The Magazine

The Kyrgyz Take Their Stan

A democratic revolution in Central Asia?

Apr 11, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 28 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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THE FINAL OUTCOME OF THE Tulip Revolution--as the political upheaval in Kyrgyzstan has been dubbed--remains murky. But its historic and geopolitical significance is already clear.

After the democratic transformations of Georgia and especially Ukraine, it became obvious that the former Soviet republics of Central Asia would be the next area of ferment. When I visited Central Asia last December, the example of Ukraine was an understated but persistent topic of conversation.

Kyrgyzstan, with five million people, is the smallest and weakest of the chain of post-Communist independent states in the region. The ex-Soviet "stans" comprise Uzbekistan, largest in population; Kazakhstan, largest in area and with the highest standard of living; Turkmenistan, with the worst political regime but economic advantages thanks to its energy industry; Tajikistan, torn apart by a civil war that drew Wahhabi extremist warriors from Saudi Arabia in the 1990s, and the only one of the five with a Persian, non-Turkic, culture; and the smallest, Kyrgyzstan, several times in its history a victim of invasion by its Chinese and Mongolian neighbors.

Its high mountains, the Tien Shan or Heavenly Peaks marking the frontier with China, earned Kyrgyzstan the nickname "the Switzerland of Central Asia." Like the Helvetian republic, it has enjoyed peace over the past decade, having been spared the religious conflicts that erupted between Islamists and post-Communists in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, to say nothing of the horrors in nearby Afghanistan. Along with Uzbekistan, it established a new relationship with the United States, permitting an airbase on its territory.

But even during its years under Soviet rule, Kyrgyzstan retained a firm memory of historic, resolute defiance of Russian domination, which always made it something of a ticking time bomb. Similarly, the Georgians, rather amazingly, never forgot that their independent republic, led by Mensheviks, or moderate social democrats, had been forcibly overthrown by Bolsheviks in 1921. The Ukrainians had been dragged into the Soviet Union in 1922, and their nationalism was and remains pronounced.

For their part, the Kyrgyz recall how in 1916, after only 50 years of Slav colonization, they rebelled against conscription by the Tsarist army. Some 150,000 Kyrgyz were killed by Russian settlers and punitive troops in what amounted to a vast race riot. Thirty percent of the Kyrgyz population was dead by 1920, many of whom starved while fleeing to China.

When communism fell in 1991, the Kyrgyz, as a nation, resembled Rip Van Winkle, blinking in the bright daylight of independence after a long sleep. They had always had an anti-authoritarian streak, unlike the Uzbeks who submitted to cruel khans, and the Kazakhs who accepted an alliance with Russia, in the 18th century, as an alternative to the rapacity of Mongolian and Tibetan Buddhist raiders. Also unlike the Uzbeks, they were never formalistic or punctilious about their Islam.

Although, like nearly all the Turkic peoples, the Kyrgyz accepted the faith of Muhammad, their religion rested lightly on a considerable body of shamanistic and tribal tradition brought centuries before from Siberia. The Islamist ideological movement Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT), or the Liberation party, has infiltrated southern Kyrgyzstan, where it appeals to a significant and aggrieved Uzbek minority, but Kyrgyz Muslims are cold to such blandishments, and the threat of HuT has been grossly exaggerated by the Russian government and others.

Given their independent spirit and commitment to hard work, it is no wonder the Kyrgyz found the legacy of Soviet communism, and the failure of their government to assure entrepreneurial opportunities, unbearable. Soon after independence, their president, Askar Akayev, a scientist rather than a Communist bureaucrat, and in power since 1990, promised a transition to democracy. But Akayev, like other leaders in the region, soon forgot his reforming pledges, and thus reignited the fire of rebellion in Kyrgyz hearts.

A new phase in the history of the region began in February when Kyrgyz elections were held, but opposition and independent candidates were banned. On March 24, after a second round of voting perpetuated the restrictions on the ballot, anger overflowed. Rebels suddenly appeared and took over major cities, then seized the presidential White House. Akayev was driven out of Bishkek, the capital, and Kurmanbek Bakiyev, prime minister in 2001 and 2002, assumed power as acting chief executive. Akayev reportedly went to Russia to resume his scientific career but has delayed his official resignation.