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.