Thursday, September 2, 2010

Clawing back credibility in Kyrgyzstan

Clawing back credibility in Kyrgyzstan.....
By Yong Kwon

American airmen sometimes call the Manas Transit Center in Kyrgyzstan "the frontier of freedom". While this may be an apt name for the last place soldiers see before flying into Afghanistan, the Kyrgyz people themselves have not yet experienced the exercise of political liberty in their short history as an independent nation.

The political and ethnic crisis that raged through the former-Soviet state this spring may, however, have provided Kyrgyzstan with a historic opportunity to become not merely a flyby state but a glowing model of democracy in Central Asia. Furthermore, this is a new opportunity for the
United States to be engaged in Central Asia as an honest broker and a supporter of democracy while mending its severed ties with Russia.

The Roza Otunbayeva government has a narrow window of opportunity between now and October 10 to prepare the country for parliamentary elections that could transform Kyrgyzstan into the first functioning democracy in the region. As an interim government, it had already overcome the major challenge of undertaking the constitutional referendum, which lay the foundations for Central Asia's first parliamentary republic. In the month remaining till the vote, Bishkek must hold its own against external pressures and possibly violent domestic resistance among myriad of other issues.

On July 16, the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies outlined three major issues facing Kyrgyzstan at the moment: the government is bankrupt because the former political elites fled the country with the national funds, the civic identity of the country is near collapse after the ethnic riots, and the state is in need of a completely new political institution.

All of these crises are interrelated and the resolution of one problem could help rectify other issues. In this process, both the United States and Russia have roles to play in reconstituting Kyrgyzstan through their unique assets in the country. They can also look forward to reaping considerable benefits from the presence of a stable democracy in Central Asia.

Gross imbalance in the distribution of wealth is a common feature in extremely resource poor states. Kyrgyzstan was one of the poorest republics in the Soviet Union and remains the second poorest state in the former Soviet space. Compounding the economic difficulties, Kyrgyz political elites have used the political institutions as a means of securing the country's limited assets.

Alexander Knyazev, an analyst at the Bishkek-based Institute of Commonwealth of Independent States, claims that former president Kurmanbek Bakiyev and his family had gone as far as being involved in drug trafficking and employing mercenaries to protect family interests.

The effects of economic disparity are not only limited to the corruption of the political process, but also contribute to the ethnic tensions between the diverse ethnic groups in Kyrgyzstan. Demographically, Kyrgyzstan is a young nation; the US Central Intelligence Agency estimated in 2009 that around 34% of the entire population was under the age of 15. In order to support their traditionally large families, this enormous youth population faces the insurmountable challenge of competing over resources, left behind by the country's political elites.

Under these circumstances, ethnic clashes become more likely to break out as a cover for economic competition. Kyrgyzstan's Uzbeks become the easiest targets as they are economically established in southern Kyrgyzstan while only comprising 20% of the total population. Yevgeny Minchenko of the Moscow based International Institute of Political Expertise believes that there will be more ethnic clashes in the near future as long as the fundamental economic conditions do not change.

The United States has the means to provide crucial economic assistance to Kyrgyzstan through its “most favored state” status, indeed the United States is already extending valuable credit to the bankrupt new government; however, reckless or over-hasty funding could create the misconception among post-Soviet states that Washington is attempting to intervene in their domestic politics.

Since the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia, Russia and other post-Soviet states have been wary of Washington's role in pro-democracy movements in the region. During the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the Kyrgyz press decried "the law of the prairie" imposed by the US State Department on the former Soviet space [1]. This popular distrust of American foreign policy in Kyrgyzstan persists, even after six years and the removal of two presidents, because of Washington's obsessive pursuit of the Manas Transit Center.

In 2009, Maksim Bakiyev, son of the former president, indirectly won a $731 million no-bid contract to supply TS-1 jet fuel to US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization planes at Manas airbase. The connection between the presidential family and the American airbase is nothing new as former-president Askar Akaev's firmly held the supply contracts prior to the Tulip Revolution.

Many Kyrgyz people suspect that this was an underhanded plot to strengthen America's tenuous lease on Manas Transit Center by bribing the presidential family. Whether or not this was the case, the lack of transparency in Washington's business activities perpetuates the popular belief that the United States is willing to compromise its democratic values as long as its strategic assets are secure. Confidence and trust are absolutely necessary components in a productive interstate cooperation. The prevailing attitudes and practices of Bishkek and Washington will hurt both the long-term economic state and democracy building in Kyrgyzstan.

While contracts from the Manas Transit Center and capital financing from the United States may provide Kyrgyzstan with a small reprieve, Bishkek requires more worthwhile economic partnerships if it is to survive the political experiment. This role can only be fulfilled by Russia as it already has a firmly established economic presence in Kyrgyzstan. [2]

Russia has been somewhat hesitant to shore up support for the new government. After refusing to deploy troops to restore order in Kyrgyzstan, President Dmitry Medvedev publicly criticized Otunbayeva's constitutional referendum, citing the danger of "extremists" tearing the small republic apart. Nonetheless, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recognized Otunbayeva's interim government when the ousted Bakiyev claimed that he had not resigned. Furthermore, Russia's deep economic ties (starting with hydroelectricity) and military presence at Kant airbase suggest Moscow's preference for a working government in Bishkek.

While economic cooperation may bring potential resolution to some demographic tensions, Kyrgyzstan still remains vulnerable to narco-trafficking criminal organizations and militant Islamic fundamentalists who benefit from a weakened central government. And without security, the entire foundation of Kyrgyz democracy may well be compromised.

Fulfilling its role as a guarantor of regional interstate stability, Russia plays a key external security role in Kyrgyzstan, repelling guerilla groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) [3]. Russia may not have a clearly defined policy towards Central Asia; however, as made clear by Medvedev's criticism of the Kyrgyz referendum, the security of the former-Soviet space against religious extremists takes priority [4]. Both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are considered as frontlines against Islamic militants by the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) [5].

However, just as Russia secured a ceasefire during the Tajik Civil War with Iranian cooperation, Moscow requires a strong partner in Kyrgyzstan. Although more or less successful in keeping the war in Afghanistan from spilling over into its "near abroad," Russian efforts to stem the tide of illegal narcotics flooding into Russian from Central Asia have been routed.

America's role may be vital to Russia's future plans not only in Kyrgyzstan, but also in the drug-addled regions of Siberia. With China, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan watching from the sidelines, the United States remains the most strategic ally for Russia in Kyrgyzstan.

Democracy building rests on the shoulders of Otunbayeva's government and the newly elected parliament; corruption, nepotism, and ethnic distrust can only be abolished by domestic forces. However, Kyrgyzstan's ambitious democracy building project requires funding and security. For Russian and American foreign policy objectives in the region, those requirements present an opportunity too good to miss.