Bye, Bye Bakiyev. Hello . . . ?

Another colored revolution devoured itself on Wednesday as violent protests engulfed the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek.  By nightfall, 40 people were dead with hundreds injured.  The opposition had taken the government, and Kurmanbek Bakiyev, the man the Tulip Revolution had put into power, had fled.

If there is a color for this “revolution” it will be red.  Red for the anger.  Red for the blood.  Red for the fire.

The question is why, and why now?

The Tulip Revolution in 2005 brought “high hopes,” they say.  Hope that a government accountable to the people would pull Kyrgyzstan out of the mire.  Hope that the endemic corruption would end.  Those hopes were quickly dashed. Post-Soviet life has brought little benefit to the small country.  Bakiyev turned out to be another hetman willing to use force to shut down his rivals, place his family members in positions of power and wealth, and in the words of Alexander Cooley of Columbia University, “[run] the country like a criminal syndicate.”

Now the Kygyz people might not have minded the mafia style form of rule–after all this is the way things have been done for a long time.  But economics seems to have been the tipping point.  Utility costs skyrocketed with the new year.  Heating costs rose by 400 percent; electricity by 170 percent, water doubled.  In Feburary, Mars Sariev, a political analyst in Bishkek told Eurasianet, “We can definitely see social tension growing now. It is a gradual psychological process. People will realize [they will have difficulty paying] after getting their bills for the utilities. And when before they used to spend 20-30 percent of their paycheck on payments, now they will have to spend about 80 percent of their salary to pay for the utilities.”

Eurasianet continued:

Already enduring sharp inflation and suffering from stagnant economic growth, most Kyrgyz are long accustomed to state-subsidies for utilities and other government services. Accordingly, many perceive the rate increases to be an unfair burden. Many also fear corrupt officials may try to siphon off funds intended for infrastructure repair. “Most simple economic calculations show that the largest part of the population is simply not able to cover necessary expenses and compensatory fees will only enforce inflation,” said Gulnara Ibraeva, a sociologist at the American University of Central Asia.

One Bishkek pensioner told EurasiaNet that, even with his senior citizen discounts, he expects to spend 75 percent of his government allowance on utilities. “How will I live on the rest of my pension? I don’t know. There are some other pensioners who get even less than I. I don’t know how they will survive,” said Victor Kononenko, 73.

“I haven’t received my bills for those utilities yet, but I already know that this is unreal to pay. It will be very difficult. I think people are barely holding themselves together,” said Lyazat Arpachieva, a 38-year-old sales-person in a Bishkek shopping mall.

In a city where temperatures can dip to minus 20 degrees Celsius in winter, the only solution for some will involve hardship and suffering. “In this situation, people living near the capital are simply beginning to cut themselves off from the utilities, voluntarily severing their radiators and hot water pipes. The quality of life is falling. Consequently, the level of distrust in the government and its political reforms is growing,” Ibraeva told EurasiaNet.

To make matters worse, the utility companies reaping all cash from these hikes were owned by the Bakiyev family.  Now if you add to all this the estimated 50 percent  decrease of remittances (according to numbers from the last quarter of 2008 ), which in 2007 made up 30 percent of the national GDP, you can understand why an explosive situation was in the making.

In addition to the economics, Bakiyev made the bigger mistake of alienating the other Kyrgyz elites. As Edil Baisalov, a Kyrgyz oppositionist and political exile in Sweden, told Professor Sean Roberts:

S.R.: Ok, so people are dissatisfied with Bakiyev, but are there particular factors that have led to these protests taking place now?

E.B.: There are two factors. The first one informed and influenced the political elite. This was Bakiyev’s attempts to undercut important political actors in the country through politically motivated criminal charges. One of these trials involved former Minister of Defence Ismail Isakov, who was sentenced to eight years in prison for supposedly providing his officer son with an apartment. Another involved former Foreign Affairs Minister Alikbek Djekshenkulov, who was accused both of taking part in the murder of a Turkish businessman and of mismanaging a grant from the Chinese. There are several other cases of political persecution still ongoing. Taken together with the overwhelming evidence that the Bakiyev-operated secret service personnel brutally murdered journalist Gennadiy Pavlyuk in December, these cases proved that the Bakiyev family is not going to tolerate any dissent and wants to run the republic as a medieval khanate.

So no, Owen Mathews of Newsweek, the “worst of all for the people of Kyrgyzstan” was definitely not the suppression of opposition activism, international observers, and Bakiyev’s attempts to squeeze more money out of the Americans for the renting of Manas airbase.  I know you have to give your readers something to make them interested. Something to feed their political narcissism. But c’mon, enough with the liberal, America-first narrative already.  The real world doesn’t work according to NGO and State Department press releases. It works according to power, greed, anger, and blood.

Russia Today has a good report on the shit hitting the fan:

By the end of the next day, Bakiyev fled to the city Osh in the south or out of the country, no one is for sure.  Roza Otunbayeva, a former foreign minister, declared that “Power was in the hands of the people’s government.”

The fact that the opposition has seized power might be a bust for Washington, since all it really cares about is the fate of the Manas airbase.  The new “people’s government” are composed of politicians who opposed Bakiyev’s deal with the Americans. “The political behavior of the United States has created a situation where the new authorities may want to look more to Russia than to the United States, and it will strengthen their political will to rebuff the United States,” said Bakyt Beshimov a political exile from Kygyzstan told the NY Times.

The Russians also opposed the Manas deal, and offered Kyrgyzstan a $2 billion payoff, er, loan to turn down the American’s offer. It seems that all the Russian intervention did was allow Bakiyev to squeeze the Americans for much more rent.

Which brings up the eniveitable question: Was this “coup” orchestrated in Moscow or Washington?  I say no.  There are enough problems in Kyrgyzstan without the Russian’s or the American’s help.  This seems to have been a genuine surge from below.  Twitter messages throughout yesterday kept asking where the opposition leadership was. Once there was a vacuum, the opposition led by Roza Otunbayeva appeared and waltzed into power.  The question now is how much power do they really have since reports from the streets paint a picture of chaos.  There are also concerns whether Bakiyev will try to mount a counteroffensive by mobilizing his supporters in the south.

Even if Washington and Moscow didn’t have a direct hand in all this, they certainly have interests in the outcome.  For the Americans, everything comes down to Manas and the status of its lease.  Washington has been mostly silent about the process leading up to Bakiyev’s downfall.  Kyrgyz oppositionists accuse the Americans of turning a blind eye to Bakiyev eviscerating all those democratic values we supposedly know and love.  So far Washington is playing it safe with a feeble statement from P. J. Crowley, a State Department spokesman: “We urge all parties to show respect for the rule of law and resolve differences in a peaceful, orderly and legal manner.”  I think we’re way, way past that.

As for the Russians, Putin had this to say: “Neither Russia, nor your humble servant, nor Russian officials have any links whatsoever to these events.”  Humble servant.  I like that.  Putin’s denial comes amid speculation that Russia did have something to do with this, if only indirectly.  As David Trilling of Eurasianet noted on Tuesday,

As President Kurmanbek Bakiyev confronts a political crisis in Kyrgyzstan, he is not getting any help from Moscow. If anything, the Kremlin appears intent on turning up the heat on the embattled Kyrgyz leader.

Gasoline and diesel prices are now set to rise sharply in Kyrgyzstan after Moscow suddenly slapped new customs duties on refined petroleum products being exported to the Central Asian nation. Prices for refined products could rise as much as 30 percent, stoking fears that inflation might further destabilize the already troubled Kyrgyz economy.

On April 1, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin terminated the preferred customs duties that Kyrgyzstan, as a member of the Eurasian Economic Community (the EurAsEC), had been receiving on Moscow’s gasoline and diesel exports. The apparent justification for the move is the fact that the EurAsEC is being eclipsed by a new Customs Union, comprising Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus. The Customs Union is set to become fully functional this coming July.

It remains unclear if similar energy-export duties will be applied to Russian petrol destined for Tajikistan, which, like Kyrgyzstan, is a member of the EurAsEC, but is not in the Customs Union.

Many political experts in Bishkek believe Moscow is punishing Bakiyev for his administration’s failure to evict American forces from the Manas air base, outside of Bishkek. In what most observers saw as a quid pro quo, Moscow promised a $2.15 billion aid package in February 2009 on the same day Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev pledged to close the base. The Americans, however, remain at Manas.

Things to make you go hmmm . . . Make of that what you will.

To add more to the speculation, toward the end of last month Trilling reported that the Russian press had taken a particular interest in Bakiyev.  The Russian press referred to the Kyrgyz president as “Genghis Khan” and “Kyrgyzbashi” in reference to the dictator and “father of the Turkmen people” Saparmurat Niyaziov aka Turkmenbashi. These pot shots didn’t just emanate from the pro-Kremlin media, but also outfits like Kommersant and quoted Bakiyev’s enlightened opinion that human rights was an ideology that “reproduces individualism and egoism that leads to the collapse of social ethics and morals and ruin nature.”  But the main topic of their ire was Bakiyev’s attempt to install his 32-year old son as his successor.  Now who knows whether all of this Bakiyev bashfest was punishment for placating the Americans.  The Manas issue is pretty much a done deal.  But Russia wants direct influence over its former republics, and the recent anti-Bakiyev media flurry might be the realization of the adage, “Revenge is a dish best served cold.”  Or it just might be good journalism on the Russian’s part since, after all, Bakiyev is hardly a hero, except to maybe his own gluttonous clan.

Whatever the particular motives of Russia or the US (not to mention China for that matter), Central Asia is important to each of their grander geopolitical strategics. The region connects East and West and Central and South Asia. It has a great geopolitical advantages, especially for the US as it pursues its war in Afghanistan.  The region is also a hotbed of growing Islamism, nationalism, and militancy.  Central Asia also has great economic potential in terms of raw materials, gas, and oil.   Bakiyev, the utilitarian he is, understood this and used Kyrgyzstan to rope in the US, Russia and China by allowing them to use it to their respective interests.  For the Americans, a transit corridor and airbase. For Russia, a airbase and market. For China, a market and source for raw materials.  Little Kyrgyzstan has essentially become, in the words of Fedor Lykyanov, a “big headache” for all three great powers.  I bet that headache turned into a migraine with yesterday’s events. All of those sweet deals might be up in the air with a new clan, er, leadership in charge.

Granted, it’s two early to tell what has happened, let alone what will happen in Kyrgyzstan.  I just hope the politicians who’ve taken control in this latest “revolution” aren’t going to prove to be a repetition of what I wrote in reference to the place in 2006:

Promoting democracy was not necessarily the organizers’ central goal. The confrontations were more a backdrop for domestic struggles among the politically and financially powerful than they were spontaneous events tinged with the romance of revolution – less a desire for fundamental change in the system, more a matter of political rivalries, with each side supported by local and foreign oligarchs.