The latest in our series on under-reported conflicts around the world looks at how mass protests at increasingly authoritarian rule could escalate dangerously in a country until recently seen as an oasis of regional calm.
Worldview: Unseen Wars series
Sunday September 1, 2002
When the US set up a major airbase near Kyrgyzstan's capital Bishkek last December, one of the major attractions was the apparent stability of this remote mountainous republic. Kyrgyzstan seemed like an oasis of calm in the troubled Central Asian region. The pro-western leadership of President Askar Akaev had made him a favoured regional partner throughout the 1990s. The relatively liberal political environment helped to attract nearly two billion dollars in foreign loans to prop up a struggling economy.
But since early this year, the country has been rocked by mass popular protests and clashes with the police. Confrontation between opposition and government has deepened with every month. Gloomier observers suggest that the crisis might decline into civil war.
But Akaev's rhetoric on democracy and human rights masked a growing authoritarianism that suppressed opponents and gathered power around the president and his family. His son-in-law became a major local businessman, pushing out commercial rivals, and his wife gathered a reputation for her interference in government appointments.
In January 2002 the authorities arrested Azimbek Beknazarov, a parliamentary deputy who had become outspoken in his criticism of Akaev. He was imprisoned on seven-year old charges related to a former post in the prosecutor's office. But few people doubted that it was his political views that had provoked his arrest.
Beknazarov represented the remote constituency of Aksy district, a poor region in the south of the country. After his arrest, friends and relatives started mounting small demonstrations and hunger-strikes. Few people paid much attention: such protests had flared up in Kyrgyzstan in the past, and had always been easily suppressed. But in March, when his trial began, protests suddenly escalated, with hundreds of people descending on the small local town of Kerben to mount a demonstration. The police opened fire on the protestors, leaving five people dead.
Th e killings shocked the country, and protests grew into the thousands. In June, demonstrators marched hundreds of miles through the south of the country, demanding punishment of those involved in the shootings and the release of Beknazarov. Eventually, as the crisis threatened to spiral out of control, the authorities released Beknazarov, ending the demonstrations, at least temporarily.
But now the protestors say they will not be satisfied until Akaev himself resigns. Some have discussed taking up arms against the government, others suggested secession from the rest of Kyrgyzstan. They plan to mount a march on Bishkek in September, with the aim of ousting the present regime. Any further demonstrations are likely to lead to more violence, but the government seems paralysed, unsure of how to deal with this popular protest.
Part of the problem is that most of the elite found it difficult to believe that ordinary people would go out on the streets and demand their political rights. Government ministers invented all manner of conspiracy theories to explain away the demonstrations - the protestors were being paid, for example, or they were fuelled with drink. In fact, the protestors were poor people, with very little outside support, and they maintained exemplary discipline throughout their protests.
Although the mass protests were sparked by a political decision - the arrest of their deputy, Beknazarov - they came against a background of severe economic decline. Despite all the foreign aid, Kyrgyzstan's living standards have been in freefall since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Many people in Aksy district have not worked since collective farms collapsed in 1991. A typical family gets by somehow on government welfare of $15 or so a month, but patience with the government's grand promises of future economic prosperity has worn thin.
The south of the country has borne the brunt of the economic collapse. Incomes are much lower than in the capital, and international funding tends to stay in Bishkek, feeding a f ew well-heeled government officials, and an array of international NGO workers. Elites from the south have little role in national government, and are increasingly frustrated by the domination of business and politics by a few families from the north.
Not surprisingly, southern elites have seized on the protests to present their own demands for greater representation. The Uzbek minority - about 20% of the total population of 5 million - have also raised their own political agenda, provoking fears of possible inter-ethnic clashes. Even the police have joined in. Underpaid and fed up with being used as the political weapon of the authorities, they staged a strike in June to try and attract government attention to their plight.
These disparate demands have the potential to provoke wider instability. As popular protests grow, they will be reflected in an intense political struggle among the elite. Akaev has announced that he will not contest elections in 2005 and the struggle for the succession has already begun. It is in everybody's interests to start a process of constitutional reform that would limit the powers of the presidency, distribute authority to the government and parliament, and give ordinary people better representation in the system. But that involves the present elite giving up some of their power, an idea that they do not welcome.
Kyrgyzstan's turmoil also makes its neighbours nervous. With China to the east, and Uzbekistan to the west, Kyrgyzstan is under constant pressure to clamp down on popular protest. Uzbekistan, in particular, is concerned that the Aksy protests might serve as an unwelcome example to its own oppressed rural poor. Russia is using the situation to try and regain some of its lost influence in Central Asia, while the US is staying nervously quiet in public, hoping that stability will be restored without further involvement.
The collapse of stability in Kyrgyzstan would be critical for the whole Central Asian region. It could provide a new base for radical Islamist g roups; it would certainly provoke new geopolitical competition in the region, with Uzbekistan, Russia or China all possible contenders for intervention. And it might even provoke the destabilisation of other weak states: Tajikistan to the south, for example, which is still recovering from its own civil war. The growing instability will certainly strengthen the hand of hardliners in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, who maintain that democracy equals anarchy and that only authoritarian rule can guarantee stability in the region.
Kyrgyzstan is a case where early pressure by the international community could bring positive results. Akaev plans to visit Washington later this month as a thank you present for his willingness to host coalition forces at the Bishkek airbase. The US needs to make clear that further support depends on serious political change, that would not only lay the basis for future stability, but might just protect the future of Akaev and his family too.
· Dr David Lewis is is Director of the Central Asia Project, International Crisis Group. Unseen Wars is a regular Observer Worldview series in association with the International Crisis Group, which, each month, explains and examines under-reported conflicts around the world.
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