News / Asia

Analysts: Kyrgyzstan Unrest Sparked by Economic, Political Discontent

Gary Thomas

The Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan is attempting to stabilize itself after an uprising that toppled the government and sent the president fleeing.  A poor economy, rampant corruption, and autocratic rule made Kyrgyzstan a tinderbox waiting to ignite.

Kyrgyz are hoping that revolution is better the second time around.

In 2005, the so-called Tulip Revolution toppled the government after elections that were widely condemned as fraudulent and sent President Askar Akayev into exile in Russia.  Now history has repeated itself as his successor, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, fled the capital Bishkek Wednesday after protests over his rule were put down with a heavy hand, leaving at least 75 people dead.

Frederick Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University, says the new government will try again to create a viable state.

The Tulip Revolution was taken over, basically, by the Bakiyev family," said Frederick Starr. "And it's interesting [that] Rosa Otunbayeva, who has now come to the fore as the head of this new government, was an ardent supporter of the Tulip Revolution.  It failed.  And between then and now, the opposition failed. So it's not a good prospect. Will they get it right this time?  We'll see.

Kyrgyzstan, with a population of five million, is one of the poorest of the states of the former Soviet Union.  In fact, says Central Asia analyst Lauren Goodrich of the private intelligence firm Stratfor, it has found it extremely difficult to survive as an independent entity.

"The country has extreme economic problems," said Lauren Goodrich. "It pretty much doesn't have an economy.  Because of this it has to rely on its neighbors for almost everything regarding oils, foodstuffs, etc.  The people inside Kyrgyzstan are incredibly poor, and there's just no way to climb out of that.  So put all that together, the domestic situation on trying to hold the country together as a government is incredibly difficult."

The country is heavily dependent on remittances sent back from Kyrgyz who work in Russia, which make up some 40 percent of Kyrgyzstan's Gross Domestic Product.  But hard economic times caused those remittances to begin to dry up.

On top of the dysfunctional economy, President Bakiyev turned out to both an autocratic ruler and a corrupt one, says Lauren Goodrich.

"Kyrgyzstan is a mob state - always has been, always will be," said  Goodrich. "And with Bakiyev's government, he wasn't pro-U.S., but he wasn't pro-Russian.  He was pro-himself.  He was up for bid.  Whoever would pay him the most was who he was going to be loyal to.  He doesn't have an ideology one way or another as far as wanting to create a democracy or wanting to lean towards the West or even wanting to return to Russia.  He doesn't care.  All he cares about is who is willing to give him the most."

So when the government announced utility price hikes of up to 200 percent, protests erupted.  

Did Russia, which has keen strategic interest in Kyrgyzstan, light the fuse?  Russia says no.  A senior Obama administration official on Russia, Michael McFaul told reporters it was not a Russian-sponsored event.

"This is not some anti-American coup," said Michael McFaul. "That we know for sure.  And this is not a sponsored-by-the-Russian coup.  I've heard some reports of that.  There's just no evidence of that as yet."

Frederick Starr agrees, but adds that Russian influence in Bishkek is still heavy.

I don't think Russia caused it," he said. "However, Russia's hand in Bishkek is very strong, much stronger than any of the reporting indicates.  They have several dozen, nearly 40, of their intelligence people running the Kyrgyz intelligence apparatus.  They took it over.  So this is the kind of position that Russia has made for itself there. It will play a very muscular hand, and the United States has to be sober and realistic.

Russia has been unhappy with the presence of a U.S. air base at Manas, making Kyrgyzstan the only Central Asian state to host both U.S. and Russian bases. It is used to supply troops in Afghanistan.

Stratfor's Lauren Goodrich thinks Russia would not be averse to exploiting an already volatile situation in Kyrgyzstan in order to get some leverage on the Manas issue.

"The protests have been going on for about a month," said Lauren Goodrich. "I think that the opposition saw an opportunity that with the protests intensifying over the past month that, okay, now it's time that we finally can seize power.  But, of course, the opposition members have been meeting with Russia.  I'm not saying that Russia planned this.  But they certainly did nudge it along, let's say."

The nascent Kyrgyz government has not said it will oust the Americans from Manas, as Uzbekistan did with the other U.S. air base in Central Asia last year.  But analysts say it is likely to try to negotiate new, more favorable terms for the lease.  

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