No Comment — April 7, 2010, 10:38 am

In Kyrgyzstan the Tulips Turn Blood Red

The tulips are pushing up, so it must be time for more political tremors in the home of the “Tulip Revolution,” the mountainous Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan. Yesterday demonstrators tried to storm government buildings in the remote administrative center of Talas, and today protest actions swept across the country’s north. Here’s a summary of the latest developments in the Guardian:

At least 180 people in Kyrgyzstan have been wounded and 17 killed in clashes between riot police and anti-government demonstrators. Police opened fire when thousands of protesters tried to storm the main government building in the capital Bishkek and overthrow the regime. Reporters saw bodies lying in the main square outside the office of Kurmanbek Bakiyev, the central Asian republic’s president, and opposition leaders said that at least 17 people were killed in the violence.

Bakiyev declared a state of emergency, as riot police firing tear gas and flash grenades beat back the crowds. There were also unconfirmed reports that the country’s interior minister had been beaten by an angry mob. Opposition activist Shamil Murat told Associated Press that he saw the dead body of minister Moldomusa Kongatiyev in a government building in the western town of Talas. Murat said the protesters beat up Kongatiyev and forced him to order his subordinates in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek to stop a crackdown on an opposition rally there. The protests, which began last week in several Kyrgyz provincial cities, erupted today in Bishkek when around 200 people gathered outside the offices of the main opposition parties.

Demonstrators dodged attempts by police to stop them and marched towards the centre of the city, reports said. The crowd, armed with iron bars and stones, then tried to seize the main government building using an armoured vehicle. Several shots rang out from the building, the White House. Opposition activists also took over the state TV channel, broadcasting speeches in support of the uprising.

What has precipitated this unrest? A weak economy, high unemployment, crushing poverty. But Kyrgyzstan is a very poor country, and the people are used to making due with very little. Expectations are not high. The more immediate precipitant is corruption. Kyrgyz felt their concerns about out-of-control corruption by the leadership were validated when Italian criminal-justice authorities issued a warrant for the arrest of a close business associate of President Bakiyev’s son, Maksim, in connection with a fraud investigation. Then both the president and the opposition convened a kurultai–invoking the ancient Kyrgyz tradition of spontaneous plebiscite to decide important issues. It’s clear that things did not go as the government hoped at these events; strong anti-government sentiment was apparent. And the opposition emerged resolved to use the same tactics against Bakiyev that he used to come to power in 2005.

The presence of fully-outfitted riot police discharging live ammunition into a crowd usually brings demonstrations quickly to a halt. The Kyrgyz demonstrators, however, regroup and strike back violently at the military and police forces deployed against them. It may seem unlikely that such protests can succeed in the face of a trained military and police force, but a popular uprising did topple the government just a few years ago, in 2005.

The developments in Kyrgyzstan are being followed warily in Washington, Berlin, and London because of the Manas air base developed by the United States and used by the NATO allies. It forms a key supply terminal in their northern logistical support network, supporting military operations in Afghanistan. The protestors are focused on the same facts. By and large, the crowds in Bishkek show no signs of being anti-U.S. or anti-Russian, but they are concerned about the corrupt relationship that has developed between the United States military and their leaders. Both former president Askar Akayev and the current incumbent Kurmanbek Bakiyev developed “special relationships” with the U.S. logistical supply point—as members of their immediate families garnered sweetheart deals from the Pentagon that supported the base operations. Kyrgyz political figures often sneer at American government officials who preach transparency and anti-corruption tactics and then cut the most obviously corrupt deals in the country.

I asked Alex Cooley, a Columbia University professor who has studied the politics of the Manas air base, how he expected these developments to affect the relationship:

The United States has founded its engagement with the Kyrgyz government on providing lucrative contacts–for fuel and other Manas-related services–worth hundreds of millions of dollars to entities controlled by the Bakiyev ruling family. In the event that the government collapses, its successor will deem these contracts improper and will either terminate or renegotiate them. In fact, in the aftermath of the Tulip Revolution, then interim president Bakiyev publicly denounced the airbase deals that the United States had cut with the deposed Akayev family and demanded a huge increase in base-related rent. The larger lesson for the Defense Department should be clear: placating authoritarian regimes with private contracts and pay-offs does not guarantee long-term stability of relations; in volatile political climates like Kyrgyzstan, it may, in fact, sow the seeds for discontent and political challenges to the regime.

But protestors also express anger at OSCE for providing military and police support, as seen in this footage posted by Reuters TV, in which a woman shakes her fist in anger at the heavy-handed techniques of the police, noting that OSCE has trained the police to repress the people.

The unrest in Kyrgyzstan is among other things a test for the short-term, and probably short-sighted, policies behind the U.S./NATO support arrangements in Kyrgyzstan. The United States has curried favor with powerful political figures intent on rent seeking. What happens when those figures buckle and fold in the face of public unrest? The U.S. proclivity for “sweet deals” with those in power will complicate things in time of transition.

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