Thirty-one years after the Soviet Union sent its troops to Afghanistan on the invitation of the then Afghan government, Russia, the successor of the USSR, has declined a troop request from another Central Asian state. Perhaps Russia does not want to bog down in the internal conflict of a country, which is now reaping the fruits of a US-backed ‘Tulip Revolution’ that had brought one of the most corrupt families to power in Kyrgyzstan in 2005.
Since last week, Kyrgyzstan has been in the grip of yet another wave of violence. This time, the political turmoil has taken an ugly turn and ethnic communities, which have been living side by side, are now attacking each other. Hundreds of people have been killed and thousands are wounded. Houses, buildings and markets are burnt. Angry mobs are on the rampage in the small towns of Osh and Jalalabad in south Kyrgyzstan.
The administration of the interim president, Roza Otunbaeva, is paralysed by the gravity of the situation. The helpless Kyrgyz government has asked for the Russian military support to quell the violence but Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has refused to send his troops.
With its tiny population of just over five million Kyrgyzstan is home to different ethnic communities among which Kyrgyz are the largest. Ethnic Kyrgyz make nearly 70 percent of the total population. Uzbeks are 15 percent and are the second largest ethnic group in Kyrgyzstan.
Uzbeks are concentrated in the country’s south near the border of Uzbekistan. Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan are not from Uzbekistan, they are citizens of Kyrgyzstan. In the towns of Osh and Jalalabad Uzbeks own grocery stores, cafes, food markets and numerous small businesses. As compared to Kyrgyz, Uzbeks are financially better off in some parts of south Kyrgyzstan. Uzbeks’ apparent prosperity seems to be the immediate cause of violence in Osh and Jalalabad. However, the trouble is also linked to the un-ceremonial removal of the former president Kurmanbek Bakiev.
Kyrgyzstan is a clan-based semi-nomadic society where rivalries among clans of the north and clans from the south are common. In 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed and Kyrgyzstan became independent, a prominent figure from the north, Askar Akaev, became the president of the new country. He had links with Russians since the times of the Soviet Union. President Akaev faced opposition from southern clans.
Kurmanbek Bakiev, from south Kyrgyzstan, launched a campaign targeting the alleged corruption of President Akaev and the influence of Akaev’s wife Maryam in the government. Soon Bakiev got support from influential people as well as the United States.
The US had an interest in Kyrgyzstan because it had acquired the Manas airfield facility to support its occupation of Afghanistan. In fact, one reason of Kyrgyzstan’s worldwide fame due to the US military facility, the transit centre at the Manas airfield, near the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek. The Manas base is the lifeline for the occupying NATO and US troops in Afghanistan. The airbase is used to move troops in and out of Afghanistan. Last year, in just one month, 50,000 US and NATO troops heading to and from Afghanistan transited through the Manas airbase. The base is also used for supplies of equipment and food to Afghanistan.
The US airbase in Manas is a source of significant income for Kyrgyzstan government and more than 500 Kyrgyzstani citizens work at the base. However, the same military facility is a cause of trouble as well. Opened in December 2001, just before the US invasion of Afghanistan, the base is home to US and French squadron of refuelling tankers. The base supports refuelling missions for thousands of fighter aircraft over Afghanistan.
Last year, the US was forced to increase the rent for Manas airbase after President Kurmanbek Bakiev, during his visit to Moscow, announced that his country would close the base. Manas is crucial for the Americans, and Russians know this. During his visit to Russia in February 2009, President Bakiev was offered a loan of two billion dollars plus a significant amount of aid. Russia thought it had persuaded Bakiyev to shut the US military base, but he changed his mind after Washington agreed to pay more. Americans increased the rent to USD60 million and another USD90 million in aid to the Kyrgyz government.
The presence of around 2,000 US and NATO troops is also a cause of resentment among the local population. When news reports accusing US soldiers of raping Kyrgyzstani women emerged the public demanded the closure of the Manas base. The sentiments were same when a drunk US marine killed a local resident.
Kyrgyzstan shares its borders with Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China’s resource-rich but troubled western province of Xingjiang. Three major world powers China, Russia and the United States have stakes in Kyrgyzstan. Also the US wanted Kyrgyzstan to act as NATO partner. Russia saw the US moves as a threat to its interests in the region.
Following the US invasion of Afghanistan, bordering Kyrgyzstan became important for the United States, and a friendly government in Bishkek was desirable. In Kurmanbek Bakiev the US found an ally who could protect the US interests and could withstand Russian and Chinese pressure. The Kyrgyz opposition was led by Bakiev, and with the US sponsorship, the opposition staged the ‘Tulip Revolution’ in 2005.
The ‘Tulip Revolution’ was a copy of the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine. The so-called colour revolutions were aimed at bringing ‘democracy’ and pro-US regimes in the former Soviet republics. The US and the mainstream Western media and academia celebrated the success of the so-called colour revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. It was deemed as a victory for Western brand of democracy.
However, over the years Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan both paid heavy prices for the colour revolutions. Five years after the Orange Revolution, the Ukrainian society was divided and polarised. The Orange Revolution had brought to power a pro-American president Viktor Yushchenko. His policies left the country in a mess. Economic mismanagement, corruption, high unemployment were some of the gifts of the Orange Revolution. Consequently, the Ukrainian people voted out the pro-American politicians in 2010 elections and elected Viktor Yanukovych as the new prime minister. Yanukovych is close to Russia.
In Kyrgyzstan, President Kurmanbek Bakiev was crowned amidst optimism and hope that was orchestrated by the architects of the Tulip Revolution. He, however, disappointed the public. Under his rule, the country was run as a private company. President’s son Maksim Bakiev was accused of grabbing government assets and running and managing all major businesses in the country. The president’s brother Janysh Bakiev, too, was accused of the same activities.
Ordinary people suffered because of the Tulip Revolution. Poverty and unemployment increased to the highest levels and so was corruption. The public lost faith in the state and in the state institutions. Consequently, in April 2010, the public came to the streets against President Bakiev’s government. He had to flee the country after bloody clashes between the people and the security forces left hundreds dead.
Kyrgyzstan is bleeding and other Central Asian states are watching with horror. How could it happen to Central Asian people who lived together in peace and harmony for 70 years in the Soviet Union?
Shiraz Paracha is an international journalist and analyst. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org