|China and Eurasia Forum
Central Asia-Caucasus Institute
"Kyrgyzstan: The Last Chance for Democracy in Central Asia"
March 28, 2007
Vice President, American University of Central Asia
Institute for Regional Studies, Bishkek
On March 28, 2007, the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute (CACI) hosted Bakyt Beshimov, vice-president for academic affairs at the American University of Central Asia and former Kyrgyz ambassador to several South Asian countries, who presented “Kyrgyzstan: The Last Chance for Democracy in Central Asia.” Also providing comments was Anara Tabyshalieva, a scholar from the Kyrgyzstan Institute for Regional Studies. The event was moderated by CACI chairman Frederick Starr and co-sponsored by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation.
Dr. Beshimov began his presentation by speaking about the interests in Central Asia of the big powers. He remarked that Central Asia’s energy resources and its geographic importance for trade and transport between China, Russia, and South Asia make the region significant for the big powers. Beshimov regarded the U.S. as a positive influence in the region because of its attractive ideology and its economic size. Its presence, however, is under greater scrutiny because it is more distant from the region than other powerful nations. Therefore, the US must assess each step of its policy in Central Asia.
Nearby, Russia regards the Central Asian states as its natural area of interest and clearly wants to control it. China, on the other hand, had only two objectives in region: to gain access to its energy resources, and to counter religious extremists and Uyghur separatists.
Beshimov next made comments about the Tulip revolution, which commonly refers to the events in Kyrgyzstan in 2005 that led to the overthrow of the president Askar Akayev. Although the demonstrations that led to the Tulip revolution were intentionally peaceful, Beshimov remarked that the elites of the other Central Asian countries continued to cast the events in a negative light in order to intimidate their own population. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization called it a dangerous source of instability and many blamed the Andijan incident on influence of the revolution. Russia stated that there was loss of sovereign immunity to the threat of the revolutions and China remarked that the revolutions were an export from the West and do not correspond to geopolitics and culture in Central Asia.
Beshimov disagreed with these criticisms of the Tulip revolution. He supported the ability of ordinary people to understand democracy and to participate in the political process. He felt that the short-term negative consequences of the revolution obscured the long-term essence of the movement. Mass protests in Kyrgyzstan are a true sign of the public’s passion and lack of apathy. In addition, demonstrations in themselves create a sort of citizenship experience for the region. He pointed to the Baltic experience in popular movements as an important factor in supporting the democratic transitions that occurred in that region. Therefore, the common short-term priority of security was not a solution if it meant sacrificing all else.
Instead, Beshimov believed that the main source of instability in a country stemmed from the lack of effective transfer of political power. Like post-Communist presidents of other Central Asian countries, former president Askar Akayev came into power in 1991 through elections but ultimately tried to stay too long. Beshimov saw the Tulip revolution as the future scenario of the other Central Asian states, even in the stable and successful Kazakhstan, if legitimate rules for the transfer of power are not established.
Beshimov also attributed the participatory nature of ordinary citizens in Kyrgyzstan to its nomadic cultural history. He remarked that across many countries that he visited – in Africa, Latin America and in the region – he observed political competition with no participation from ordinary people. Beshimov wondered whether Kyrgyzstan, with its unique level of citizen participation, could spread its model through the region. Nevertheless, Beshimov warned that despite the “anarchy spirit” which promoted freedom, government institutions are still weak and this could lead to the gradual decay of opportunity. This was the result of the 1990 “Silk revolution,” when the communist dominance was overturned, but ultimately allowed Akayev to concentrate more power in himself as president.
On energy, the big powers are jockeying for more access to the region’s resources, but the Central Asian states want more independence and benefits from the arrangements. For example, China’s involvement with Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan is competing with Russia, which is trying to monopolize the region’s energy with Gazprom and Lukoil. China’s deal with Turkmenistan is pressuring Russia to accept Turkmenistan’s demands of price increases. Turkmenistan is also looking to move its gas southward, to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India.
Beshimov recognized that Kazakhstan’s development path was the traditional model expounded by experts: the use of oil revenues for economic development first and then the reliance on a smooth transition to democracy. Kyrgyzstan, on the other hand, has what Beshimov called a “consensus model,” with democracy as a priority part of development. Beshimov stressed that a strong civil society minimized the risks of development, such as dividing Kyrgyz interests into northern and southern regions.
Dr. Anara Tabyshalieva outlined some political scenarios for Kyrgyzstan. She thought it unlikely that current president Kurmanbek Bakiev will remain in power until 2010 or even until the end of this year. While confidence in Bakiev’s control may be shaken, there is still a possibility of future coalitions between the president and other opposition leaders on agreed economic reform.
Tabyshalieva remarked that political discussions only focused on the sharing of power and lacked vision in social and economic reform. She recommended several ways that the international community could support Kyrgyzstan’s transition:
- support negotiations between the two political camps;
- prevent Russian intervention;
- prepare a team of professionals for conflict management;
- use financial conditionality to promote economic and social reform; and,
- continue to support civil society, media (e.g. Internet sites with information), and business sectors.
In the discussion session, Beshimov said that it had only been 15 years since the Soviet collapse and expressed confidence that increased sovereignty and integration for the region would come. He reiterated his call for the US to be prudent in its Central Asia policy because of the consequences of public opinion. For example, possible Western implication in Akayev corruption cases and poor World Bank and IMF policies have all contributed to a powerful opposition against the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) program which would partially write off Kyrgyzstan’s debt burden.
Beshimov urged support for the Tulip revolution given the repercussions for citizen movements throughout the region. He called for democratic support from India, which has to-date only shown interest in Central Asia’s energy reserves and as potential markets for Indian goods. The political events since the Tulip revolution represent an opportunity to learn. Lessons drawn from Kyrgyzstan will likely be important for future situations in Central Asia.