on new government’s efforts to overcome legacy of previous authoritarian rulers. By Pavel Dyatlenko in Bishek
Institute for War adn Peace Reporting (IWPR) 11 April 2010

Religious liberty

Forum 18 published a report on 16 April 2010 entitled: KYRGYZSTAN: "Restore religious freedom at least to the level we had before Bakiev", by Mushfig Bayram, in which various religious organisations, civil society and human rights groups express both their hopes and anxieties about the future.

Most importantly, Kanybek Imanaliyev, Head of the Press Service of the Interim Government led by Roza Otunbaeva, told Forum 18 on 15 April: "We want to establish freedom of speech and freedom of religion. We will reform the Constitution, the laws as necessary and the Religion Law."

When Forum 18 asked if religious communities would be able to carry on their normal religious activity while the laws are being changed, Imanaliyev said that "no one can answer that question at the moment. We need to first stabilize the situation. However I do not think there will be any conflicts on religious grounds in the meantime. The people of Kyrgyzstan are tolerant to different religions and confessions."

While expressing great hopes, many human rights advocates and religious leaders are adopting a "wait and see" approach, unsure about what the new administration will be able to achieve in a short time. Furthermore, they doubt that the distinction between "traditional" and "non-traditional" faiths will be able to be addressed without controversy, as this mindset is well entrenched across the whole region.

Threats emerge

After the March 2005 "Tulip Revolution", large numbers of poor southerners answered the call of Kyrgyz nationalists to exploit the chaos and seize land in Bishkek.
See:
KYRGYZ REVOLUTION: TAKING A TURN IN AN UNPREDICTABLE DIRECTION
EURASIA INSIGHT 8 April 2005

Similarly, on 19 April 2010, a violent mob of around 1000 ethnic Kyrgyz -- all well organised outsiders -- rampaged through the village of Mayevka on the outskirts of Bishek. Five were killed as the mob burned homes and seized land belonging to ethnic Russians and Turks (Maskhetian Turks: Georgian Muslims deported by Stalin). Local Kyrgyz reportedly intervened at great risk to defend their besieged neighbours.

Eurasianet reports that as a result of the pogrom, "some non-Kyrgyz residents are now saying they want to leave the Central Asian country".

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has demanded that the new administration in Kyrgyzstan take measures to protect Russian lives and properties in Kyrgyzstan.

See:
KYRGYZSTAN: INTER-ETHNIC TENSION RATTLES BISHKEK
David Trilling, Eurasinet, 20 April 2010

Kyrgyz Interim Leaders Try To Impose Order After Unrest
RFE/RL 20 April 2010

Kremlin Defends Russians Caught in ‘Infectious’ Kyrgyz Violence
Business Week, 20 April 2010

And of course in the midst of all this, Islamic forces will doubtless be viewing Kyrgyzstan's present vulnerability as their great opportunity. The March 2005 "Tulip Revolution" inspired Uzbekistan's Islamists to attempt a "people's revolution" of their own in Andijan in the Ferghana Valley in May 2005.
See:
Uzbekistan: a new wave of serious persecution may be just beginning
By Elizabeth Kendal, 22 march 2007
World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty Commission (WEA RLC)

There is considerable anxiety that Uzbek Islamists will again be closely watching events in Kyrgyzstan, taking notes on how they might engineer regime change to their advantage in Uzbekistan.

Most Kyrgyz citizens want to see their country emerge as a free and democratic state. However, with so many forces working against this outcome, Kyrgyzstan will need plenty of international support.