Kyrgyzstan: When patience runs out
Kyrgyzstan: When patience runs out
Opportunities and Challenges Await Kyrgyzstan’s Incoming President
Opportunities and Challenges Await Kyrgyzstan’s Incoming President
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 3 minutes

Kyrgyzstan: When patience runs out

For years the Kyrgyz people seem to have had an infinite tolerance for pain. During the harshest winter in years they froze uncomplainingly, despite rumors that the ruling family was selling electricity to its neighbors. Elections were rigged, but people simply joked that they did not have to vote: “The state handles that for me.”

The outside intervention that many hoped for — big brothers in either Moscow or Washington who would sweep in and restore justice — never materialized. The Kremlin congratulated President Kurmanbek Bakiyev on his fraudulent elections, the Americans seemed only interested in the Manas air base. And the country’s small, marginalized opposition could at best mobilize a few hundred people for a demonstration.

Everybody, including the United States, whose base here is a major way station for troops and supplies going in and out of Afghanistan, saw no reason to believe this would change.

Yet in one day last week the regime was swept away. The speed of the collapse has sparked talk of a foreign hand, with Russia as the favored culprit, but the explanation may be much simpler. Ordinary people carried out this rebellion (it was not a revolution; neither was the 2005 coup d’état): The opposition seemed at times to struggle in keeping up with them. President Bakiyev and his all-powerful family caused the revolt, with what a presidential staffer once described as their “pathological greed.”

The break came at the New Year, when Mr. Bakiyev finally exceeded the Kyrgyz threshold of pain. Crippling utility increases were introduced. Heating and electricity tariffs were doubled, with bigger increases promised later this year. A massive strain on the average budget, the measure was described as a free-market reform to raise funds for a desperately rickety power grid.

Few believed this, and skepticism turned to anger when a few weeks later the country’s most profitable energy provider was privatized. The new owner paid less than $3 million, although the government had valued it at $137 million in late 2008. The new owner also received a pleasant windfall from new utility prices. Many people believed the lucky person was the president’s son, Maxim Bakiyev.

People first came out onto the streets in late February, in the country’s coldest city, Naryn. Protesters moved on to Bishkek, then spread to areas of the south, the east, and back to Bishkek.

About a month into the protests the officially controlled Russian media turned on the Bakiyev regime, denouncing its nepotism and corruption. (If the Russians did anything else in the upheavals, it has not been discovered, and there was plenty of home-generated anger to keep protests going). Last week troops fired on demonstrators, but the people fought back, and the lid blew off the regime.

This has happened time and again in recent history, but we still seem surprised by it. A stable but undemocratic regime with a lavishly funded security machine suddenly crumbles when the foot soldiers decide they are not going to die in a ditch for the leader.

It happened in Saigon in 1975, when South Vietnamese special forces who were expected to fight to the end stripped off their uniforms in the street and went home; in Manila in 1986 when Ferdinand Marcos’s elite Presidential Security Command dissolved under popular pressure; in Moscow in 1991, when elite troops decided not to support a coup.

Washington gambled on the Bakiyev regime staying in power long enough to ensure the war effort in Afghanistan. This seemed plausible, but it was wrong. The Americans will now have to move fast to build relations with the small but somewhat fractious group of leaders — some long-time opposition figures, some newer recruits from the Bakiyev regime — who have largely felt ignored by the United States in recent years.

Kyrgyzstan will quickly fade from the news, but it faces a profoundly difficult future, with its decaying Soviet-era infrastructure and years of state sponsored theft.

For Washington and the West there are lessons, if anyone wants to learn them. The key one is that authoritarian regimes are not only unpalatable allies; they are unreliable ones. They block all safety valves — free elections and media, democratic discourse, opposition. Change usually comes in an explosion. Dependence on them is both miserable ethics and poor strategy.

Finally, Kyrgyzstan is not the exception in Central Asia. It is the rule. The region’s other leaders resemble Bakiyev in many respects, and some are worse. All are autocrats and most are extravagantly corrupt. (And all allow their territory to be used for the resupply of allied forces in Afghanistan).

There is no knowing when their citizens will reach their threshold of pain, but events in Bishkek show it could happen when we least expect it.

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