Kyrgyzstan – Central Asia’s Caged Canary


In Kyrgyzstan, independence has seen a resurgence in the popularity of an ancient national oral epic tradition known as the epos. Once vehemently suppressed by the Soviets, minstrels called akyndar now freely perform these unwritten narratives. The epos revolves around the national hero, Manas, and his battles against the endless invasions of hostile hordes of invaders in order to carve out and protect a homeland for his people. The epos teaches the values of love of homeland and national unity. It is not surprising to find such ideals at the core of the folklore of a people from Central Asia. Here, few events are as constant as the incursions of marauding foreigners.

History of U.S. Involvement

On February 13th, Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev announced that his government had signed a one-year agreement to lease a once dilapidated Soviet era air base near the capital Bishkek to the U.S military. The lease agreement is the product of a slowly evolving relationship between the two nations that began before September 11th. The Clinton Administration’s Central Asian policy sought to eliminate residual Russian imperialism in the region. Before 9/11, the mechanism of containment generally took the form of economic aid. However, since September 11th, U.S. presence has undergone a sea change, sprouting overnight from a temporary permit to use the Kyrgyz airstrip during the initial phase of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan to having the all the indicia of a permanent military presence. Already, senior U.S. officials in Kyrgyzstan have been quoted as stating that the U.S. airbase will remain long after the Afghan stage of the war has ended. By June, the U.S. plans to have 3,000 U.S. military personnel stationed there. Housing units are springing up. Like a beehive full of honey luring a hungry bear, tiny Kyrgyzstan is too sweet a deal for the U.S. to pass up. Kyrgyzstan is ideally located for military operations against positions in Afghanistan as well as Iran and Iraq; the two middle eastern members of President Bush’s “Axis of Evil”. Kyrgyzstan also provides the U.S. military a direct view of the vast Central Asian energy reserves and other abundant natural resources. Finally, it lies at the backdoors of both Russia and China.

Corruption and Despotism Plauge Current Regime

President Akayev has benefited both politically and personally from the U.S. military presence. In addition to a $33 million aid package, the Bush Administration included Kyrgyzstan as a recipient of part of its $42.2 million dollar border security equipment and training package for several Central Asian nations. U.S. military presence ensures that Kyrgyzstan’s neighbors will be more respectful of its territorial integrity, which has been a problem in the past. Additionally, there are reasons to believe Akayev benefits financially from his deal with the Americans. In an interview for this commentary, Peter Zalmayev, a Ukrainian human rights activist working closely with a prominent opposition leader now in prison on politically motivated charges, confirmed rumors of high-level corruption over the construction of the U.S. air base, “I know from various sources that the money for using it goes directly into the pockets of Akayev and his relatives through companies operating the ‘Manas’ Airport”.

Meanwhile, the current Kyrgyz regime slips towards despotism. A graduated escalation of human rights abuses now plagues this tiny nation, once the most promising of the post-Soviet Central Asian democracies. The Akayev regime has jailed opposition leaders and stifled the independent press. For their part, the Kyrgyz people have begun to display all the manifestations of a mounting discontent. Recent government crackdowns on opposition parties and leaders have led to hunger strikes and large protests. Just last week, in the southern province of Jalal-Abad, a harsh police crackdown on an anti-government protest led to several days of violence and the deaths of 6 protesters and many wounded.

This development generates concern among human rights groups working in Kyrgyzstan. Mr. Zalmayev echoes the feelings of many, “Akayev might have initially felt he had a clean bill of health from the U.S. government to crackdown harder on the opposition because he’s now one of America’s close allies.” A feeble reprimand by the State Department combined with civil unrest has tempered Akayev for the moment. However, his recent enthusiasm for oppression severely damaged the faéade of a viable democracy in Kyrgyzstan.

U.S. Precedents Offer Little Hope

Yet, despite the close relationship between the Bush Administration and the Akayev regime, anti-American sentiments remain atypical among most Kyrgyz people. The opposition continues to believe in the beneficial possibilities of a U.S. military presence. They hope the Bush Administration will use its considerable leverage with President Akayev to press for democratic reform. Among the immediate aspirations of the opposition are: the freeing imprisoned political dissidents, the reopening the independent presses and ultimately the holding of genuinely democratic elections. Mr. Zalmayev describes the current exigencies poignantly, “This regime is undergoing a serious crisis that has pushed the opposition to the extreme measures of hunger strikes and mass demonstrations. It signifies a new troubling stage in Kyrgyzstan’s history. The bottom-line is that the U.S. has significant leverage with Akayev and should use it to the fullest potential to make sure it doesn’t become another Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan, which it has been doing at a fast pace.”

There is good reason to worry about the totalitarian precedents currently being set by Kyrgyzstan’s influential southern neighbors, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Neither nation is a democracy in any credible use of the term. The State Department has declared both nations to be authoritarian states with limited civil rights. And yet, for the price of strategic military locations and access to potential mineral wealth, the U.S. is willing to overlook the their human rights abuses and democratic inadequacies. For example, in the case of Uzbekistan, last month the State Department uttered pro forma rebukes of sham elections and other human rights violations, only to have such staunch advocates of democracy as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Gen. Tommy Franks and Assistant Secretary of State Beth Jones quickly arrive to lave the despot Islam Karimov with promises of money and military aid. On January 29th, the Bush Administration promised to triple its foreign aid to Uzbekistan. With neither nation has the U.S. tied foreign aid and military support to democratic reforms and human rights improvements. The reluctance of the Bush Administration to press Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to pursue democratic reform does not bode well for how the U.S. will handle the current Kyrgyz crisis.

The history of U.S. foreign policy in Central Asia and the Near East does not offer much reason for optimism either, as it too is littered with stark contradictions between the declared democratic objectives of the U.S. and the unscrupulous means it utilizes to obtain control and influence. The U.S. confronted a similar dilemma with Shah Mohamed Reza Pahlavi in Iran. The Shah is a perfect example of just how much internal repression the U.S. will tolerate in its friends. Faced with a growing native unrest, the U.S. chose blind and unconditional support for its despotic ally. This resulted in both a political and tactical disaster when the forces of radical Islam manipulated the opposition forces to foment (and eventually co-opt) a revolution.

The good will of the Kyrgyz should not be taken for granted. It can change for the worse if Bush Administration fails to adequately press for reform and creates the perception that it will unconditionally support President Akayev with a blind eye as long as he gives the U.S. what it wants. Like a miner’s canary whose breathing has begun to weaken, tiny Kyrgyzstan’s problems serve as a warning of coming troubles.

And so the arrival of Americans begins a new chapter of the Kyrgyz epos. Generations from now how will the akyndars sing of the U.S.? Will they amend the epos to celebrate the U.S. as the great ally of a new Manas who secured democracy for his people? Or will they sing of a new Manas who once again had to save Kyrgyzstan from the latest in a long series of unwelcome invaders?

Ross Peters is a human rights attorney based in Santa Fe New Mexico, USA.