The Kyrgyz Take Their Stan
by Stephen Schwartz
THE FINAL OUTCOME OF THE Tulip Revolution--as the political upheaval in Kyrgyzstan has been dubbed--remains murky. But its historic and geopolitical significance is already clear.
After the democratic transformations of Georgia and especially Ukraine, it became obvious that the former Soviet republics of Central Asia would be the next area of ferment. When I visited Central Asia last December, the example of Ukraine was an understated but persistent topic of conversation.
Kyrgyzstan, with five million people, is the smallest and weakest of the chain of post-Communist independent states in the region. The ex-Soviet "stans" comprise Uzbekistan, largest in population; Kazakhstan, largest in area and with the highest standard of living; Turkmenistan, with the worst political regime but economic advantages thanks to its energy industry; Tajikistan, torn apart by a civil war that drew Wahhabi extremist warriors from Saudi Arabia in the 1990s, and the only one of the five with a Persian, non-Turkic, culture; and the smallest, Kyrgyzstan, several times in its history a victim of invasion by its Chinese and Mongolian neighbors.
Its high mountains, the Tien Shan or Heavenly Peaks marking the frontier with China, earned Kyrgyzstan the nickname "the Switzerland of Central Asia." Like the Helvetian republic, it has enjoyed peace over the past decade, having been spared the religious conflicts that erupted between Islamists and post-Communists in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, to say nothing of the horrors in nearby Afghanistan. Along with Uzbekistan, it established a new relationship with the United States, permitting an airbase on its territory.
But even during its years under Soviet rule, Kyrgyzstan retained a firm memory of historic, resolute defiance of Russian domination, which always made it something of a ticking time bomb. Similarly, the Georgians, rather amazingly, never forgot that their independent republic, led by Mensheviks, or moderate social democrats, had been forcibly overthrown by Bolsheviks in 1921. The Ukrainians had been dragged into the Soviet Union in 1922, and their nationalism was and remains pronounced.
For their part, the Kyrgyz recall how in 1916, after only 50 years of Slav colonization, they rebelled against conscription by the Tsarist army. Some 150,000 Kyrgyz were killed by Russian settlers and punitive troops in what amounted to a vast race riot. Thirty percent of the Kyrgyz population was dead by 1920, many of whom starved while fleeing to China.
When communism fell in 1991, the Kyrgyz, as a nation, resembled Rip Van Winkle, blinking in the bright daylight of independence after a long sleep. They had always had an anti-authoritarian streak, unlike the Uzbeks who submitted to cruel khans, and the Kazakhs who accepted an alliance with Russia, in the 18th century, as an alternative to the rapacity of Mongolian and Tibetan Buddhist raiders. Also unlike the Uzbeks, they were never formalistic or punctilious about their Islam.
Although, like nearly all the Turkic peoples, the Kyrgyz accepted the faith of Muhammad, their religion rested lightly on a considerable body of shamanistic and tribal tradition brought centuries before from Siberia. The Islamist ideological movement Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT), or the Liberation party, has infiltrated southern Kyrgyzstan, where it appeals to a significant and aggrieved Uzbek minority, but Kyrgyz Muslims are cold to such blandishments, and the threat of HuT has been grossly exaggerated by the Russian government and others.
Given their independent spirit and commitment to hard work, it is no wonder the Kyrgyz found the legacy of Soviet communism, and the failure of their government to assure entrepreneurial opportunities, unbearable. Soon after independence, their president, Askar Akayev, a scientist rather than a Communist bureaucrat, and in power since 1990, promised a transition to democracy. But Akayev, like other leaders in the region, soon forgot his reforming pledges, and thus reignited the fire of rebellion in Kyrgyz hearts.
A new phase in the history of the region began in February when Kyrgyz elections were held, but opposition and independent candidates were banned. On March 24, after a second round of voting perpetuated the restrictions on the ballot, anger overflowed. Rebels suddenly appeared and took over major cities, then seized the presidential White House. Akayev was driven out of Bishkek, the capital, and Kurmanbek Bakiyev, prime minister in 2001 and 2002, assumed power as acting chief executive. Akayev reportedly went to Russia to resume his scientific career but has delayed his official resignation.
Still, interim authorities promised to hold new elections for the presidency in June. Bakiyev is said to be the most popular opposition leader, along with Felix Kulov, who took over security duties and is outspokenly pro-American. A woman, Roza Otunbayeva, became a leading organizer of the popular uprising.
Unfortunately, Kyrgyz frustration exploded in rioting and looting, which quickly stopped when thousands of Bishkek citizens, mobilized by Kulov, assisted police in restoring order; no state of emergency was ordered in the capital. Otunbayeva alleges that partisans of the old regime mobilized criminals and thugs to upset the reform process, an old political tactic in the Russian empire.
The geographical importance of the Tulip Revolution mainly originates in the jigsaw arrangement of borders in the Fergana Valley, a rich agricultural region carved up by the Soviets between Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Fergana has an Uzbek majority and a strong orientation toward traditional Islam, and has been a magnet for Wahhabi missionaries, HuT's sectarian radicals, and recruiters for the al Qaeda-allied Islamic Movement of Turkestan (IMT), which has slid into decline since the destruction of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
But Kyrgyzstan potentially has even broader significance. There is no reason Kyrgyz people should not aspire to the same social and economic advances--a free market economy, representative and accountable institutions, free media--now emerging in Georgia and Ukraine. The Tulip Revolution may spell the beginning of a cautious but authentic transition throughout the region. For just that reason, apparently, coverage of the Kyrgyz upheaval was barred from media in neighboring Kazakhstan, with Internet access blocked along with television and radio coverage. This was surprising, since Kazakhstan, the least oppressive dictatorship in Central Asia, in fact boasts a genuinely independent media. Still, Kazakh ruler Nursultan Nazarbayev briefly threatened, if in ambiguous language, to intervene in Kyrgyzstan.
The Kyrgyz revolution may not only undermine the neighboring post-Soviet governments in Central Asia, but may also produce a kind of double-ringed encirclement. Democratization in the Muslim republics of the former Soviet Union could stir citizen activism in Russia itself, but also in the Arab core of the Muslim world.
Seeking to maintain Russian influence in Kyrgyzstan, Vladimir Putin and his leftist-fascist defenders around the world--following a pattern set in Ukraine, although applied less stridently in the Kyrgyz case--have spread conspiracy propaganda blaming all the democratic movements in the former Soviet Union on American interference. They project a vast, malign network involving, on one side, George Soros, and on the other, Freedom House, with the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute acting as auxiliary conspirators. This disinformation reminds one of the sheriffs in the American South during the 1950s and 1960s who complained about "outside agitators" stirring up trouble among their tranquil black subjects.
In reality, Kyrgyzstan may benefit from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's decision to take an active role in its affairs, despite the OSCE's less-than-brilliant record in Bosnia-Hercegovina and Kosovo. Luckily for its members and global partners, the OSCE is now headed by chairman-in-office Dimitrij Rupel, a politician from Slovenia, perhaps the most successful of all the post-Communist transition states. But the job of restoring order in the wake of a crumbling dictatorship may not be easy to finish, as the fire of freedom has a way of spreading, and the Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan movements have already stirred protests in Belarus, one of the worst-ruled states in the former Soviet area.
The end of the cycle of transformation in the former Communist world and the commencement of bourgeois democratization in the Muslim nations could possibly generate a global wave of liberation. If so, President George W. Bush will be remembered as an even greater champion of the cause of freedom than Ronald Reagan. We'll have to wait and see if a thousand tulips bloom.