My friend, colleague, and sometimes traveling companion James Kirchick—Writer-at-Large with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty—has just returned from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, where he witnessed the tail end of a lightning fast revolution that toppled a tyrant from power.
Former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, an unpleasant fellow according to just about every account, has taken refuge in Belarus, the last former Soviet state in Europe still ruled by one man. France is a nice place for ousted despots to retire if they can get in, but not even Moscow is too fond of Bakiyev these days, so he’ll have to suffer in Minsk.
Perhaps the most striking thing about what just happened, aside from the fact that most people in the world are still unaware of it, is that Bakiyev’s government fell over—bang—just like that. The whole thing, start to finish, lasted just days. And it only took a few thousand disgruntled citizens to get rid of him. If only Ali Khamenei’s regime in Iran could be knocked off this easily.
I called James in Prague so he could tell me what he just saw.
MJT: Before we get into what happened, give us the setting. What’s this place like? Lots of people aren’t even sure where it is.
James Kirchick: The first impression for an American who doesn’t know much about it is that it’s strange. They are an Asiatic-looking people who speak Russian. They have their own language, Kyrgyz, but I interacted with them mostly in Russian. It’s the lingua franca of Central Asia.
MJT: You speak Russian?
James Kirchick: I don’t, but one my colleagues I traveled there with from Radio Free Europe speaks Russian. Most of the international journalists there were Moscow correspondents for newspapers or wire service writers from the region and are Russian specialists.
It’s a very poor country—not African-style, which I’ve seen, but somewhere in between. The GDP per capita is 2100 dollars a year. So it’s visibly poor.
Bishkek is also replete with monstrous architecture from the Soviet era.
Ala-Too Square Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
Stadium, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
MJT: Does the whole city of Bishkek look like that?
James Kirchick: The whole city looks like that. When you go to the outskirts, though, it’s near a beautiful mountain range.
Outskirts of Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
On my second day I went to a massive funeral for some of the victims. It was in a very scenic and beautiful area. The country is beautiful, but the urban areas are drab and the living conditions are poor.
The country was remarkably calm. I wasn’t expecting a revolutionary country to be so calm, though since I left the situation seems to have deteriorated slightly. There were some ethnic riots against Turks last week.
MJT: When you say Turks, do you mean Uighurs?
James Kirchick: Yes, Uighurs and also Turkish merchants.
MJT: From Anatolia?
James Kirchick: Yes. The riots took place in a village outside Bishkek, and some people were killed. There’s a sense of lawlessness in the country, like there’s no authority. The fact that a mob of 5,000 people could overthrow a regime says something about its structural problems.
MJT: It really only took 5,000 people to overthrow the government?
James Kirchick: Yeah.
MJT: That’s amazing.
James Kirchick: Bakiyev was a bad guy—a crook, a thug, a murderer, a torturer, all those things.
Kurmanbek Bakiyev, Kyrgyzstan’s deposed president
But the interim government is portraying this as though it was some kind of Tiananmen Square situation, which is really not accurate. From what the eye-witnesses, participants, and journalists who were there told me, the opposition stole weapons from the security forces and fired at the White House, the executive office building downtown.
White House, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
There were snipers on the roof picking people off, but there were also protesters shooting Kalashnikovs. They also hijacked an APC, so it wasn’t exactly Tiananmen Square.
In the immediate aftermath, which is what I saw—I landed in Bishkek 36 hours after Bakiyev fled the capital—you would not have known that there was a revolution. There weren’t many political signs or graffiti. I saw only a couple of Fuck Bakiyev messages spray painted on buildings. And if you visited the White House you’d see the hulk of an empty truck that the protesters used to crash through the gate.
Crashing the gate of the White House, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
This country has just gone through yet another revolution, the second in five years. People seem to be used to it at this point. There was a perfect storm, I think, that led to the government falling.
MJT: Bakiyev was put in power after the Tulip Revolution in 2005.
James Kirchick: Yes.
MJT: Are the people who just overthrew him the same people he was against in 2005, or is this a third political force?
James Kirchick: These were a lot of his old friends and allies.
MJT: I see.
James Kirchick: Some of them fell out with him almost immediately. The intricacies of Kyrgyz politics are complicated. Everyone seems to be fighting for themselves, and once Bakiyev got into power he started rewarding the spoils of government to his friends, family, and colleagues. Some who turned against him did so not because of any principles. They wanted a piece and they weren’t getting it.
There’s a fear now with this new interim government that the same thing will start all over again. That’s been the story since the country won its independence from the Soviet Union twenty years ago.
MJT: Do you get the sense that things won’t be better, only different?
James Kirchick: I think it’s going to be better. I hope it’s going to be better. I can’t predict. If they don’t get their act together, the country could fall into chaos.
Bakiyev gave a press conference in Belarus.
MJT: Yeah, he’s in Belarus now.
James Kirchick: He still has the potential to cause trouble. He still has supporters in the south. If he calls on them to rise up, who knows what kind of trouble could start?
The Russians have been deft in helping to oust Bakiyev and making themselves appear all of sudden like supporters of human rights, democracy, and good government. Most of the people I talked to were pro-Russian.
James Kirchick: Most of them, but educated people seem to break down the middle. Some clearly understand that Russia is an authoritarian country, that the reason Moscow helped depose Bakiyev didn’t have anything to do with altruism or anything benign, it was because he angered the Russians by allowing the Manas Transit Center to stay open, which is all the Russians really care about. They gave him an aid package, and he implied when receiving that aid package that he’d be kicking the American air base out. The Russians got very angry and started attacking him relentlessly in state-controlled media. The last straw, the week before he fell, was when Russia raised the tariff on gas imports. That threw the people into the streets.
Scorched office in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan after the overthrow of Kurmanbek Bakiyev
But now the Russians don’t seem to know what’s going on. Medvedev issued a statement a couple of days ago saying the safety of ethnic Russians—who account for around ten percent of the population—must be a priority, that the interim government must protect them. He’s already coming up with a pretext to send in Russian troops if he wants to later. It could turn into a Georgia situation all over again, but there is no indication that ethnic Russians have come under any sort of organized attack or are facing government discrimination.
MJT: I’m a little surprised to hear that so many people there are pro-Russian. It sure is different from Eastern Europe. They don’t feel like Moscow is the old colonial and imperial power?
James Kirchick: I actually got into a couple of arguments with people about this, trying to convince them that Russia isn’t their friend. But Russia is important economically. Around a million Kyrgyz people live in Russia and do manual labor. They send remittances back to Kyrgyzstan, which account for around a third of the country’s economy. This is out of a population of 5.5 million people. So almost twenty percent of the population lives in Russia working low wage jobs. It’s a Mexican-type situation.
Russia is also their biggest trading partner. They conduct a lot of business with Russia. Most of the leadership of the country was educated in Moscow. Roza Otunbayeva, the head of the interim government, was a Communist Party apparatchik and was educated in Moscow. She was a pro-Western leader when she was ambassador to the United States and the United Kingdom, but she rose through the ranks of the communist movement.
There is some resentment over the American air base. It’s technically called a transit center. One of the conditions when we re-signed the lease last year was that we call it a transit center rather than an air base. That may not seem like much of a difference to you and me, but it’s a huge difference in Kyrgyzstan. It was repeatedly stressed to me by both military officials and people at the U.S. Embassy in Bishkek that this is a transit center and not an air base.
I did get the sense that some people believe the transit center causes instability. They think it angers the Russians and makes Kyrgyzstan a part of the war in Afghanistan that it would rather not be a part of. I heard that expressed by some people. But there are others who understand that Kyrgyzstan fought its own war against the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. They were sheltered by the Taliban prior to the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
I met people who said, “Look, if we want to be good international citizens, we should support the NATO mission in Afghanistan. It rebounds to our benefit. We don’t want Afghanistan to fall under the control of an Islamic fascist regime again.”
Ala Archa National Park, Kyrgyzstan
I don’t see the country evicting us from the air base. There are some leaders in the interim government calling for that, but I think cooler heads will prevail.
MJT: How much Islamism even exists in Kyrgyzstan? It looks from a distance like almost none.
James Kirchick: The north is pretty secular. At the funeral there were imams chanting in Arabic and there were people praying and whatnot, but it’s pretty tepid Islam, I’d say. There are Hizb-ut-Tahrir cells in the south, but I certainly didn’t hear the call to prayer five times a day, not in Bishkek at least.
MJT: Are there many mosques?
James Kirchick: I didn’t see any.
MJT: I was surprised by how few we saw in Azerbaijan.
James Kirchick: Yeah.
MJT: I figured it might be similar in other post-Soviet Muslim countries.
James Kirchick: Azerbaijan is more Islamic.
MJT: It is? Really? Azerbaijan is startlingly un-Islamic.
James Kirchick: I don’t think I saw a single mosque in Kyrgyzstan.
MJT: Really. I assume, then, that you didn’t see women wearing headscarves.
James Kirchick: No. None. It’s not at all like the Arab world.
MJT: Most Americans don’t know the first thing about this country and don’t really care about it. It’s a random where-the-hellistan. Aside from the military base we use for the war in Afghanistan, is there anything there that Americans should pay attention to?
James Kirchick: Yes. Any government that either supports authoritarianism or soft-pedals opposition to it will be resented by the people of that country. I think this applies to our reputations with people in a whole host of countries, even Iran and Syria. We aren’t allies with those countries. We don’t even have ambassadors to those countries. But I think the people in those countries feel we aren’t doing enough to help ease their plight.
The people of Kyrgyzstan felt the United States was actively worsening their plight.
MJT: What did they say to you?
James Kirchick: They felt like the United States wasn’t doing enough to criticize Bakiyev.
James Kirchick: That’s one of the reasons they’re pro-Russian. The Russians were very outspoken against Bakiyev. Many people there don’t understand why the Russians were so anti-Bakiyev. The Russians didn’t have concerns about the well-being of the Kyrgyz people. Just look at how the Russians deal with Karimov in Uzbekistan who once boiled opponents alive.
Ala Archa National Park, Kyrgyzstan
Kyrgyzstan is known as the Switzerland of Central Asia. That’s certainly more aspirational than descriptive, but it is the most open society in the region. It has been consistently ranked “Partly Free” by Freedom House over the past couple of years whereas the others have been ranked “Not Free.”
The United States is in a tough position. I don’t think there was much else we could have done. A lot of the criticism we’ve been getting for supposedly propping up Bakiyev has been a little unfair. What else were we supposed to do? We need that base.
When we support authoritarians who are by nature mercurial and unpredictable, the “realists” say they’ll bring us stability. But what sort of stability did Bakiyev bring us? The guy was just ousted, totally by surprise. No one saw it coming. He was just kicked out of the country. And now there’s a new government that’s ambivalent about the United States.
Maybe we’ll keep the base, but we’ll only get to keep it because they’ll fear the consequences of not letting us keep it.
When you’re engaged in foreign policy and diplomacy, you have to understand that if you’re perceived as supporting a nation’s tormentor, that nation’s people will not appreciate you when they come to power. And that’s what’s going to happen because no dictatorship lasts forever.
The U.S. tried to save face in Kyrgyzstan by sending a high level State Department official to meet with government leaders, but Roza Otunbayeva said to his face that she was disappointed with our country and the way we acted. She told the Washington Post that the U.S. Embassy refused to meet with the opposition.
We need to take that to heart when we craft policies for other countries.
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