No Comment — April 12, 2010, 5:09 pm

Wild Things

By far the best piece in the U.S. media on the developments in Kyrgyzstan is Eugene Huskey’s article at Salon. I was struck by the remark of one Kyrgyz activist he quotes: “the Kyrgyz are ‘the most insubordinate, rebellious, and mutinous nation’ in Central Asia.” So true. The Kyrgyz are natural-born anarchists. Although their society is instinctively conservative, with strong respect for the elderly–the term aksakal or “white beard” refers to a person of wisdom–they have a congenital fondness for ridiculing those in positions of authority. I vividly remember attending a university lecture delivered by Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev in 2003 on the economic policies of his government. In the question-and-answer session that followed, one young student stood up. “The graphs and charts are fine,” he said, referring to a meticulous PowerPoint presentation, “but how much of this new wealth is being siphoned off by those in power through corruption?” The question produced a flood of giggles from the crowd and the president was visibly angered. Such a display of public contempt for authority would have been unimaginable anywhere else in the former Soviet Union.

Huskey quickly comes to grips with the difficult realities of Kyrgyz politics and the clash between a robust civil society and rulers with a sharp authoritarian streak and a proclivity to lean on their extended family circles to govern:

Like many countries in the developing world, Kyrgyzstan has not been governed as a modern state but as the personal domain of the ruler and his family. On a walk last spring down a mountain trail in the Ala-Archa National Park south of Bishkek, I came upon black-clad security personnel peering at the surrounding gorge through hand-held scopes. When shots rang out in the distance, I assumed they were on the trail of a poacher. They were instead part of the president’s security detail. Bakiev had come to the park from his residential compound a few miles away to enjoy an afternoon of hunting, a privilege denied to other Kyrgyz citizens in this nature sanctuary. The reminders of Bakiev’s personalist rule were everywhere, from his smiling portraits that graced the streets of Kyrgyz cities to the troubling specter of his motorcade, which shuttled Bakiev between his compound and the Kyrgyz White House. With windows tinted to hide the leader from view, the President’s large black Mercedes sped behind a marked police car. Trailing them were two black Cadillac Escalades that swerved menacingly across each other’s paths. Looking more like attack dogs than professional security personnel, athletic young men with balaclava-covered faces and automatic weapons at the ready glared through the Escalades’ open windows. Alongside this cortege rides an ambulance, ready to tend to a president who had been taking lengthy trips to Germany for treatment of an undisclosed ailment.

From his perch on the seventh floor of the White House, Bakiev tried to maintain the facade that he was governing the country through its formal institutions, which include the prime minister, the council of ministers, and parliament. But real power was exercised through intricate informal networks of relatives and associates operating in the presidential bureaucracy and beyond. As one opposition leader told me, the halls surrounding the offices of the prime minister and most ministers were empty; businesses seeking to lobby the government for licenses, tax breaks, and various forms of protection turned instead to the president’s staff. All pretence of a constitutional order was abandoned in early 2010 when Bakiev created new institutions in the presidency that downgraded the formal ministerial structure. At the center of Bakiev’s informal government were his brother Janysh and his son Maxim. Another son worked for the security police and four other brothers are involved in foreign and trade relations and local government and business affairs in the South. Although Maxim focused on the media and the economy and Janysh on law enforcement, the division of labor did not prevented turf battles from erupting between factions in the President’s entourage. Politics in the public square gave way to court intrigue in Bakiev’s Kyrgyzstan.

The missing element in Huskey’s piece is American base politics. When the United States got its cherished airbase at Manas, its attitude towards Kyrgyzstan was dramatically transformed. Suddenly only the base mattered, and the United States appeared ready to do almost anything to keep it. Suddenly the U.S.-Kyrgyz relationship was nothing more than an aspect of a logistics operation by the J5 Directorate at CENTCOM. And suddenly the United States went from preaching transparency and anti-corruption measures to cutting the biggest and most obviously corrupt deals in the country. It was quite a slide, from the perspective of civil society in Kyrgyzstan. And I expect in the coming weeks, we’ll be learning more details.

This morning, Andrew Kramer starts the process at the New York Times::

“Whatever the Pentagon’s policy of buying warlords in Afghanistan, the state of Kyrgyzstan demands more respect,” Edil Baisalov, chief of staff of the interim leader, Roza Otunbayeva, said in an interview. “The government of Kyrgyzstan will not be bought and sold. We are above that.” Officials with the military agency that buys fuel, the Defense Energy Supply Corporation, have said no United States laws would be violated if contracts were awarded to companies owned by relatives of a foreign heads of state.

No laws were violated? Really? How about the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act? If a private company cut the contracts that the Pentagon did, it would have the FBI breathing down its neck and its executives would be busily explaining to prosecutors why these contracts, written on terms highly unfavorable to the U.S. taxpayer, were not issued for purposes of “securing or retaining government-awarded business.” In this area, like so many others, the Bush Administration concluded that the criminal law couldn’t be applied to itself. As usual, it used national-security concerns as a cloak. And the Obama era has seen no apparent change in practice. The short-term advantage of this approach is that a well-greased Bakiyev regime was happy to do business with the Pentagon. Now the United States must confront the longer-term consequences. The process should start with Congress asking some tough questions about those fuel contracts.

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