Kyrgyz coup brings promises of reform – again

Fresh start or a big mess? Workers in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, clean up broken windows following a coup Keystone

An interim government in Kyrgyzstan has promised to hold elections in six months after a violent takeover toppled the country’s leadership.

This content was published on April 8, 2010

Mohammad-Reza Djalili, a Central Asia expert at the Graduate Institute in Geneva, tells that there is little hope the power grab will lead to sweeping democratic reforms and better conditions for the country’s poor.

On Thursday, two days after uprisings spread from Talas in the west to the capital, Bishkek, the Swiss foreign ministry said it was “concerned” and watching the situation closely. At least 68 people have been killed.

“The foreign ministry has no knowledge of any Swiss victims,” it said in a statement. “Cooperation and the continuation of [Swiss-backed] projects are not threatened at this stage.”

Ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who had risen to power in the “Tulip Revolution” of 2005, was rumoured to be in the south of the country.

Interim President Roza Otunbayeva, head of the opposition, said officials need six months to prepare a new constitution and organise a presidential election “that meets all democratic rules”.

Djalili, who has been to Bishkek and written on the region, said the new leaders are promising to accomplish the same tasks Bakiyev failed to do – curb corruption, end nepotism and push for democracy. People are probably not very familiar with Kyrgyzstan. What can you tell us about it?

Mohammad-Reza Djalili: It’s a very poor, very small country. The other countries in the region, like Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, are much bigger.

But one of the peculiar things about Kyrgyzstan, it is the only country in the world where you have two big bases almost next to each other: A Russian one and an American one, both near Chinese territory.

It’s a very particular situation but hosting bases is also one of the country’s best resources. They don’t have much economic possibilities, no gas, no petrol, so having these bases is big business. The Americans stage many flights into Afghanistan from the base in Kyrgyzstan, Manas. How do all of these powers play off each other in the region?

M.R.: Russia pledged $2 billion to Kyrgyzstan to try to get them to close Manas but they didn’t do it. Moscow doesn’t want foreign bases in their “near abroad.” They pushed Uzbekistan to close American bases.

Kyrgyzstan is so poor and they need the help of the Americans. The relationship has deteriorated with Moscow, which accused Kyrgyzstan of being corrupt.

The problem of the past two days is the Chinese. They are really afraid of the changes in Bishkek and have taken a great interest in Central Asia. They are always afraid of any revolution or democratisation. Does this carry the potential for igniting bigger problems in the region?

M.R.: I don’t think Kyrgyzstan will affect the whole region, but the problem is the evolution of the situation in the future, whether it quiets down and there is no conflict between the north and the south.

For the moment, in my view, it’s a local question. If the violence continues, it can create problems because you have many Kyrgyz living in neighbouring countries like Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan. If it gets quiet fast, it will stay a local question. What has contributed to this coup?

M.D.: The first president was Askar Akayev, who made promises of democratisation but never did it.

After Akayev, five years ago, there was a “Tulip Revolution” that brought Bakiyev to power. The reason for that revolution was the same as today – against corruption, against the non-democratic attitude of the government. He also promised democratisation but after a few years nothing happened. The new government has made the same promises. I heard outrage over skyrocketing electricity bills broke the camel’s back and sparked the coup.

M.D.: Yes but I think it’s a bigger part of the economic situation, unemployment and the difficulty in resolving it for individual families and citizens. Take all of this together and it has produced the contestation of power.

People are getting poorer and poorer and there’s some very large inequalities between the population and the elite. The political elite has a very good economic situation and the majority of the population is really poor. The problem is there has been no real evolution to better the lives of the majority of the Kyrgyz. Why have the presidents not carried through on their promises?

M.D.: There are two reasons, economic and political. You have a nepotistic system in Kyrgyzstan. When somebody gets into power, all of his friends and family and colleagues are going to have everything and everyone else is shut out of the system. This is a very unjust society.

The government is not very strong. It has never been that way. They don’t have the same possibilities as the Uzbek or Kazakh governments, which have money, good police and an army. It’s a fragile state. How do you see the situation ending? Do you see this government tackling the same problems or in five years will there be another coup?

M.R.: We can hope the new government won’t make the same mistakes as the other one did but I’m not really so optimistic.

It’s a coup. It’s not a social change, a deep change. Maybe there will be more intelligent changes to the system but we must wait to see.

Tim Neville,

Kyrgyzstan facts

Population: 5.41 million
Size: 199,951 sq km (more than four times the size of Switzerland)
Life expectancy: 69.4 years old
GDP: $5.06 billion
GDP per capita: $934.40
Inflation: 21.21%
Unemployment: 18%
Major religion: Islam (65.1%)
Swiss exports: SFr11.4 million
Swiss imports: SFr5.5 million

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Swiss in Kyrgyzstan

About 55 Swiss nationals are registered with consulates in Kyrgyzstan. Switzerland recognised the country on Dec. 23, 1991, less than three months after declaring its independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Swiss projects in Kyrgyzstan have been temporarily suspended due to the unrest. The foreign ministry said its work has not “theoretically” been called into question.

Switzerland has been active in Kyrgyzstan with development aid since 1994. The country is part of a priority region, along with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Switzerland represents them at the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

Swiss involvement in Kyrgyzstan is a joint effort between the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (Seco). SDC supports projects in the law, energy and private sector, particularly in water management. Seco and SDC, an arm of the foreign ministry, have invested around SFr15.5 million in Kyrgyzstan.

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