KYRGYZSTAN: LAND AT A CROSSROADS

Democracy falters as underworld forces flourish

by Jeff Kingston

Kyrgyzstan is referred to as a faltering state, meaning that it is not quite failing.

The International Crisis Group describes a government there that “lurches from crisis to crisis in the face of worsening political violence, prison revolts, serious property disputes and popular disillusion.”

The ICG warns that allowing democracy to fail in Kyrgyzstan could reinforce perceptions among regional governments that “the path to stability lies not in democracy but in dictatorship.”

Compared to other Central Asian states, Kyrgyzstan is considered a bastion of freedom. Wags would say that sets the bar rather low.

This mostly mountainous, landlocked nation with stunning alpine vistas and lakes is more than double the size of Hungary. It shares borders with China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Its water is a significant resource in this parched zone, but it does not have the hydrocarbon riches of its neighbors.

However, anti-government political rallies are tolerated in Kyrgystan, critical news commentary is published, pornography is openly sold, gambling flourishes, Internet cafes are unrestricted, couples walk about hand in hand and virtually anything goes. That also means drugs, prostitution, street crime, contract killings and random “taxation” by police. In this rough-and-tumble world, the country’s parliamentarians passed a law allowing them to carry guns to defend themselves.

People power

In 2005 the government was overthrown in the so-called Tulip Revolution, a demonstration of people power sweeping a corrupt regime out of office and into exile. In its wake, the new regime under President Kurmanbek Bakiyev has disappointed the people. Unemployment, underemployment and corruption remain endemic and are major grievances. And, as Prime Minister Feliks Kulov stated, “the biggest problem is that law-enforcement agencies have become intertwined with the criminals, and honest law-enforcement structures are afraid to fight crime.”

Democracy has provided an opening for organized crime to consolidate its influence within the government. In October 2005, the parliamentary chairman of the Committee on Defense, Security and Law Enforcement was murdered while in a prison on an inspection tour — apparently by the Chechen mafia. More recently, his brother, Ryspek Akmatbayev, one of the more notorious Kyrgyz crime bosses, was killed as he left a mosque. He lived dangerously by challenging the entrenched Chechen mafia, and had also become a political liability for the government.

By chance I had an opportunity to watch Kyrgyzstan’s distinctive democracy in practice as one of the parliamentary seats outside Osh was being contested. I arrived the day after the polls closed and tallying had begun.

Walking into one of the candidate’s compounds, I was struck by the hefty women wearing velvet, and with dazzling smiles featuring lots of gold teeth. Even more unmissable were the large number of beefy guys — slabs of muscle with anvil-size hands — and a preference, among older men, for cone-shaped white felt hats sweeping rakishly back from suntanned brows. The brutes are often 100-kg Greco-Roman wrestlers known as “sportsmen,” but to your average Kyrgyz, and me, they looked like very intimidating thugs. These men, nearly 600 of them, had been active “canvassing” the vote. This entailed them making their way as hired muscle from the sports halls to the streets, clubs, bazaars and now polling stations.

The belly laugh moment came during my interview with the diminutive candidate, an ex-judo champion, when he accused his opponent of voting fraud. Sanshar Kadyralev, 29, was calling for the electoral commission to not certify results from four polling stations, thereby ensuring his victory by a slim margin.

His opponent, who did not have a brigade of thugs and fled to the safety of the capital after the polling, was leveling similar counter-charges. Later, at the election commission office, some of Sanshar’s men were contesting the results. The election commissioner, a small middle-aged woman, was visibly frightened. How could she resist — and why would she put her family at risk over such a trifle as a parliamentary seat?

Knowing that Sanshar was a local crime boss controlling the Karasuu market, the largest in Kyrgyzstan, and various gambling and strip clubs, it was hard to credit his pained expressions of indignation. He was cagey about his backers and political network, but did finally admit that he was in contact with the nation’s leading crime boss, Ryspek Akmatbayev (since slain).

Fled to safety

Perhaps such occupational hazards explain why Sanshar was fidgety and nervous during the interview and why security was so tight. Young politicians like him with close ties to organized crime are dubbed the “karate kids,” on account of their making it more on their command of brawn than policies. They rise quickly, but tend to have short-lived careers. Such is the price of encroaching on the turf of the underworld’s Chechen “aristocracy.”

The big money is in moving drugs and laundering drug money in the many casinos blinking garishly through the night. Given the amount of opium pouring out of Afghanistan these days, this is serious money. Osh, a small dowdy town with no obvious sources of wealth, is reputedly a major drug-trafficking point. This helps explain the disproportionate number of late-model expensive sedans. And, by all accounts, a major heroin-addiction problem.

Driving through the stunning scenery of soaring mountains, snowfields and shimmering lakes, it is easy to understand why Kyrgyzstan is known as the “Switzerland of Central Asia.” But, according to my driver, appearances here are deceiving.

Ramil, 25, married with an infant son, is a locally born ethnic Russian who is unhappy with the state of affairs. For him, “faltering” means the government is failing to provide good jobs. He has a civil engineering degree, but if he managed to get a white-collar job he would earn less than $200 a month, compared with $50 for an uneducated day laborer. Instead he is a car trader, going to Latvia three times a year to bring back cars to resell in Bishkek at a 300-percent markup. Combined with the odd driving job, he can earn $800-$1,000 a month. He says the dream of many bright people in Kyrgyzstan is to migrate to Russia to study for graduate degrees and pursue professional careers that are unavailable at home. He guesses that real unemployment is close to 70 percent for university graduates.

Kyrgyzstan’s future is bleak in Ramil’s opinion due to deep ethnic and regional rifts, the pervasive influence of organized crime, corruption, drugs, prostitution and unstable families — he estimates the divorce rate is over 40 percent. He agrees with an older ethnic Russian we met who told me that since independence in 1991, nothing has changed for the better — Kyrgyzstan has been in continual decline.

Rumors of a coup

At the end of April, Bishkek was abuzz with rumors of a coup and a big anti-government rally. The press corps gathered in a chic rooftop bar decked out as a caravanserai, where they swapped rumors and speculated about the impending political tumult. In the end, none of them correctly predicted what would happen.

Demonstrators gathered to march to the main square in a leafy city where Lenin’s statue still stands and the architecture is monumental Stalinesque. The rain was splashing down and it seemed the government’s prayers for a small rally were answered. But as the crowds built up and the rain lifted, some 8,000 marchers descended on the main square just as they had done a year before when ousting the former president.

Apart from a few tooting kazoos, the marchers were subdued and orderly, holding aloft great blue flags emblazoned with tulips, and placards festooned with slogans. They were greeted by phalanxes of policewomen lining the boulevards and holding red carnations; brilliant theater and a savvy touch. The balaklava-clad commandos were off on the side roads.

As anti-government speakers addressed the rally, from the rear of the square several hundred riot policemen appeared banging their shields with their truncheons and opening up a corridor so the president and prime minister could step smartly onto the stage and hijack the rally.

Oratorical flourish

President Bakiyev was roundly booed as he told the crowd, “We are listening.” But he had stolen the moment and the rally. It was an unexpected and flamboyant gesture. In a country where getting guns is as easy as buying gum, for an unpopular leader to defiantly stand in front of a hostile crowd was gutsy. His oratorical flourish — “I am ready to die if it is my fate” — was over the top but still a stellar performance. He bought himself time.

The rally may not have led to a dramatic toppling of government, but it is a healthy sign. Such an anti-government demonstration would not have been permitted in any of the other Central Asian nations. For a country of 5 million, and given the nasty weather, it was a decent turnout, indicating that apathy and cynicism have not yet prevailed.

But the way the government managed the situation was impressive, especially its leaders’ calculated gamble. As one seasoned observer told me, though, the only reason the government stays in power is because they work well with those who have real power.

Later that evening, watching “La Traviata” at the grand opera house of Bishkek (there are nine of these opulent, Soviet-era relics scattered across Central Asia), the themes of betrayal and shattered dreams seemed all too apropos.