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    Central Asia
     Mar 24, 2005
Fergana's ghosts haunt Central Asia
By M K Bhadrakumar

At a joint press conference in Paris last Friday, after the summit meeting of Russia and its "authoritative European partners" - France, Germany and Spain - President Vladimir Putin posed a meaningful question about "color" revolutions. In the presence of French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, Putin pointedly asked, "The West actively supported President [Eduard] Shevardnadze [in Georgia] over a period of many years. Why was it necessary to topple him through revolution? And if it was necessary to topple him through revolution, then we can't help but ask [whom] the West was supporting and why."

Putin went on to add, "All these issues should be resolved on the basis of norms of law and according to the prevalent constitution, and then this question of a split in the country would not arise so seriously."

Georgia indeed is tiptoeing, almost unnoticed, back to its old Caucasian ways - authoritarianism, cronyism and corruption. The "velvet" revolution already seems a distant dream.

But Putin could as well have had Kyrgyzstan in mind. According to the latest reports, crowds have seized control of government establishments in the center of two southern Kyrgyz cities in the Fergana Valley region - Osh and Jalalabad. The crowds number in their thousands. They have been mostly brought in from outlying villages. They have raised local grievances against regional officials - grievances born out of poverty, injustice and corruption.

The government has so far responded with restraint, allowing the disturbances to run their course, even when they became violent or provocative. President Askar Akayev has been quoted as saying, "Some people do not agree with the outcome of the poll [parliamentary elections of February 27 and March 13] and use it to [pressure] the authorities. It has already led to illegal actions, mass protests and attacks on law-enforcing officials." Akayev offered to look into any specific grievances of election irregularities, but insisted that the election mandate must be respected. Tension began to mount as the demonstrators proceeded to take over local administration in Osh and Jalalabad. The agitators have installed parallel "governments". Osh and Jalalabad have been sealed off from the capital Bishkek.

What ought to have been a joyful "color" revolution signifying "people's power" is fast assuming the contours of a potentially devastating fratricidal strife. Akayev opened the first session of the new parliament in Bishkek by saying the election results were valid. He said he would neither heed the demonstrators' demands that he annul the polls and resign, nor a call by lawmakers that he announce a state of emergency.

Akaev did, though, fire the interior minister and prosecutor-general. The president's spokesman, Abdil Seghizbaev, said that Interior Minister Bakirdin Subanbekov and Prosecutor-General Myktybek Abdyldaev were "dismissed at their own request". But the spokesman added that the dismissals were linked to demonstrations in the southern part of the country and their "poor work on preventing those events".

Now several factors are coming into play - some internal and others regional and international.

First and foremost, ghosts from a controversial past that Josef Stalin had arbitrarily (and forcefully) laid to rest in the 1920s, are stirring. The north-south divide is surfacing in Kyrgyzstan. And, with that, a troubling question arises: where are the boundaries of the Kyrgyz nation?

The disturbances had been unfolding in the south with a cascading effect. Yet the northern provinces were celebrating the ancient Persian festivities of Nauroz, heralding the advent of spring. The profound mutual alienation of the two regions could not be more graphic.

This apart, the agitators in Osh and Jalalabad comprise ethnic Kyrgyz from the outlying villages, whereas ethnic Uzbeks traditionally dominate the two cities, especially the city administration. The city dwellers, as anywhere, view the intruding villagers with disdain. And in this case, the urbanized ethnic Uzbeks and the migrant, rural Kyrgyz communities also happen to be at vastly different levels of social formation.

Roughly 20% of the 6 million population in Kyrgyzstan consists of ethnic Uzbeks. Stalin could as well have left the entire Fergana Valley (originally consisting of six oblasts ) as part of Uzbekistan, but he chose to pry away Osh and Jalalabad and make them part of Kyrgyzstan - "compensating" Uzbekistan instead with the great Tajik cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. Soviet power had just recently smashed the "Basmachi" revolt in Central Asia. And Stalin was a past master on the nationality question.

On the whole, the southern region in Kyrgyzstan also harbors a sense of injustice, being economically less developed than the north and with a keen sense of deprivation over being dominated politically over the years by the northern clans ensconced in the power structure in Bishkek (formerly Frunze).

The Kyrgyz predicament is in a way like Iraq's - a cartographic expression yearning for nationhood. Akayev has been striving sincerely all through his years in power to project a composite Kyrgyz culture and personality. He dipped deep into the ancient myths of the Kyrgyz people to evolve a national identity. He glorified the ancient epic of "Manas" with deliberation as a matter of state policy. He knew the journey was long and went about it diligently. But, sadly, with the concerted US attack on his standing as a national figure in the recent period, the glue with which he was cementing the Kyrgyz divides is threatened.

What directions can the events take in the coming weeks? Two "happy" outcomes are possible. First, the disturbances may begin to spread to the north of Kyrgyzstan, especially Bishkek, in the days ahead and a "color" revolution could indeed take place in Kyrgyzstan. On the positive side, that will unify the country. Or, alternatively, the poor people venting their pent-up passions in the city centers of Osh and Jalalabad could incrementally become worn out and trudge their way back from active politics to the drudgery of their day-to-day struggle for survival.

Unfortunately, neither of these agreeable outcomes seems certain. From all indications, the northern regions of Kyrgyzstan do not have shared interests at this point with the agitators in Osh and Jalalabad. They seem to be backing Akayev. They see no reason to upset the apple cart for the sake of the handful of disgruntled politicians in the Osh and Jalalabad regions who lost out in the recent elections. By the same token, the self-seeking politicians in Osh and Jalalabad who have mobilized "people's power" cannot be in a mood to compromise, unless Akayev somehow or the other accommodates them.

But can Akayev "undo" the election results? From all accounts, he did not manipulate the election outcome. The two political parties that openly backed him - Alga Kyrgyzstan and Adilet - together secured only 24 seats in the 75-member parliament. The "opposition" parties won seven seats. The rest are mostly businessmen who contested as independents and whose freewheeling loyalties are uncertain.

Again, even if Akayev were to somehow accommodate half a dozen disgruntled local figures from Osh and Jalalabad, would that pacify the Bishkek-based high-flying leaders of the "opposition"? Unlikely, since the latter stand to gain nothing out of such a deal. Actually, at the moment, the "opposition" cannot quite agree whether to talk to Akayev, let alone what to talk about.

In any search of a negotiated settlement of the present crisis, Akayev's main problem would be that the opposition comprises personalities each of whom would have his own agenda. They are erstwhile elements of the Kyrgyz establishment with no reformist agenda as such. Vaulting political ambitions drive them.

The parallels with Georgia and Ukraine were self-evident. Somehow usurp power and then proceed swiftly to legitimize the power grab in a blaze of revolutionary idiom - the US approach to Kyrgyzstan remained substantially the same. The major difference was that unlike in Tibilisi and Kiev, the Americans could not catapult any single personality as the charioteer of the revolution.

Take the case of former foreign minister and opposition leader Roza Otunbaeva, for instance. She is the darling of the Americans. When she was foreign minister, she even kept US nationals as her "aides" - a strange practice in diplomacy by any reckoning. She is arguably in the mold of Georgia's Mikhael Saakashvili. But she is not eligible to contest the elections as per the country's electoral laws because she was domiciled abroad during the past five years. Naturally, at the present juncture, she altogether rejects any discourse with Akayev. Nothing short of Akayev's removal and a change of the country's electoral laws would suit her purpose.

In comparison, a local figure from the south, Kurmanbek Bakiev (who lost the March 13 election), would settle for a formula that could somehow facilitate his membership in parliament. Bakiev is understandably calling for "dialogue" with Akayev.

A decisive factor in the outcome of this crisis would be the attitude of outside powers. All indications are that the Central Asian leaderships are backing Akayev. They have correctly estimated the grave implications for regional stability if the US agenda of permanent revolutions were to gain traction in Central Asia. They surely realize the potency of the nationality question in Central Asia. Moreover, despite the countless intra-regional squabbles, at the end of the day, they lay primacy on stability and the bounds of the law and constitution.

China, traditionally, would remain aloof from happenings in a neighboring country, though it would watch the turn of events closely. China has high stakes in Kyrgyzstan's stability.

The million-dollar question will be the US approach. The midwife should know by now that the revolution was struggling to be born - and that it could be a stillborn baby. Would the Americans have bargained for this much to happen in Fergana in such a short time frame? One can never quite tell.

Certainly, the nationality question holds the potential to trigger a maelstrom and overthrow the established state power all over Central Asia - liberating the region in one sweep into a brave new "post-Soviet" world. Certainly, any such cataclysms or regime changes in the region will pose existential dilemmas to both the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Equally so, China's Xinjiang may become volatile. A sizable Uighur community with a track record of militancy is known to be living in Kyrgyzstan. Akayev kept it under surveillance.

It is extremely significant that the European powers have conspicuously distanced themselves from the US drive to engineer revolutions in Central Asia.

As for Russia, it has an obligation to intervene in Kyrgyzstan under the provisions of the CSTO, if push comes to a shove. But that remains a far-fetched scenario. On the other hand, Moscow has considerable all-around influence within the Kyrgyz political spectrum and, unlike in Ukraine, it took abundant precautions in Kyrgyzstan against being labeled the "antithesis" of democracy. Russia also finds itself occupying the moral high ground. The Kyrgyz developments vindicate what Putin stated in Paris last Friday about the "velvet" revolution. Thus the developing crisis in Kyrgyzstan poses for Moscow a challenge and an opportunity.

M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian career diplomat who has served in Islamabad, Kabul, Tashkent and Moscow.

(Copyright 2005 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us for information on sales, syndication and republishing.)


Kyrgyzstan on the brink (Mar 23, '05)

Central Asia sidesteps a revolution
(Mar 16, '05)

Ukraine: Oil politics and a mockery of democracy
(Jan 20, '05)

In Ukraine, a franchised revolution (Dec 2, '04)

Georgia: A small pawn in the Great Game (Jan 7, '04)

 
 

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