Kyrgyzstan: Opportunities, though threat remains

By: Elizabeth Kendal

The former Soviet Republic of Kyrgyzstan became an independent state in 1991 under the leadership of Askar Akayev. Akayev introduced multi-party democracy and ensured that Kyrgyzstan had a level of openness unknown to its neighbours. However, after the US Transit Centre was established in December 2001 at Manas air base just outside the capital, Bishek, Akayev descended into massive corruption and nepotism.

Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin | RLPB 052 | Wed 21 Apr 2010

KYRGYZSTAN: OPPORTUNITIES, THOUGH THREAT REMAINS

The former Soviet Republic of Kyrgyzstan became an independent state in 1991 under the leadership of Askar Akayev. Akayev introduced multi-party democracy and ensured that Kyrgyzstan had a level of openness unknown to its neighbours. However, after the US Transit Centre was established in December 2001 at Manas air base just outside the capital, Bishek, Akayev descended into massive corruption and nepotism. But corruption and openness don't mix so, to allow corruption to flourish, openness and liberty had to be repressed. Akayev also learnt he could play the 'Cold-War-is-not-over-yet' game, pitting Russia and the US against each other for financial gain. However, US funds did not benefit the Kyrgyz population. While the masses remained impoverished, the Akayev clan grew very rich and very powerful.

The March 2005 'Tulip Revolution' that ousted Akayev was not a US-sponsored 'colour revolution'. Rather it was a people's revolt that, despite its violence, won the support of the US which claimed it was part of the domino effect of democracy. The US quickly transferred its business to the new president, Kurmanbek Bakiev, who quickly became even more corrupt than the man he had deposed.  Furthermore, President Bakiev's son, Maksim, reportedly earned himself as much as $8 million a month monopolising the sale of fuel to the base. Meanwhile, the masses remained impoverished with unemployment hovering around 18 percent. History was repeating itself and for all America's human rights rhetoric, it clearly saw the transit centre at Manas as a higher priority -- something not lost on the repressed and abused masses of Central Asia.

As corruption, repression and hardship escalated, the masses (especially in the more Muslim south) increasingly leaned towards the 'Islam-is-the-solution' message preached by the Islamic fundamentalists of the Ferghana Valley in southern Kyrgyzstan. To counter their influence, the Bakiev regime brutally crushed dissent and further escalated repression, a strategy that only served to fuel the cycle. On 12 January 2009, a highly repressive Religion Law was enacted. Whilst its primary target was the Islamic revolutionary Hizb-ut-Tahrir, Protestant Christians (around 0.5 percent) have been caught in its anti- 'new', anti-'foreign', anti-'small gatherings', anti-'religious literature', anti-'missionary' net. Because Protestant Christianity is 'divisive' -- winning converts from amongst Muslims and Russian Orthodox -- the regime exploited repression and persecution of Protestants as a convenient and easy way to appease aggrieved elements.

In late 2009, confident there was no organised opposition, Bakiev increased taxes and the cost of utilities. The first price hike came on 1 January 2010 and the second would hit six months later. Thus in the middle of winter, as temperatures dipped to minus 20 degrees Celsius, many Kyrgyz citizens found themselves forced to choose between spending 80 percent of their salary on utilities, or turning off the gas, electricity and hot water.  On 6 April 2010, anger and despair spilled into the streets. The protests escalated rapidly until the security forces, under the control of President Bakiev's brother, Zhanybek Bakiev, opened fire on the protesters, killing more than 80 and wounding hundreds more. However, Bakiev was ultimately ousted and, after initially retreating south, he has since fled to Belarus.

The new inclusive interim administration led by Rosa Otunbayev will hold democratic elections and a referendum on an amended constitution later this year. This provides a wonderful opportunity for religious liberty to be restored. The churches have been active throughout the crisis caring for the injured, visiting hospitals, holding prayer vigils, assisting with efforts to clean up the streets and repairing damage to public facilities. Kyrgyz ethnic-religious nationalism is a serious threat. On 19 April, a violent mob of around 1000 ethnic Kyrgyz -- all well organised outsiders -- rampaged through the village of Mayevka on the outskirts of Bishek. Five were killed as the mob burned homes and seized land belonging to ethnic Russians and Turks. Local Kyrgyz reportedly intervened to defend their besieged neighbours. Islamic forces will doubtless be viewing Kyrgyzstan's present vulnerability as their great opportunity.