A worry for all countries involved in Afghanistan – including Australia – the recent events in Kyrgyzstan’s April revolution (which led to the end of the regime of Kurmanbek Bakiev) could have potentially far-reaching consequences in destabilising all of Central Asia and possibly regions beyond it. The implications of the event cannot be understood unless one would take into account the fact that the instability has several dimensions. The first is related to the interaction of the great powers that have been engaged in vying for influence in the area. Here, the relationship between Russia and the United States is the most important. The second dimension—and from our point of view, the most important—is the role that is played by jihadists who could well take advantage of the potential crisis. Of course, one should remember that any assessment of the events, and even more so any prediction, could only be preliminary in nature for the combination of events could be quite unpredictable.
The state as the player
The April revolution in Kyrgyzstan could be placed in the context of other upheavals in the post-Soviet era, called by Russian observers “orange revolutions.” Here, the reference is to the orange colour that was a symbol of the revolution in Ukraine, which brought to power President Viktor Yushchenko. His ideology implied that Ukraine had actually nothing in common with Russia, seen here as a sort of Asiatic monster, whose non-Western cultural genes, so to speak, made incorporation into the Western order impossible. Consequently, Ukraine should be orientated toward the West. This pro-Western orientation of “post-orange” Ukraine had a profound implication for the Russian elite’s vision of similar upheavals in the future.
The entire post-Soviet time had been a great disappointment for the majority of the people of the former USSR. Despite all of the external emphasis on the importance of liberty and national liberation, most of the simple folk assumed that the collapse of the communist regime and the end of Moscow domination would bring drastic improvements in living standards. Still, this did not happen. Moreover, in most cases, the living standard for the majority declined rapidly. There has also been a steady process of social polarisation when tiny minorities have accumulated economic fortunes. There were clear signs of the potential for social disorder. Still, Russian observers ignored all of these obvious pre-conditions for protest and regarded the revolutions in Ukraine and, later in 2008 in Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, as just the conniving plots of the Americans. Indeed, the Russians’ vision of the revolutions in post-Soviet space was pretty much the same as the explanation of revolution by monarchist intellectuals. These Russian monarchists proclaimed that the Revolution of 1917 in Russia was just a product of a Bolshevik plot and the Bolsheviks themselves were just a people bought by Germany. The assumption that the “orange” revolutions were just a product of Western, mostly United States, conniving was reinforced by the fact that the revolutions had contributed to an increasing American presence in the region; and Moscow increasingly resents this.
When the Bush administration invaded Afghanistan, Vladimir Putin was one of the first world leaders who supported American actions and did not initially object to the emergence of American bases in Central Asia. Still, this approval was given with tongue-in-cheek. Indeed, Putin’s policy toward the United States was hardly consistent. One should remember that Putin came to power as the man who wished to undo many aspects of Yeltsin’s foreign policy; and here, he followed the public mood. Indeed, the majority of the Russian public became increasingly anti-American by the end of Yeltsin’s tenure; and after NATO’s attack against Serbia, the notion that the United States was an aggressive predator who could well strike Russia became supported – not just by the nationalists and communists (whom their enemies dubbed members of the “Red to Brown” opposition), but even by liberals.
Following the public mood, Putin proclaimed that he will “…Lift Russia from its knees,” and he made several clearly anti-American steps. He resumed the selling of sophisticated weapons to Iran and increased contact with North Korea. The American invasion of Iraq (which Russia opposed) and especially the war with Georgia had increased the tension between Moscow and Washington – Moscow believed that Tbilisi would never dare to strike Russia without Washington’s direct encouragement.
After the change of leadership in Washington, the relationship between the United States and Russia did become less tense. The United States and Russia signed a new arms agreement, and Moscow became increasingly worried by the sign of Taliban assertiveness in Afghanistan. Moscow (or at least some of the influential members of the Russian elite) was still quite suspicious about America’s long-term planning and approached American bases in Central Asia from this perspective.
First, they assumed that the bases in Central Asia, and even the American presence in Afghanistan, had nothing to do with fighting the terrorist threat but was just a good excuse to control the strategic and resource-rich areas. Moreover, some Russian pundits assumed that September 11 was just a deed of the United States’ elite, with it striking itself just to have an excuse to occupy a strategically important piece of Eurasia. Secondly, regardless of the Americans original intentions, present-day jihadism in Afghanistan is a serious threat for Russia, and many are still convinced that Russia should not fully support the United States and definitely should not trust them completely. They believe that the United States would understand that it would not be able to end the jihadists’ insurgency and would try to direct it away from a Western target to Russia. Consequently, the Russian elite’s approach to American bases in Central Asia and the USA/NATO activities in Afghanistan in general was controversial. On one hand, Moscow would not mind helping. For example, The Kremlin would not mind helping the United States to transfer essential goods to Afghanistan through the former USSR – only by passing through Russian territory, with Moscow having complete monopoly on the transit route. This would ensure that Washington would not mind keeping Moscow content, and would make an important concession to Russia. All of this defines Moscow’s approach to the air base in Manas in Kyrgyzstan, which is quite important for transferring goods and soldiers to Afghanistan. Moscow wanted the base to be closed; The Kremlin promised Maxim Bakiev, the Kyrgyz President, a substantial sum on this condition. Bakiev, while accepting Moscow’s grants, still decided to keep the base. This infuriated Russia; and here, some members of the elite tried to do in Bishkek, what—as they assumed—had been done by the Americans. Moscow wanted to do its own “orange” revolution; but in such a case it was to benefit The Kremlin. Indeed, whether Moscow helped to trigger the uprising or whether this is just a rumour, it is not clear. The immediate cause was the hike in utilities.
The April 2009 revolution led to the collapse of the Bakiev regime and the installation of a provisional government and a new leader, a Moscow-educated lawyer, Roza Otunbaeva, a liberal with social leanings. It looked like Moscow should be quite pleased by the result and could expect the closing of the American base in the foreseeable future. However, the reality is quite different. The point is that the revolution did not just remove one regime and replace it with another (as was the case in 2005), but led to considerable destabilisation of the country, with far-reaching consequences. This destabilisation has several levels and could result in ethnic, regional conflicts, wholesale civil war and/or the spread of jihadism.
One of the reasons for this is that the new emerging government lacks legitimacy in one important aspect. While fearful for his life, Bakiev scribbled a note in which he supposedly relinquished power in exchange for free passage from the country. Still, upon arrival in Belorussia, he received assurance from Lukashenko (the Belorussian President) that he was not only safe there, but was still seen as the legitimate President of Belorussia Kazakhstan. The reason for Lukashenko’s treatment of Bakiev was Lukashenko’s quite tense relationship with Moscow, Brussels and Washington; and the fact that all three recognised the new regime provided the incentive to Lukashenko to do the opposite. He was hardly alone. No other regimes in the republics of the former USSR recognised the new government in Bishkek.
With a renewed sense of confidence, Bakiev had proclaimed that he actually still was President and that the present regime was illegal. He also appealed to the people of Southern Kyrgyzstan for support, and his appeal had grounds. The point is that Kyrgyzstan, and of course not just Kyrgyzstan, was quite regionally divided. Regional identities and allegiances were very strong. Bakiev was from the South, from where he took most of the people to a place of lucrative bureaucratic jobs with, of course, a license for corruption, viewed (as was the case throughout most of past Soviet space) as pretty much a legitimate enterprise.
Consequently, for southerners, the end of the Bakiev regime was a huge blow. They launched several demonstrations, made an attempt to take over the power in some localities and even put forward the idea of separation of the South from the rest of the country and creating an independent State. This regionalism was reinforced/complicated by ethnic problems. The point is that the South had occupied part of the Fergana Valley, a fertile and multi-ethnic region divided among several Central Asia states. The Fergana Valley, including its Kyrgyz part, had not only Kyrgyz but also a considerable Uzbek population; and they all hardly get along well.
Already in the final year of the Soviet regime, when the controlling/repressive power of the state weakened any conflicts, violent clashes between local Uzbeks and Kyrgyz erupted, with the deaths of several hundred people. The hatred of the Uzbeks continued to be high, and there was a rumour that snipers who shot the natives during the April events were ethnic Uzbeks. It was emphasised in this case that Kyrgyz would never shoot another Kyrgyz; thus the shooting could have only been done by people of different ethnicity and who hate (or at least were indifferent to) Kyrgyz’s suffering. With all the tension between the Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, it was not Uzbeks who became the victims of the natives. They mostly attacked Meskhetian (an ethnic group deported to the region by Stalin several generations ago), local Russians, Jews and Chinese. The natives demanded the redistribution of land, purging Kyrgyzstan from non-Kyrgyz and also engaged in looting and vandalism.
As many other events in history, the April revolution was pregnant with many alternatives. No one could foresee all the options. Many of them would be quite bizarre, and situations could change rapidly. Still, one could sketch out some of the possible alternatives. To start with, the destabilisation of the country and regions was not predestined. It was the second revolution in Kyrgyzstan. The first took place in 2005—and the poverty, animosities and the like had existed for almost 20 years. Still, there was no grand appeal that spread all over the region and beyond. The local elite were able to solidify power and re-establish control and proceed in a business-as-usual fashion. Thus, one should not exclude the same scenario for the future.
Still, other scenarios are quite possible, and they imply various levels of destabilisation. There are several reasons why these scenarios could be quite possible. First, each successful transition of power in Central Asia implied the transition from one authoritarian or semi-authoritarian ruler to another. In the case of Kyrgyzstan, it was a transition from the soft/benign authoritarianism of Askar Akaiev to that of the much harsher Bakiev, who had emphasised the violence that killed dozens and wounded hundreds of people. The present regime has tried to be truly democratic and, in a way, soft. Moreover, the Provisional Government entertained plans of abolishing the office of President completely so as to avoid the temptation for authoritarian degeneration. In the context of Central Asian political tradition, this implied not the fostering of democratic traditions but just a weak government. In addition, law enforcement (blamed for the bloodshed and backing Bakiev’s regime in general) became discredited and, as one could assume, a considerable number of them have little aptitude for employing force in case of a new upheaval. Last, but not least, it was a woman who became the leader of the Provisional Government, and this also might contribute to the weakening of the regime. Indeed, in traditional Central Asian societies, it is a man who is usually seen as the leading authoritarian figure who could command respect. And, of course, the economic situation in the country could hardly improve. As a matter of fact, any revolutions, while born from economic grievances, usually make the situation worse. All of this implies that destabilisation along regional and ethnic lines could well proceed, or at least lead to a new eruption in the future. If this happens, one could see the following scenarios: involvement of outside powers in conflict, the partition of the country, and/or jihadisation of Kyrgyzstan, with the possible integration of the country into the broader Islamic extremist movement.
The ethnic conflicts and general instability could lead to the involvement of nearby states in Kyrgyzstan events.
a) Russian/American cooperation. Russia’s involvement in the April revolution was actually aimed against American interests. Moscow wished to install a regime that would close the United States base in Manas and make Russia the only middleman. Still, if chaos would persist, and especially attacks against ethnic Russians, Russia might well consider cooperation with the United States. One might assume that the United States also did not exclude the possibility of a broader involvement in Central Asia in case of the spread of chaos. One might doubt that this cooperation, if it would occur, would be lasting and deep for there is too much suspicion on both sides.
b) Russia/the Central Asian States/China’s cooperation. Russia has a security agreement with several Central Asian states. Still, there is too much discord between them to ensure close military cooperation. At the same time, Uzbekistan could directly engage in events alone under the excuse of protecting the Uzbek minority in the South and take over the region. Finally, China could be engaged under the excuse of protecting the Chinese in the republic and, receiving a mandate from the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, move troops into the area, taking a cautious step in ensuring its geopolitical presence in the area with the aim of replacing in the future two competing and duelling powers—the United States and Russia.
Jihadism as alternative
The continuous destabilisation of Kyrgyzstan and the inability of either internal or external forces to maintain order could lead to fully-fledged anarchy, with jihadisation of the regime. There seems to be two major sources of the Islamic extremists who could destabilise the situation in the country.
One originated in Afghanistan and nearby Tadjikistan, which had experienced a bloody civil war between the Islamists and their opponents in 1992-1997, called by locals “Vovchiki” and “Iurchiki.” While the war ended in a sort of compromise, with the incorporation of Islamists in the government, the situation in the country was hardly stable. Tadjikistan also bordered Afghanistan, with Tadjik and Uzbek populations and an active role of such Islamist organisations as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. In 1998-2000, the Islamists, in some cases in detachments of up to a thousand-man strong, had invaded Kyrgyzstan from Tadjikistan––most likely the groups originated in Afghanistan, with Uzbeks as a core. The leading role of Uzbeks in these forays could be seen by the fact that some of the groups demanded the liberation of prisoners in Uzbek jails and went on to move to Uzbekistan to launch the revolt against Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan strong man. Kyrgyzstan for them was mostly a launch pad for engagement with Uzbekistan, not a goal in itself. Karimov was apparently concerned with the possible implications of the jihadists’ invasion in Kyrgyzstan and sent Uzbek military aircraft to bomb the Islamist position.
The other source of Muslim extremism was the Uzbek Islamists in the South in the Fergana Valley. In 2005, when both the revolution in Kyrgyzstan and the Adijan uprising took place, some Kyrgyzstan Uzbeks moved to Uzbekistan to participate in the revolt. Some observers believed that these Kyrgyzstan Uzbeks were moving to Uzbekistan even before the uprising. As these observers claimed, they were quite aware that a revolt was coming and were prepared to participate in the uprising; while the Bakiev government tried to claim its rule over Islamists shortly before the April revolution. Still, the Islamists (apparently mostly ethnic Uzbeks) continued to be present in the South and evidently were quite pleased by the April revolution.
One Islamist, in an interview with a correspondent of the AFP explained why he believed that the revolution could be quite a boon for Islamists. He pointed out that the April revolution and the Provisional Government, with its democratic and quasi-socialist ideas, would hardly be able to improve the life of the majority and the populace would soon be quite disappointed. He also implied that Western capitalism is discredited and that for the disappointed masses, Islamism could be the only viable creed, for these Islamists had implicitly followed the logic of Lenin and his Bolshevik supporters in 1917, soon after the collapse of the tsarist regime as a result of the February/March Revolution. Lenin proclaimed that the emerging Provisional Government would not give them what the Russian populace wanted: land, bread and peace. Consequently, they would soon lose interest in the Russian Provisional Government—the government of landlords and capitalists, quite similar from this perspective to that of the tsarist government, and would turn to the Bolsheviks for guidance. The Islamists from Kyrgyzstan sound pretty much the same.
Of course, one should not overestimate the chance for the full-blown jihadisation of Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstan is one of the most secular states in Central Asia and, similar to Kazakhstan, and has been influenced by Russian culture even more than other states of the area. The influence of Russian culture/language was due to the considerable members of Russian-speaking residents of Kyrgyzstan of various ethnic backgrounds. The prominence of Russian culture/language could be seen by the fact the Kyrgyz writer, Chingis Aitmatov writes in Russian and is well-known in the USSR.
Whilst the jihadisation of Kyrgyzstan is unlikely, it could well play the role of lynch-pin for the jihadisation of Uzbekistan. Here, the popularity of Islamism continues to be quite high, leading to actually draconic measures. The author was told by one of his Uzbek acquaintances that Karimov had prohibited the call for Friday praying from minarets. According to another report, Karimov had interdicted what he regarded as Islamic dress. It was not surprising that Karimov was much concerned by the April revolution and rushed to Moscow to discuss the situation. He received Moscow’s assurance that it does not have a plan for the destabilisation of the Kyrgyzstan situation. While in Moscow, Karimov also expressed his indignation at the articles published in the Russian press where the authors pointed out that the Uzbeks are anxious to follow the example of Kyrgyzstan and rise against Karimov.
The events in Kyrgyzstan were induced by persistent poverty and social polarisation, which had become so characteristic of the entire post-Soviet space, especially Central Asia. At the same time, the events could be seen as a sort of Russian attempt to launch its own “Orange Revolution.” Whilst previous revolutions in post-Soviet space were seen by Moscow as being directed against it, the revolution in April in Kyrgyzstan was seen as the way to install a pro-Russian regime. Still, the upheaval could well get out of control and could lead to serious repercussions for Central Asia and beyond.