Almost a month ago, Kyrgyzstan turned 20. And the whole world was not watching, contrary to a hyperbolic article in a Kyrgyz newspaper about how the Spirit of Manas broke the rope on the tarp covering his new statue as the assembled members of the new government tried to unveil it (in order to express his disapproval for them, naturally). Speeches were made, parades paraded, marchers carried giant cardboard cutouts of the various denominations of Kyrgyzstani currency down the streets.
It was quiet, and unremarkable, which is a very good sign. When some part of the world is watching, usually it’s dueling bands of protestors mobilized by one elite or another are marching up Chuy Prospect–in the latest “revolution” to be met by a hail of bullets from the White House–or that homes and businesses are burning somewhere. When the world is watching, it usually means that the ordinary people of Kyrgyzstan are once again suffering in conflicts between elite businessmen, criminals or politicians that have so often disrupted their lives in the last decade. That the 20th anniversary fell on an calm afternoon, members of the fractious government could stand together on the podium and deliver speeches about teachers and jobs and jockey for flattering photo shoots is a great accomplishment of which Kyrgyzstanis can be genuinely proud.
The road to this point has been rocky, though, and the one ahead may not be much better. With several dramatic regime changes, the most significant political events in Kyrgyzstan’s brief 20 year history are not a matter of intense debate, at least from a political science perspective. Scott Radnitz tallies them convincingly in his recent book, Weapons of the Wealthy: Predatory Regimes and Elite-Led Protests in Central Asia, in which he describes–drawing on deep political ethnographic research–the formation of the Kyrgyzstani political system that coalesced around first the Ak-Sy protests in 2002 and blossomed into a national-level mechanism with the 2005 Tulip Revolution that overthrew Askar Akaev.
This story is not one of popular revolution, or of “Kyrgyz springs,” for as much as both people who hope for Kyrgyzstan and those who gained power as a result of those political events would like them to be remembered that way. Radnitz, using solid evidence and theoretical comparison to other systems, details the way that discontented elites—after vastly profiting from the relative openness of Kyrgyzstan’s privatization process in the early 1990s—created patronistic networks that became ready-mobilizable bands of demonstrators that they could activate in order to pressure and ultimately topple the Akaev regime in the event that they were cut out of the system. Of course these self-seeking elites also formed alliances with other actors with more noble intentions—at least when they were stuck in the opposition—like human rights organizations, young idealists who wanted genuine democratic reforms, and many ordinary people who had real and genuine grievances with the Akaev regime.
But as is all to well known in hindsight, after using the system to overthrow Akaev in 2005, the Bakiev family emerged from it, turned on former allies and cut them steadily out of power. Not content only to siphon the country of resources and seize its legitimate industries, they added massive revenues from the drug trade, making Southern Kyrgyzstan a major hub in the multi-billion dollar opiate network that runs from Afghanistan/Pakistan to Russia and on to the world. Cementing a troublingly close tie between organized crime and elite politics, they welcomed known drug and organized crime barons like Bayaman Erkinbaev and Rysbek Akhmatbaev into power with them (to name only two figures who whose lives and political careers were predictably short, but who have been replaced by others who are widely believed to play no less a significant role in Kyrygyzstan’s economy and politics).
Though the period of Radnitiz’s analysis ends with the 2005 revolution, an uncomfortable truth of the current political situation in Kyrgyzstan is that the cast of characters for the 2010 “April 7 Revolution” that overthrew the Bakiev family was nearly identical to the one that brought them to power. The same aggrieved elites who pushed out Akaev mobilized their narrow system of support networks and used the system (which Radnitz aptly calls “subversive clientalism”) to capture the state, and continue to use the system to fight for power and for the ability to define the terms of governance.
I think Radnitz does an excellent job of describing this political system and highly recommend his work. The outcomes of this system have shaped so much of what Kyrgyzstanis all over the country have experienced as daily life over the past decade. With this description of the system that has defined these past 20 years as a preface, though, I want to go beyond political institutions and attempt to offer three other things that have shaped the course of the past two decades and the way the system is actually experienced in everyday life. These are less concrete and systematic, perhaps, but as I’ve listened to friends and fieldwork informants and looked on from the outside, I think these are key factors and are likely to continue to shape everyday reality until they are fundamentally changed. Many will no doubt disagree with me, especially these first two, but these are the critical things that have occurred in these first two decades of independence that will shape the country now no matter what its political order will be (and will determine the direction of this political order, no matter how successful it is in terms of democracy or stability).
“Meet the new boss… who worked for the old boss:” Musical Chairs is not a Revolutionary Game
“Revolution” is a sexy word, it gets attention, sells newspapers, and is a fantastic instrumental tool for creating popular legitimacy to a new government that overthrows a deeply unpopular regime. Western media and the Kyrgyzstani politicians who made up last year’s provisional government would very much like the world to believe that the “April 7 Revolution” finally completed the Tulip episode that, given its ultimate outcome, can only really be called a revolution ironically. The problem with this description is that musical chairs is not a revolutionary game. While the rules have at least temporarily changed with the new constitution, the people implementing them simply have not.
The strength of this point is unfortunately often lost on Western journalists and many rotating diplomats and NGO staffers whose historical understanding of Kyrgyzstani politics is only a year or two deep at most. This is no excuse in the internet age, when a brief read through the news even available in English via BBC Monitoring or Eurasianet very quickly proves that with the exception of a few who have been exiled from the system or murdered by it, Kyrgyzstani politics is a perennial battle between a few wealthy and well-connected elites who move into government or into opposition on a rotating basis. For as much as each new regime vilifies the representatives of the previous one, the “talent pool” from which each government draws is incredibly shallow, and similarly voters are perpetually asked to choose between the same few candidates for elected positions. This reality is not lost on most Kyrgyzstanis, who are deeply frustrated with their government, tired of being asked to “choose” only between the same perpetual candidates, or cut out of the system entirely when their local patron is pushed out of power, motivating them primarily to do whatever they can to get him back in.
Without reforms that meaningfully increase political competition or include new actors in government—reforms that a system full of perpetual incumbents are deeply motived to prevent—each “revolution” has an innate tendency to fold back on itself, to retreat, to preserve power for those who already have it. Thus we see today a small field of competitive presidential candidates who have mostly held on to their positions in power despite the supposedly radical changes of the past three regimes, and almost all of whom are publicly promising to scale back or entirely reverse the deeper reforms made by the new constitution. Until the Kyrgyzstani political system contains actors other than those who rose to power inside it in the 1990s or early 2000s, it’s hard to imagine really meaningful political or economic changes.
A satirical Kyrgyz website recently compared the field of presidential candidates in Kyrgyzstan to reality-TV contestants competing in a Survivor-like show. You could extend this even further and argue these perpetual politicians are more like the new class of American “reality stars,” who drift aimlessly from one program to another, forever confined to the celebrity D-list but relentlessly beamed into our homes through the television on one show after another. The sad difference is that each person has the agency to shut the TV off, and while much of the country has indeed tuned out of politics in disgust, the political system and its rotating “stars” are still running the country.
“Kyrgyzstan is Our Common Home” (?)
Askar Akaev is a much reviled political figure in Kyrgyzstan today for many good reasons. Even terrible, corrupt presidents occasionally get good advice or have a few good policies, though, and in the process of reversing (or re-apportioning) the mess of the Akaev administration an admittedly somewhat shallow slogan was thrown out with the bathwater. “Kyrgyzstan—nash obschiy dom” (which is usually translated as “Kyrgyzstan is our Common Home”) was a foundational policy of the early Akaev regime, and one that some argue he used to court ethnic minority elites in ways that were sometimes unfair to the majority Kyrgyz population of some areas (like Jalalabad in particular) and much of the time was nothing more than an empty slogan. Though a piece of boilerplate Soviet kitsch, it stood for something genuinely meaningful: a civic nationalism that declared that the new country would be “Kyrgyzstan for the Kyrgyzstanis” and not just “Kyrgyzstan for the Kyrgyz!”
Ethno-nationalism is not the same as apartheid or an ideology of racial superiority, and as Kyrgyzstan has flirted with becoming an entirely ethno-nationalist state over the past decade it has only become more like many of its neighbors, most of whom who adopted strongly ethno-nationalist policies. Kyrgyzstan has not been plagued as frequently by street gangs of skinheads or openly racist politicians like those who occupy the Russian far right (or even the Strom Thurmonds of American politics not long past). But after the tragic violence that paralyzed the south last year and has left thousands of Kyrgyzstani citizens still living in the rubble of their homes and businesses and mourning their dead family members—Kyrgyz and Uzbeks both!—it seems fair to say the time may have come to re-evaluate the course the state has taken.
Unfortunately, this is not the conclusion of many political elites or hardly any of the Kyrgyz-language media outlets. Instead, what is often trumpeted in parliament or in the media is how ungrateful these “guests in our country were” for being granted permission to live or own property in the place where they were born. In this climate, many—but by no means all—ethnic minority citizens that I met expressed that they felt increasingly cut out of a Kyrgyzstani state they felt had no room for them or interest in them as citizens, and therefore felt decreasing interest in it or loyalty to it. This is exactly the situation that the ethno-nationalists fear, and feel justifies their emphasis on guarding Kyrgyzstan as the only safe home for Kyrgyz. These minorities, after all, are “diaspora” populations from much more powerful states that happen to coincide with ethnicities they were born into. None of the people I talked to felt this way, though. Uzbeks, Russians, and Tatars born in Kyrgyzstan felt they were Kyrgyzstanis. Many had been to their “ethnic homeland” and felt no particular attachment to it, much like when an American goes to Germany or Ireland, thinks about her ancestors for a minute, shrugs, and goes home. Almost every Uzbek I ever interviewed emphasized that they were Kyrgyzstanis, and at least before last year had no desire to ever be anything else. Many spoke with pride about what their country had achieved, and felt that the place they lived now—in Kyrgyzstan, not Uzbekistan or Russia or Tatarstan—was their real home. This is a great testament to the achievements of Kyrgyzstan over the past 20 years, and a sign that the moderate middle, as usual, is the real majority no matter what the tabloids believe will sell newspapers or radical politicians think will get them votes.
Many, many Kyrgyz people that I spoke to still feel a deep sense of civic unity that joins all Kyrgyzstan’s peoples, and many spoke with pride about their neighbors and friends of all different ethnicities. But the media and political climate don’t leave much room for an abandoned policy that now smacks of Akaev-ism, of old troubles and lessons already learned. It takes courage and political risk to move against a strong, vocal minority that champions the interests of a demographic majority. The demographics aren’t quite overwhelming, however—Kyrgyzstan is, in fact, only around 70% Kyrgyz by its own national statistics. Cutting 30% of the population out of the country is a risky move, and one that doesn’t seem to make for a healthy society or economy, or invest in long-term stability. It would be encouraging to see more members of the political and media establishment willing to draw on the solid “moderate middle” of the country and more specifically advocate a return to civic national identity. As things are today, most seem to fear a strong backlash from an angry, vocal ethno-nationalist minority.
For now, the state has adopted many of the more radical efforts of the ethno-nationalists, who have bent history and even earlier versions of their own narratives so far that they are almost beyond recognition—Manas is now more than 1,000 years old, the Kyrgyz people (or sometimes Kyrgyz “statehood” which is even more apocryphal) is now 5,000 years old, and the other peoples of Central Asia are the descendants of casual bastard unions of some or other Kyrgyz chief and a slave girl or prostitute. It seems that with passing years, the more difficult things get for Kyrgyzstan or the more threatened the state feels by external forces, the older and more inflated the stories the ethno-nationalists champion become. Sadly, Manas has become, maybe more than anything else, the symbol of all of this. Even as the political class currently tries to cram the symbol into the role of uniting the whole state, ethnic Kyrgyz and non-Kyrgyz alike, it remains the currency of “activists” like those who recently draped themselves in Kyrgyz flags and burnt down billboard-size photographs of a work of art that displayed Kyrgyz symbols juxtaposed together with flags of other nations.
All this is no slight against Manas as an epic poem, or the history of the Kyrgyz—these things are great, they are admirable and should be celebrated. But they should be celebrated for what they are—they are already great, there’s no reason to that they also have to be greater than everyone else. More nationalism will hardly create jobs, prevent further conflict and division, or encourage investment, and yet it seems to often be the chosen political platform elites use to promise positive change.
A Lost Generation?
One of Kyrgyzstan’s most remarkable successes is the generation of young people who came of age in the post-independence period and took advantage of excellent opportunities for education the country was able to attract and build in these two decades. For a relatively small city, the number of major universities and technical schools in Bishkek gives it the feel almost of place like Boston, and a number of these universities produce talented graduates whose diplomas are recognized around the world. Further, their ability to compete in international exchange programs and the political support for these programs has won students from tiny Kyrgyzstan places in most of the world’s best universities.
This excellent investment has produced a generation of young Kyrgyzstanis educated at Harvard and Oxford (and Manas University or AUCA right in Bishkek) and equipped with valuable skills, a generation of young leaders more than able and willing to lead their country to a better place. As yet, though, they are still forced to take a backseat to the last Soviet generation of nomenklatura or the “robberpreneurs” (prikhvatizatori) of the 1990s, who run the country in nearly all levels of government and thus far have been more interested in pulling up their own classmates, uncles and cousins from their home villages than paving the way for the more qualified sons and daughters of others.
This situation may right itself eventually, but for now the members of the independence generation are mostly finding a much better market for their skills elsewhere. Without reforms to encourage a real professionalization of government hiring policies (an early priority of the Otunbaeva government but seems to have been largely forgotten now) economic growth, room for innovation and new enterprise, and a safe environment for both internal and foreign investment, the tremendous potential of this generation may be lost for Kyrgyzstan.
The independence generation has more than enough talent and resources to meet all the challenges listed here and more. I met many generous and talented young Kyrgyz men and women in Osh this summer who were willing to plunge into some of the country’s very worst and most difficult issues, to stand up for tortured prisoners, to patiently listen to the stories of mothers whose sons were murdered, to endure mistrust and cold glares from ethnic others and accusations of betrayal from some of their own. I met young researchers and academics who worked hard to produce good, accurate work no matter how uncomfortable or inconvenient, and so many bright young entrepreneurs who want to build a stable future for their young families and their whole community. Whatever you call 2005 or 2010, this generation is a revolution. The next 20 years for Kyrgyzstan—and perhaps even the question of whether there will be a Kyrgyzstan in another 20 years—depend on whether this generation is allowed to deal with the challenges their country faces or whether the current system continues to perpetuate itself, continually dividing the ever-shrinking spoils and the country itself into so many smaller and smaller pieces.