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Kyrgyztan: rebellion and international fallout

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Political authority remains tenuous since the 7 April ouster of Kyrgyztan’s former president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev. The former president fled to the nearby country of Kazakhstan, before recently receiving asylum in Belarus, along with some members of his family.

Bakiyev had taken power during the 2005 Tulip Revolution, then supported by popular anger against a family-run government that maintained gross inequality in the face of general poverty. This most recent rebellion follows a failure of Bakiyev to ameliorate social and economic conditions. The Bakiyev family ran the government as a clan operation, refusing to deliver on promises of fair government.

More recently, economic conditions in Kyrgyztan deteriorated, and the very many poor faced mounting costs to basic necessities. Under these circumstances, the Bakiyev government seems to have made a gross error in judgment by arresting many opposition leaders. Without a political leadership that could have acted as a constraint on people’s unrestrained actions, the situation exploded.

It seems that the initial stages of popular rebellion was decentralized, undirected by the political elite of the opposition. Madeleine Reeves covers the conditions leading and following the recent rebellion. She indicates the key role of poverty and poor governance in sparking violent unrest. Reeves writes that:

The anger that brought people to the streets was borne of inequality.  The gulf that has emerged between the small group of politically-connected “haves” in Bishkek and the masses of “have nots”, many of whom are recent arrivals to the city’s sprawling migrant districts (novostroiki) has reached colossal proportions in recent years, and it greets the urban dweller at every turn.  But it is poverty, in an absolute sense, as much as inequality that brought people out to demonstrate.  In the last few months, inflation in the cost of basic goods and services; a steep rise in the price of telecommunications, and an overnight doubling in the rate of electricity earlier this year (the latter widely rumoured as facilitating the quick-and-fast privatization of the electricity sector which followed suspiciously soon after) has pushed many families who were struggling to stay above the poverty line back down below it.  For many households the choice this winter has been a simple and stark one of cutting down on heating or cutting down on food.  At the same time, the single primary source of income for many rural and peri-urban families – the remittances sent by family members working in the Russian construction sector – has declined dramatically this year.  Many of those who travelled to Russia in search of work in 2008 or 2009 are “working on empty”.

Russia was quick to recognize the interim government of Roza Otunbayeva and various international news outlets have generally reported overall Russian support for the emerging new government. The latest news reports coming out of Russia have been more cautious, however, indicating some skepticism from Moscow.

A number of Russian news reports indicate suspicion that the Kyrgyz interim administration may have ties to drug cartels and also allege possible ties to covert US activity. The US was one of the last major countries to recognize the interim government, and was notable in its early calls for calm from both the ousted political family and the current interim government.

Kyrgyz media has covered news of sporadic mob attacks against Russian nationals and people of Turkic descent. 700,000 Russians are estimated to live in the country. Attacks have included beatings and attempts at land seizure. This event may well have contributed to Russia’s cautious attitude. There have been accusations that law enforcement has not given any protections during these assaults, however, this may well be explained by the collapse of law, with the police force essentially disintegrating.

Meanwhile, some Western news reports and think tanks claim that there was a Russian hand in the rebellion that overthrew the previous Kyrgyz government.

Poppy cultivation in Kyrgyztan has increased over the years and has begun to rival Afghanistan’s productive capacity. According to MK Bhadrakumar, some Russian and Chinese news have reported ties between the US military air base in Manas, Kyrgyztan, with drug barons. Bhadrakumar also notes that “Iranian intelligence captured the Jundallah terrorist leader, Abdulmalik Rigi, when he was traveling in a Kyrgyz aircraft en route to an alleged rendezvous in Manas.”

The capture of Rigi was a coup for Iranian intelligence. The intelligence operation that led to the capture of the Jundallah leader appears to have been a flawless multi-month operation that has weakened one of the more serious insurgency threats to Iran.

Kyrgyztan is important to the US occupation of Afghanistan since the Manas air base serves as a key supply route. The base is north east of Afghanistan and a little west of China. Russia also has a military base in Kyrgyztan. Both countries are likely using the bases to extend their influence in the region beyond tactical requirements such as NATO supplies through Manas. Such bases can, for example, be used as listening posts to electronically survey the region.

Kyrgyztan borders China’s Xinjiang province, where reside the Uighur. Uighur resistance to current Han rule is a very sensitive subject for China, which has accelerated its efforts to integrate the culturally and religiously distinct province into the nation. Xinjiang is important as a transit route to any natural gas pipelines that bring energy from central and west Asia into China, so its stability is seen as vital to Chinese energy security.

China has taken the lead in developing Pakistan’s Gwadar port city as an emerging energy hub with oil refining capacity, tanker capacity, and transit point for the recently announced Iran-Pakistan natural gas pipeline. It is expected that China seeks to take full advantage of the Gwadar facilities by establishing a network of pipelines to Xinjiang in order to reduce its dependence on the long and insecure sea route that it must currently rely upon for some 80% of its energy imports.

The interim Kyrgyz administration is itself facing at least sporadic violent resistance and is faced with the very real struggle to establish its legitimate rule. At least from outside observation, the extent of lawlessness seems unclear and the strength or tenuous hold of the interim government is uncertain. The uncertainty is echoed in a statement on Tuesday made by Russia’s president, Medvedev:

Essentially, we need to revive the state, the state does not exist at this time, it has been deposed. We are hoping that the interim administration will make all the necessary measures to achieve that, as anarchy will have a negative effect on the interests of the Kyrgyz people and also their neighbors. Legitimization of the authorities is extremely important, which means there need to be elections, not a de facto fulfillment of powers. Only in this case can [Russia’s] economic cooperation be developed.

This statement, made in Uzbekistan, presents a shared regard between Russia and Kyrgyztan’s largest Central Asian neighbour, suggesting that the interim government tread with care and not consider its hold on power as receiving unmitigated support from two of its most important regional neighbours.

The deputy chair of the interim government, Omurbek Tekebaev, has outlined three core tasks for their administration during a meeting with the special representative of the UN Secretary General. Tekebaev identifies these as “establishment of legal order and legitimacy in the territory of Kyrgyzstan, solution of socio-economic problems exacerbated as a result of the latest events, as well as legitimization of state power.”

Order, the enforcement of laws, and the legitimacy of the government are here key, since the situation remains tenuous and political power still fluid.

Part of the drive to legitimate the government has been in drafting a new constitution. The interim government has established a constitutional committee for this purpose . The Kyrgyz news outlet, 24.kg, claims to have a list of the members of this committee on its site.

Tekebaev, the deputy chair of the interim government, on 19 April, outlined the desired amendments to the constitution. The amendments focus on the nature of presidential, parliamentary, and government power.

Tekebaev claims that the new constitution will make it impossible to concentrate power into any one office, such as that of the president. The president will no longer have legal immunity. The news outlet, Ferghana.ru has the following on this:

The President will not influence the personnel policy: he will sign the decrees about the appointment of judges, government members and the leaders of state administrative bodies, but he will not be able not to sign these decrees. The candidates for the above-mentioned positions will be selected by other authorities, but not the president. “The Ministers’ Council will be formed by Jogorku Kenesh (the parliament). The judges will be elected by National Council for judicial affairs. The heads of local authorities will be elected by the local deputies’ council”, Tekebaev shared.

The president will sign the law; upon strong arguments, he may send it back to the parliament for additional expertise. “The President should not personally participate in the operational management”, Omurbek Tekebaev noted.

The draft constitution also places a limit on the power of any single political party. No party can hold more than 50 seats in the 90 seat parliament, no matter what share of the vote it may receive during elections.

The US is very concerned over the future of its air base in Manas. This base not only provides support to NATO soldiers in Afghanistan, but it is also practically and symbolically important to the US strategy to maintain and deepen its influence in the region. The outcome of Manas will have impact also on the future of NATO, as it plans yet another meeting during which the alliance is expected to review the nature of its contemporary existence. NATO has been undergoing a conceptual transformation following the end of the Cold War, and there has been a real push to expand its membership and mandate eastward, beyond Europe, and into the Asian heartland where once the Soviet Union held sway.

Ferghana.ru has recently published a document from the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, that it says is signed by John Kerry. The statement highlights the importance of Manas and confirms that the US is ready to work with the interim government:

[…]There has been a growing worry within Kyrgyzstan that the United States cares more about its security needs than those of the Kyrgyz people. We must prove this perception false, with actions rather than with rhetoric –and we have an opportunity to demonstrate our commitment under the new government.

Much of the concern stems from the drawn-out and intensely public debate surrounding our access rights at Manas. It is true that the transit center operated by the United States at Manas International Airport is critical to U.S. interests. The center provides vital logistical support to coalition forces in Afghanistan and is an important contribution by the Kyrgyz Republic to security, stability, and reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan and the region. After complaints that American payments did not adequately reflect Kyrgyz contributions, the two governments renegotiated the terms of the deal last summer. The new agreement provides a valuable source of support for the Kyrgyz economy.

At the same time, the United States increased cooperative activities with Kyrgyzstan in a number of areas. For instance, the United States increased counternarcotics and counterterrorism assistance and provided significant additional assistance to upgrade air traffic safety and other civilian facilities at Manas Airport. All of these steps contribute to Kyrgyzstan’s long-term economic development.

[…]While the transit center at Manas is important for security across the region, so are the democratic aspirations of the Kyrgyz people. We see no conflict between these priorities because both are served by a Kyrgyzstan that is prosperous and free.

[…]The new leaders of Kyrgyzstan have a responsibility and opportunity to bring stability and prosperity to their country. They will need to take concrete action to help liberalize their political and economic systems. Already, provisional government leaders have taken a bold step by restoring Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty programming, which was taken off national airwaves nearly two years ago for political reasons. We hope to see many more such steps in the coming weeks and months. And we will be there as partners along the way.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is funded by the US Congress and had a US$90.2 million budget in FY2009. It runs such outlets as Radio Azadi (Freedom) in Afghanistan.

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