The Economist’s Kyrgyz Condescension

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by Joshua Foust on 9/5/2012 · 4 comments

Mocking the Economist’s awful coverage of Central Asia is something of a tradition here at Registan: see here, here, here, here, here, and here for examples. We’ve mocked it over the years for the same reason many others have: their smarmy coverage suggests a cleverness that familiarity with the facts simply won’t support.

This week, they cover Kyrgyzstan’s politics, and it’s exactly what you’d expect:

BEFORE Kyrgyzstan’s government collapsed on August 22nd, there was the horse-trading. And before the horse-trading, there was the horse.

Ugh, yes, my anonymous author, they do indeed like horses there. Please do pad the rest of your piece with horse-references to politics (he — I am assuming it is a he — does). What is the actual story, though?

The creature reared its head on August 13th, when an MP, Omurbek Tekebayev, whose party formed part of the fragile ruling coalition, began his attack on the prime minister, Omurbek Babanov. He alleged that Mr Babanov (pictured above) had accepted a $1m-plus bribe in the shape of an English thoroughbred. The prime minister, a Russian-educated businessman, denied the charge, saying he had bought the stallion for $20,000; he would, he added, sell it to Mr Tekebayev at cost if his accuser thought he could sell it at a profit. (One condition: Kyrgyzstani tradition notwithstanding, Mr Tekebayev was not to eat the animal.) The subsequent defection of Mr Tekebayev’s party and one other felled the eight-month-old government. The defectors cited the stink of corruption and a failure to turn around the dismal economy…

The next government, whenever it is formed, will be the fourth since Mr Bakiyev’s overthrow. Analysts believe the current president, Almazbek Atambayev, has worked behind the scenes to bring down the government, in hopes of getting a more servile prime minister. Nobody was surprised when he asked his own Social Democratic Party to lead negotiations to form a new government. It has 15 days. If three attempts to form a government fail, the president must call early elections.

I’m skipping the requisite language about ethnic violence and constant crises which, like the constant references to horses, is beyond clichéd while also being misleading and not a tiny bit insulting. The meat of the Economist’s argument is lacking, as well, as if the collapse of a Parliamentary government says anything about the political health of the country (one could ask what today’s scandal around David Laws says about the health of British politics).

Put gently, a parliamentary democracy will shift leadership as coalitions form and collapse. That’s normal politics. Describing Kyrgyzstan as in crisis just because a coalition fell apart in the wake of a scandal is overstating things just a bit. The President, Almazbek Atambaev, stayed in power. The ministries and cabinet continued to function until a new government was formed. This was politics, not crisis.

Indeed, no sooner had the Economist gone to print than Kyrgyzstan’s parliament formed a new ruling coalition — made up of the Social Democrats, Ar-Namys (Dignity), and Ata-Meken (Fatherland) parties.

Making things interesting is the nomination of Zhantoro Satybaldiyev, an aide to President Atambaev. As Business News Europe reports, this newest coalition took just 10 days to form, as compared to the months it took to form a ruling coalition under Roza Otunbayeva and last year with Atambaev. The Premier-elect’s close ties with Atambaev might even allow for Parliament to work more smoothly with the White House to tackle some pressing economic concerns.

Kyrgyzstan is the one country in Central Asia with lively, occasionally unpredictable politics. And this is a good thing! More than any other country in the region Kyrgyz have the closest semblance to real political choice when they vote — something fought for and won at bitter cost in the previous decades’ two revolutions. Thus, even scandals like the Zhanybek Bakiyev photo incident in Belarus result in firing officials, not protectionism and the downfall of the government.

Kyrgyzstan is far from perfect and they have a lot of problems, including creeping challenges to free speech and assembly. But conversely, Kyrgyzstan also has the most promise as a politically open society.

The Economist doesn’t grant Kyrgyzstan any agency in its politics. To them, third worlders getting rid of a corrupt official and putting in place a new ruling coalition — something that happens in the UK — is written off as yet another Central Asia crisis, more silly foreigners being incapable of self-governance (and don’t forget the horses).

This doesn’t have to be. It is the Western elite refusal to come to grips with Central Asia on its own terms that lead to governments making bad policy and missing choices they have available to them. Alas, understanding isn’t very high on anyone’s priorities these days. Which is how we wind up with bizarre stores like this week in the Economist.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1849 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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{ 4 comments }

Bishkeker September 5, 2012 at 10:39 pm

With respect this reads like uninformed polemic.

The current turnover of the governing elite inside the Kyrgyz parliament is driven by the elite itself, not the popular will. Moreover, Kyrgyzstan can ill-afford for it to happen on such a regular basis given that processes which began under Babanov’s government, such as downsizing the state etc, will require a degree of consistency in terms of what you refer to as ‘agency’ in order to succeed.

Many Kyrgyzstanis regard the processes that you accept as mere “politics” with horror, and further confirmation that their rulers are incapable of working together in any feasible combination. Evidence of this can be seen in Twitter discussions and in the media. A degree of certainty and stability is likely to be the only thing that can increase faith in poltical institutions – essential for democracy to work.

What is most worrying is that the vain Babanov was not brought down just because he was corrupt (which he very possibly is), but because he was the head of government, and thus a dartboard for other politicians who envied his preeminence (Tekebayev,Tashiyev). If Saptybaldiev becomes PM (and possibly a corrupt one) he may face similar challenges immediately. A new coalition every six months is not good by the standards of any country – least of all one without an effective civil service – because time and planning get lost in shuffles.

Regarding your comment:

“I’m skipping the requisite language about ethnic violence and constant crises which, like the constant references to horses, is beyond clichéd while also being misleading and not a tiny bit insulting.”

Yes, mentioning ethnic violence is requisite, because more than 400 people died in it and it continues to provide the backdrop for current political developments, putting your slightly facetious comparisons with the UK into perspective. Also, while horses were not the main reason for Babanov’s fall, it was the last scandal before the coalition’s collapse. The article reports the dynamics of that scandal – including Babanov’s request that Tekebayev didn’t eat the horse – accurately as far as I am aware.

The Registan website prides itself in spending a lot of time picking apart articles which it views as deriding or stereotyping of ‘Central Asian agency’, which is fine. But in this case you appear to lack any notion about the composition of that agency. Yes, there are people in the Kyrgyz parliament, young technocratic sorts like Dastan Bekeshev, who are ambitious to form policy and build a functioning bureaucracy, but they are a minority. Too many MPs are motivated purely by personal gain or a passion for the sort of intrigues described in the economist’s article. Under such conditions, frequent turnover in the government leads to paralysis, not progress.

Ultimately, I agree with the fact that the international press are fond of mocking Kyrgyzstan, which is cruel, and on occasion, inappropriate. But what has Kyrgyzstan’s elite given them to work with? Should all journalists provide a ‘requisite’ sentence praising political pluralism in every article to accompany the one about ethnic violence? What has that pluralism given them to applaud, other than an ineffective, outspoken, meddling President elected in a vote that was deemed almost free and fair?

Squabbles and horse-trading are the stuff of politics, yes. But in Kyrgyzstan they appear to be the end as well as the means. That’s nothing to celebrate.

Joshua Foust September 6, 2012 at 4:21 am

I can appreciate what you’re saying, but again you’re describing normal politics. The national conventions going on the last two weeks in the U.S. have been driven primarily by elite sentiment and not by popular will — that’s why political participation in America is so low. It’s not really unusual for national politics to be driven by elite concerns… in fact that’s how most politics operate everywhere.

I know many Kyrgyzstanis view this with horror. Again, so draw the analogy, so do many Americans view their politics with horror. That’s why Congress has such abysmally low approval ratings among Americans… but that is just normal politics. It’s not all that unusual.

That’s why I find data like IRI’s polling about government so fascinating: along with the expected result that people are concerned with unemployment, the economy, and corruption, it shows that most Kyrgyz have, at best, a mild interest in politics and that a plurality think their country is actually doing okay (but just okay). Moreover, most Kyrgyz, at least according to polling, think an active opposition is healthy for the government.

So while I agree that turnovers like this corruption scandal are disruptive, I do not agree that this disruption is evidence that the politics there are broken and unresponsive. I’d argue the opposite — that politics are in fact responding (or more precisely: in alignment with) popular sentiment about the government… at least according to the data.

Unfortunately it is the nature of most representative governments to become intrigued by intrigue rather than progress. Parties usually must fight against this to avoid being thrown out of office, and that is how a mature politics develops.

The problem with ascribing Babanov’s downfall just to jealousy of his power is that, by most accounts of him, he really was that corrupt. And the other parties were, in fact, right to pull him out of power. If Saptybaldiev turns out to be corrupt as well… then he, too, should be dragged down by the constitutional process that governs the Kyrgyz parliament — which is what happened here. That isn’t crisis, it is politics reacting in a normal and healthy way to corrupt people. I hope it happens to a lot more corrupt government officials, in fact: they deserve to be thrown out of power if they’re corrupt jerks.

Last bit about the June Events. Those don’t define national politics so much as the broader North-South divide. Governance NGOs in Bishkek complain bitterly that they can’t get any traction on resolving the still-simmering issues in Osh and Jalal-Abad because no one in Bishkek cares about it very much, and Atambaev doesn’t feel he has the political capital to address it. They’re pretty open with their frustration over this, too — some people really do care about Osh, but the majority of Kyrgyz do not. They’re glad the region is “more” Kyrgyz now (an attitude which will probably lead to more violence in the future, but that’s a separate discussion).

Which brings me back to this Economist article. I don’t know who wrote it so I won’t speculate on his intentions or methods. But it presented a really condescending view of Kyrgyz politics dipped in a lot of loaded language about regional stereotypes. I think one can quibble with whether the broad description of the country as constantly in crisis is fair or not (you presented a reasonable and supportable response to what I wrote, for example), but this article did not treat its subject with respect or fairness. Hence, this post.

Adreshev September 6, 2012 at 12:37 pm

Totally agree with what Bishkeker had to say, there is nothing to celebrate. As for the article in the Economist, it’s written in a usual “Economist” style, fully informed and funny.

Bakhrom September 8, 2012 at 12:16 am

The post is good, it was interesting to read the commentary and discussions of Bishkeker and Joshua, I wonder how long people, ordinary citizen will be politically active, as it was mentioned by 1st commentary, population of the country perceived the event with horror, maybe it was perceived the event in this way because of first time experience or maybe because of being tired of events related with changes in power…in any case, frequent changes in high state offices and Jogorku Kenesh may turn people into skeptical spectators…who knows, time will tell

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