by Melania Parzonka
Kyrgyzstan, a small landlocked country in Central Asia, wasn’t blessed with the vast natural resources that helped its neighbours mitigate the impact of the Soviet collapse. In fact, the Kyrgyz never wanted independence from Russia in the first place, and the painful transition from communism took a heavy toll on society. Since the late 1990s, Kyrgyzstan has struggled to maintain stability. The bubbling frustration with the state’s inability to provide basic public goods has occasionally erupted, with revolutions occurring in 2005 and 2010.
On October 15, Kyrgyz president Sooronbay Jeenbekov stepped down amidst protests that broke out at the start of the month over supposedly fraudulent election results. He was replaced by Sadyr Japarov, a wealthy politician who up until recently was serving a 12 year prison sentence for allegedly organising the kidnapping of a political opponent. On 4 October as the protests were gaining steam, Japarov was freed from prison by his supporters. Following the 2005 and 2010 revolutions, it appears to be the third time in the past 20 years that the Kyrgyz have toppled their president.
On this occasion, I spoke to Dr. Alisher Khamidov, an expert on Kyrgyzstan and a Visiting Research Fellow at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. He walked me through the meaning of recent events in the broader context of Kyrgyzstan’s history. What emerged was a fascinating image of a resilient country fighting to deal with its problems.
Note: This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
MP: Kyrgyzstan is the only country in Central Asia that is considered a democracy. At the same time, the country lacks stability; there were two notable revolutions in 2005 and 2010. What is the reason behind this instability?
AK: Some observers are drawing strong parallels between the current instability and the April 2010 revolution. There are definitely some similarities but there are also substantial differences.
In 2010, the spark for mass mobilisation was simmering anger at the grassroots level—primarily in the northern regions—over increased utility rates and drastic spikes in gasoline prices. The current protests have been triggered by the government’s inability to ensure fair elections by blocking a number of wealthy and influential oppositional elites from gaining seats in parliament.
Similar to the April 2010 revolution, what we see these days is the pervasive weakness of the state security apparatus to restore order and restraint protesters. We're also seeing reports of police officers completely incapable of protecting even themselves—we have seen police officers being beaten or changing sides. We also see reports that suggest that dual-power scenarios are emerging in some parts of the country, where crowds of protesters are appointing governors and regional administrators.
A major difference between the current protests and the April 2010 events is the level of violence. The 2010 uprising was the bloodiest in Kyrgyz history. The police relied on live bullets while protesters used stones and Molotov cocktails. More than 80 people died during those events. The unrest also triggered interethnic conflicts in Osh, in the southern part of the country, in June 2010. Those conflicts claimed the lives of 400 people and led to a massive humanitarian crisis. The current protests in comparison have been relatively orderly with only one casualty, although the number of wounded is more than 500. Ethnic tensions are still palpable, but there are no signs that we might witness another major interethnic conflict.
Unlike the 2010 events, the current demonstrations are planned; they have been organised and coordinated by wealthy elites. People are listening to well-positioned leaders who can negotiate. And I think that's why things have been less violent and more orderly, because the elites can control the crowd and they can agree amongst themselves.
MP: You mentioned the ethnic clashes that followed the 2010 revolution. How did the protests trigger into interethnic violence? What are the current interethnic dynamics within the country?
AK: I think these unresolved ethnic relations are another legacy of the Soviet Union. The Soviets created the Kyrgyz state on a territory that was a mosaic of various ethnic groups. Although the Kyrgyz were given their statehood, and they have been treated as a special group, other ethnic groups also competed for influence there. In particular are the Uzbeks, who are mainly concentrated in the southern region and make up 20% of Kyrgyzstan’s population.
These unresolved ethnic questions have led to two major interethnic clashes between the Kyrgyz and the Uzbek in Osh about who was in control of the city and the country. They were really bloody and traumatic. In 2010, the state collapsed, and there was this atmosphere of chaos and anarchy across the country. In the absence of a strong state and security apparatus, all the historical animosities just bubbled up to the surface and resulted in violence.
But at the same time, there are claims that because of that violence, there's peace today, because the 2010 violence has resolved this uncertainty about who’s in control. The Kyrgyz won; they established their political, economic, and cultural elements. The minorities got the message that unless the Kyrgyz feel confident in their own dominance, other ethnic minorities will not be safe. So it’s important to allow the Kyrgyz to rule the country, while ethnic minorities are allowed some space in economy, culture, and business.
The informal settlement after the 2010 violence was that minorities will not interfere in political scrambling, and they will not demand political power for themselves. And I think the ethnic Uzbek leaders learned a powerful lesson. Unlike in the 2010 political chaos, today the Uzbek leaders are staying away. They're not interfering in the political intrigues and struggles in Bishkek.
MP: What was the reaction to the collapse of the USSR in Kyrgyzstan? What is the memory of the Soviet era there, and to what extent does its legacy inform the current situation?
AK: Independence brought a lot of unique opportunities like capitalism and consumerism. But many citizens are still relishing the memories of a predictable, secure lifestyle guaranteed under the Soviet socialist system. Some associate the current protests with the absence of a broader unifying ideology that maintains stability in the country.
What makes Kyrgyzstan unique from the other republics in the central region? Why is it that the country keeps experiencing political turbulence while its neighbours are more or less politically stable? That has to do with the number of post-Soviet legacies. Kyrgyzstan inherited a very small economy from the Soviet Union. The country has some gold mines, and it has some industries (for example, the textile industry). Apart from that, it is a mountainous land: more than 90% of its territory is mountains.
So there is a small economy, which means that the country is dependent on external aid. After the USSR collapsed, Kyrgyzstan actually turned to the West to serve as the supplier of money and investments. That course of economic liberalisation has led to a unique change in Kyrgyzstan, compared to other Central Asian republics. We have seen the emergence of wealthy people who are independent from state institutions and the ruling political establishment.
In Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, economies are much larger. They have oil, gas, they have huge industries. As a result, the political establishment managed to provide public goods, such as roads and healthcare, relying on these industries. And the ruling establishment has ensured that wealth remains part of the state. In other words, there are no independently wealthy people apart from those who are government members. So if you are wealthy in Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan, you are necessarily part of the state. You cannot be independent.
Unlike Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan has these wealthy elites who are independent from the state. And these people, whenever the political establishment challenges their economic control, they are willing to bring masses to the streets. In Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan, it’s unheard of. Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have strong police forces and large economies that can suit all these wealthy people. The wealthy people there are part of the state—in Kyrgyzstan, they’re not.
These autonomous wealthy elites, they're using their wealth to help communities. The economy is small, therefore the government is unable to provide public goods to people: good roads, healthcare, education. Because of the inability of the government to provide these public goods, wealthy people are taking over the government job, and they’re providing surrogate public goods. They’re building roads in their villages, opening schools, providing healthcare. And then when the political establishment challenges these people by banning them from entering parliament, these wealthy people are bringing those communities who are dependent on them to the streets to protect themselves.
It's a vicious circle: the poor economy leads to emergence of wealthy autonomous elites and then to instability. It's very likely that unless the government manages to provide public goods and improve the economic situation, this link between the wealthy opportunistic elite and poor disenchanted communities will continue.
MP: Is the government unable to improve the delivery of public goods because the economy is too weak to provide a social welfare system to address the problems?
AK: That's exactly the case. Kyrgyzstan is a heavily subsidised country. It was subsidised under the Soviets. In fact, it wasn't supposed to be a state, it was just carved out from Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, here and there. Now, with the absence of the Soviet power, Kyrgyzstan is relying on the World Bank, IMF, and EU funds to maintain a kind of statehood and delivery of public goods. But these are very limited funds. Therefore, any ruling establishment will have an uphill struggle to provide public goods. That's why Kyrgyzstan is continuously unstable.
One solution is to actually remove this link between wealthy people and communities who are willing to come to their protection when their interests are threatened. Previous presidents tried to ensure that these elites are either in prison or become part of the state so that they don't challenge the political establishment. Those efforts failed because, again, the small public goods are being delivered by these wealthy people.
MP: What's the contemporary relationship between Russia and Kyrgyzstan, and how is Kyrgyzstan influenced by its geographic location between China and Russia?
AK: Russia is concerned. Currently, Kyrgyzstan is Russia’s reliant junior partner in the Central Asia region. It's a historical consequence; Kyrgyzstan, as a small country, has always relied on Moscow to fend off more powerful neighbours such as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and also China. It also has a sizable Russian speaking population. So Russia is really concerned about political stability in Kyrgyzstan because it risks losing a reliable partner.
Most Kyrgyz leaders, including opposition figures, have a loyal and cordial attitude toward Russia. Nobody is against Russia. This gives Russia a strong hand. But at the same time, Russia is unwilling to put its security forces at risk by intervening militarily or sending troops. Russia maintains an airbase in the town of Kant, located approximately 30 kilometres to the east of Bishkek. Russia has reinforced the protection of this airbase, but it's unwilling to send additional troops.
MP: Up until 2014, there was also a US military base in Kyrgyzstan due to its strategic location regarding the ongoing war in Afghanistan. What's the relationship between Kyrgyzstan and the US?
AK: Well, the United States is trying to use Kyrgyzstan as a model for democracy in the Central Asia region—a poster child. But then, the instability is tainting the reputation. So the United States is very much in a quandary as well.
Kyrgyzstan has been willing to support the US government's War on Terror and provided a military airport to the Americans for about 13 years. Russia was very much against this, so Kyrgyzstan found itself at the centre of the geopolitical rivalry. The Kyrgyz leaders realised that their sovereignty was at risk because Russia threatened to undermine political order in Kyrgyzstan if they did not halt their military cooperation with the US.
Russia and America are still competing for influence over Kyrgyzstan. The country realises that this competition has some positive benefits, for example, economic investment. Currently, the Kyrgyz have been trying to pursue this cautious policy of so called multilateral foreign diplomacy, trying to please all these geopolitical powers, including China. So this is a very precarious game—the rivalry can get out of control.