Thursday, 8 April 2010

Kyrgyzstan and the death of the Tulips

Kyrgyzstan: few people can even spell it, let alone point to it on a map. And even less will care about its plight while all eyes are focussed on Cameron and Brown's race to Downing Street. To be fair, BBC coverage of the unfolding crisis hasn't been at all bad but expect it to drop of rapidly as the election campaign hots up and the now recycled footage of burning trucks and dead protesters becomes too familiar to re-run.

Its one of those tragic political ironies that President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, now powerlessly hiding out in the South of the country, came to power 5 years ago in the Tulip Revolution - a popular uprising against corruption and authoritarianism. Like so many leaders- Uganda's Museveni, Zimbabwe’s Mugabe and Equatorial Guinea's Obiang being amongst today's worst examples - he turned into the exact abusive dictator that he fought to depose. The Tulips are well and truly dead.

But Kyrgyztan's turmoil is reflective of something much bigger - the failure of any real political progress in Central Asia. Since the Soviet Union collapsed and five new Central Asian Republics (known colloquially as the 'stans) were formed, the region has been blighted continuously by brutal dictators, sham elections and horrendous human rights abuses. President Niyazov's leadership of Turkmenistan - marked by rotating gold statues, a ban on beards and an attempt to build a palace of ice in one of the world's hottest climates - would have been almost laughable if it wasn't for the extrajudicial executions and mass starvation. Uzbek President Karimov's practice of boiling opponents alive sounded like something out of medieval times, not contemporary politics. And Tajikistan's recent legislative election, succinctly summed up by the Economist as "change you can't believe in", was so corrupt and shambolic that you could be excused for wondering why the government even bothered.

To the credit of the West some work is being done. The OSCE and American government are working to try and foster some form of democracy in Turkmenistan whilst the UK, among others, is providing aid to several Central Asian States, including Kyrgyzstan, with a portion devoted to improving governance. But these efforts are often uncoordinated and weak.

And they always shy away from criticising the ruling regime.

Why? Because Central Asia is on a fault line. It lies between the Russian and 'Western' spheres of influence. It also plays host to several military bases from both sides - the US ones playing a fundamental role in bombing raids on Afghanistan and Iraq. If that's not enough a lot of opposition movements (especially in Uzbekistan) are Islamic. So it doesn't pay to rock the boat. Craig Murray's excellent memoirs Murder in Samarkand show just how willing the US and UK have been to turn a blind eye to the Uzbek government's abuses, including widespread torture, in return for information and an ally in the 'War on Terror'.

And Kyrgyzstan is no different. In fact, as it plays host to both Russian and US bases, there is all the more reason for these governments to stay onside with whoever is in power. Ms Otunbayeva -one of the leaders of the current uprising- has already said that "some questions have to be considered" regarding the status of the bases. It wouldn't be too far off the mark to read this as a thinly disguised warning: "support me because I now call on shots on whether you get to keep your military presence here". Consequently neither Washington nor Moscow will want to go further than the other in criticising any developments in Kyrgyzstan.

On top of this you can add a big splash of public indifference in Western states. The UK currently spends just over £2 million on helping improve governance and democracy in Kyrgyzstan. In context that is next to nothing...but why splash out if it’s not going to win you any votes? Crises in Africa and Eastern Asia have often generated widespread public outcry in 'the West' but all too frequently, and for a whole host of reasons, Central Asia is overlooked. How many people have heard of the Andijan Massacre compared to the Tiananmen Square Massacre, even though it occurred 16 years more recently?

I should emphasise that I'm not blaming Central Asia's problems on outside states. Not by a long shot. The region's tragedies have been primarily generated by brutal and sometimes frankly insane leaders who are all to ready to abuse their own people for personal gain.

But there is more the international community can do to help. 'The West' should cooperate with Russia to provide coordinated governance-building programmes - and to provide strong, joint criticism when abuses occur. Governments should also invest more into aid and development, and not be willing to sell-out human rights and democracy for the sake of militarily strategic alliances. Big businesses investing in natural resources also have a role to play and should be encouraged to consider the region's citizens - not just their own profits.

And we, the public, should tell our elected representatives that we want them to act for Central Asia,that we care about its future.....that we care about Kyrgyzstan.

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