A Fundamental Misunderstanding

by Joshua Foust on 6/8/2011

Jamie Kirchick thinks the Arab Spring should take lessons from Kyrgyzstan:

But in many ways, Kyrgyzstan offers a template for the revolutionary changes currently roiling the Middle East. There, an autocratic and corrupt leader, Kurmanbek Bakiev, was forced out of office by a massive street protest (which, unlike those in Tunisia and Egypt, turned violent). An interim government quickly took the former regime’s place, held a constitutional referendum three months later, and followed that with a successful parliamentary election in November 2010.

Though the country’s transition has been far from smooth (as witnessed by the deadly ethnic rioting that wracked the southern cities of Osh and Jalal-Abad in June 2010), Kyrgyzstan appears to be on its way to becoming the first parliamentary democracy in Central Asia — a region second only to the Middle East in its inhospitableness to democracy.

I have no idea what Kirchick’s basis is for calling Central Asia “second only to the Middle East” in rejecting democracy. Why not East Asia? Also, people were talking about how Kyrgyzstan “appears to be on its way to becoming the first parliamentary democracy in Central Asia” after that “autocratic and corrupt leader, Kurmanbek Bakiev,” swept into power after mass (and non-violent) protests swept his predecessor, Askar Akayev, out of power. There is no sense whatsoever that Kyrgyzstan is set to actually get it right this time.

Maybe that was the “template” Kirchick meant? That a disorganized opposition—much like what we’ve seen in Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, and elsewhere—probably won’t succeed in changing the country’s politics? He doesn’t say.

All that being said, I think Kirchick is kind of onto something in his call for ending the U.S. policy of treating the countries of Central Asia as props for other goals. He doesn’t really say what viewing “Kyrgyzstan as an end in and of itself and not merely a means toward some other policy objective” really means, though. What is that end the U.S. should view Kyrgyzstan as?

If he means there is inherent value in promoting democratic governance, then that’s great. There surely is, in some way (though promoting democratic governance can take many forms including, if you are to believe the current neo-conservative revisionism about the Iraq War, regime change and occupation). At the same time, I don’t think you can ignore the critical role “some other policy objective” plays in U.S. decision-making: if an American policymaker had to choose between losing a critical resupply base in Kyrgyzstan to better support democratic change there, or maintaining supply lines for the hundred thousand troops in Afghanistan, which do you think she would most likely choose?

Foreign policy is all about choices, and most of those choices are much harder than pundits like to make them out to be. The question of U.S. support for the governments of Kyrgyzstan is not nearly as simple as being pro-democracy and anti-autocracy: if it were, then there’d be no controversy over the U.S. supporting Bakiyev’s initial democratic fervor (which, one could argue, was diminished not because Bakiyev is himself a vicious thug, but because the system of Kyrgyz politics lends itself toward autocratic rule—but that’s another discussion).

As long as that transit base at Manas exists, it will distort U.S.-Kyrgyz relations. And as much as we tut-tut such a thing, it’s not going to change so long as the war in Afghanistan continues. Perhaps, if we really want to see Kyrgyzstan as an end in and of itself, as Kirchick advocates, we should instead end the war in Afghanistan, so that we can go back to considering that country purely on its own merits. But something tells me that isn’t something he would advocate.

Further Reading:
Mina Corp, the allegedly* corrupt contractor which supplies the Manas resupply base in Bishkek, just donated $2.5 million to American University in Central Asia.

* A hired DC representative of Mina Corp. has requested I not accuse the firm of corruption ever since the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform’s investigation last April into Mina Corp’s finances did not produce evidence of corrupt activity. However, since the US Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, Tatiana Gfoeller, indicated that a new investigation would be opened if Kyrgyz authorities indict people still under investigation. Given the continuing allegations of corruption levied against Mina Corp. by President Roza Otunbaeva, I’ve chosen to split the difference and add an “allegedly” to my charge of Mina Corp.’s behavior.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on Registan.net.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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