Democratic Change It’s Not

Kyrgyz Coup

There are basically two schools of thought when it comes to explaining what happened in Kyrgyzstan in April. Proponents of the democracy school will argue that what we witnessed was a legitimate uprising against an unjust and oppressive regime set up by President Kurmanbek Bakiyev. The other school, the realists, will explain the April events as a coup against the government organized by a power-hungry opposition supported and financed from the outside.

I was in Kyrgyzstan a few weeks ago, and there met with the new interim leader, Roza Otunbayeva. Nothing I saw convinced me that we have witnessed a democratic change. This was a coup by those who saw an opportunity to oust a weakened president and take upon themselves the role of interim leaders.

Getting to the bottom of what happened in Kyrgyzstan is key if Europe and the United States wish to bring stability and tranform Kyrgyzstan and the region over the long run.

Let me first address what didn’t happen. For one, a democratic change didn’t take place. The interim government came to power on the backs of a handful of bandits and supporters with access to weapons. This is very similar to what happened in 2005 when Mr. Bakiyev came to power flanked by robber barons on horseback from the South.

We (including the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which I was advising) made the mistake in 2005 of calling the events a democratic change. They weren’t. Mr. Bakiyev made it his priority to enrich himself, his sons and his extended family, spreading the wealth along the South at the expense of the North. The result was a deeper north-south divide that finally led to the coup against him.

The events in April didn’t take place without the support of external powers, namely Russia. Since coming to power, the new interim leaders have traveled to Moscow several times; no visits have been arranged to European capitals, to the United States or to China. It is also hard to ignore the fact that the Russian presence and influence across the new Kyrgyz governing elite is omnipresent.

About 70 percent of the Kyrgyz economy rests on reselling goods from China to Kazakhstan, taking advantage of Kyrgyzstan’s status with the World Trade Organization, to which Kazakhstan doesn’t belong. This allows the Kyrgyz to import at lower tariffs than what they charge on export. This, to say the least, is not a sustainable economy.

The majority of Kyrgyz banks are in Kazakh hands, and the Kazakhs are the biggest real estate investors in Kyrgyzstan. The notion that Kyrgyzstan can define its own course, and bring about regional change is thus dangerously naïve. How will Bishkek cover the income gap if Kazakhstan keeps the border closed? Who will make up for the Chinese imports?

This is the regional reality within which Kyrgyzstan finds itself, and the country will have to continue to co-exist in this space in order to survive. So working with its neighbors — not against them — is the key priority for the new interim administration. This much was conveyed to me in my conversation with Ms. Otunbayeva.

Illusions that Kyrgyzstan can be the bastion of Central Asian democracy should be dropped. It would be great if there were a shift toward a more transparent government, with greater emphasis on democratic values. But let’s not insist on the ludicrous — the devolution of presidential powers in exchange for a stronger parliament.

Anyone who has had any dealings with the Kyrgyz Parliament should know that the system of party politics is a foreign concept. Members of Parliament are there to serve the local lords who have put them there — usually members of their families who are the chieftains back home. The primary reason to enter politics in Kyrgyzstan is still the lure of cash that comes from selling privileges backed by power. There is no sense yet of national duty or sacrifice for the common good.

Young people openly speak about the hard life in Kyrgyzstan. Revolutions have replaced economic growth. Stability has given way to full unpredictability, and opportunities for the young are scarce to nonexistent.

The priority should be on achieving stability and economic growth, a return of functional institutions and a strengthening of law and order.

Here the O.S.C.E., Europe and the United States can play a role. They need to insist on these principles, and offer support to kick-start the economy. The elections to be held in the fall are important, but whoever is elected next will probably not be much different in essence and form from the leader who was last ousted.

Illusions are dangerous because they inhibit clear strategic planning. Therefore let the facts speak. The West would do itself a favor by omitting the mistakes made in 2005.

Borut Grgic, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, is the founder and chairman of the Institute for Strategic Studies in Brussels, a nongovernmental institution focused on the EU’s foreign policy, and a Senior Advisor for the transCaspian project at the European Policy Center in Brussels. This article first appeared in the International Herald Tribune. Photo credit: AP Photo.

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