Thursday, March 24, 2005

Thoughts on the Kyrgyz Revolution

First, there was the Rose revolution. Then there was the Orange revolution. Now, Kyrgyzstan seems to be the latest among the former Soviet republics to adopt democracy through a bloodless revolution. Except that in this case, the outcome is less clear.

Many in America will misguidedly look to Kyrgyzstan as the latest example of Bush's foreign policy success. Bush brought democracy to Iraq - and it's spreading throughout the region. But this is simply not true. Kyrgyzstan is not part of the Middle East. It is part of Russia's Near Abroad, and as such, is emulating not Lebanon, but Ukraine and Georgia. Bush's foreign policy in Central Asia is more likely to entrench the existing governments than to encourage new ones, and most likely to have little or no effect on the region. Central Asia is more firmly under Russia's influence than under U.S. influence.

Whatever the reasons behind the uprising, the outlook for Kyrgyzstan is not immediately optimistic. A broad comparison to Georgia and Ukraine is an oversimplification of the political issues at stake. Let me enumerate a few caveats to curb the unbridled enthusiasm of some:

1) Whereas Georgia and Ukraine were of interest to the West, Kyrgystan isn't. The case of Ukraine is obvious - it borders 3 EU member states - Slovakia, Hungary and Poland. The EU has a strong interest in its democratic welfare, and Ukraine has an interest in becoming part of the EU. Additionally, the process of moving to a new government occurred democratically, based on formal election challenges, peaceful protests, and a strong media campaign.

Georgia is less straightforward. It has no reasonable likelihood of becoming part of the EU. Neither the EU nor the U.S. have any significant interests in Georgia, since other than being a point of transit for pipelines, Georgia does not have vast resources. However, President Saakashvili is deeply connected to the U.S. Besides having a law degree from Columbia and an SJD from George Washington University, Saakashvili worked for a law firm in New York. He has American connections - and knows how to keep the West interested. Additionally, Shevardnadze, who Saakashvili replaced in the now-famous bloodless coup, was the former foreign minister of the Soviet Union and a strong ally of Gorbachev and of westernization. He was our ally, and his corruption as president of Georgia hurt and upset the U.S. He was also high-profile enough to allow Western eyes to occasionally glance at Georgia. Finally, Saakashvili developed a strong political base in Georgia before taking office, and the opposition was consistently well organized.

Kyrgyzstan is relatively insignificant. To the extent that the West cares about what is going on there, it is merely a reflection of Middle East issues. Consistently, the Terry Schiavo case has preempted the Kyrgyz uprising in American media. In the long run, they don't have what it takes to draw consistent western attention.

2) Kyrgyzstan's opposition leader, Bakiyev, is a former prime minister who took a hardline stance against demonstrations (see this article). Ukraine and Georgia have much more charismatic, politically untainted leaders.

3) Kyrgyz opposition is disorganized. Georgia and the Ukraine both went through a relatively lengthy process before toppling their governments. In Kyrgyzstan, it happened fairly quickly, without a chance for international organizations to thoroughly investigate the election fraud. Granted, point 1 implies that international organizations never would have cared about the election fraud in the first place, or at least not sufficiently to act on it.

4) Kyrgyzstan won't have the follow-through the other two former Soviet republics had, due to their insignificance. As Bakiyev attempts to deal with restructuring the country (should he manage to remain in office), he will face increasing economic woes that could lead him to turn more dictatorial. Just like most of the others.

5) The Kyrgyz president, Akayev, hasn't resigned yet. This is a slight problem. The opposition needs legitimacy if it is to succeed in governing the country in a more democratic fashion. The international community needs to recognize it, and the Russians will NOT be happy with this third attempt in two years to break away from its sphere of influence. The last two were successful - and Russia couldn't do much but stand by and wait.

In short, there is room for optimism, but it is important to be cautious. Kyrgyzstan could become the next colorful revolution, in the vein of Ukraine and Georgia, or it could become another failed state. The outcome is yet to be determined, but if there is one occasion where western commentary and media hype could benefit a country, this is it.

Let's put aside our Schiavos and activist judges, our Michael Jacksons and our Robert Blakes, and put our money where our mouth is - let's help bring democracy to a country that sorely needs it and clearly wants it. Let's make sure Russia can't put its finger in the pie and ruin what could be a very good thing for Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia, and the Near Abroad as a whole. Let's speak up for democracy - the real kind - from the people, to the people. Let's keep this issue from fading from our news until a real election is held and true democracy is brought to Kyrgyzstan.

Kyrgyzstan doesn't need our troops, or even our charity. What it needs is our constant verbal support, our loans, and our commitment to its development. Is this too much to ask?


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