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.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

September 2015

Weed Whackers

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Tremendous Machine

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Goose in a Dress

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Genealogy of Orals

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Romancing Kano·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I recently spent a semester teaching writing at an elite liberal-arts college. At strategic points around the campus, in shades of yellow and green, banners displayed the following pair of texts. The first was attributed to the college’s founder, which dates it to the 1920s. The second was extracted from the latest version of the institution’s mission statement:

The paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.

leadership
service
integrity
creativity

Let us take a moment to compare these texts. The first thing to observe about the older one is that it is a sentence. It expresses an idea by placing concepts in relation to one another within the kind of structure that we call a syntax. It is, moreover, highly wrought: a parallel structure underscored by repetition, five adverbs balanced two against three.

Article
The Prisoner of Sex·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“It is disappointing that parts of Purity read as though Franzen urgently wanted to telegraph a message to anyone who would defend his fiction from charges of chauvinism: ‘No, you’ve got me wrong. I really am sexist.’”
Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Article
Gangs of Karachi·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In Karachi, sometimes only the thinnest of polite fictions separates the politicians from the men who kill and extort on their behalf.”
Photograph © Asim Rafiqui/NOOR Images
Article
Weed Whackers·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Defining 'native' and 'invasive' in an ever-shifting natural world poses some problems. The camel, after all, is native to North America, though it went extinct here 8,000 years ago, while the sacrosanct redwood tree is invasive, having snuck in at some point in the past 65 million years.”
Photograph by Chad Ress
Article
The Neoliberal Arts·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“College is seldom about thinking or learning anymore. Everyone is running around trying to figure out what it is about. So far, they have come up with buzzwords, mainly those three.”
Artwork by Julie Cockburn

Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:

65

An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.

A naked man believed to be under the influence of LSD rammed his pickup truck into two police cars.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today