MOSCOW — The city “went mad” amid an “orgy of looting.” Thousands of people of all ages roamed the streets, plundering shops and government offices. Armed with sticks, they smashed everything they couldn’t take home and fought each other over valuable spoils. The dictator’s palace, foreboding in the past, attracted looters like yellow jackets to a jar of honey.
Were these scenes from the Crusaders’ raid of Constantinople in 1204, or the entry of Genghis Khan’s troops in Baghdad in 1258? Neither. It was a “democratic uprising” last week in Kyrgyzstan.
Kyrgyzstan has become the third nation of the former Soviet Union in 18 months to topple its government — after Georgia and Ukraine. But if Georgia had a quick and largely nonviolent coup d’etat and Ukraine a well-organized campaign of civic disobedience, Kyrgyzstan is having a pogrom.
Not too many people could put the country on the map. The Microsoft guys obviously couldn’t, as my 2004 computer spell-checker doesn’t even have Kyrgyzstan in its database. But if you seek a setting for a mystery novel, look no further.
The scenery is breathtaking, with spectacular mountain peaks, plateaus and glaciers and an average elevation of 3,000 meters. Highlights include the Oriental poppy (aka heroin bloom), radical mullahs, gold mines, American and Russian air bases. (The Russians kept their bases after the collapse of the Soviet Union; the Americans moved theirs in to position their troops for strikes against Afghanistan.)
Until the collapse of the Soviet empire, Kyrgyzstan had never known sovereignty — and hadn’t had any established centers of commerce or learning: Both do poorly at an altitude of 3,000 meters. The independence granted in 1991 brought about the regime of Askar Akayev. Although thought to be milder in tone than the rest of the Central Asian republics, it was still quite revolting: opponents jailed, relatives promoted, budget money happily appropriated.
Akayev, a physicist, used to be president of the Kyrgyz Academy of Sciences and, for a while, enjoyed the reputation as the only enlightened leader in the area. The reputation evaporated with the state funds that his family embezzled.
With just 7 percent of the rocky terrain considered arable and an equally bleak outlook for industry, the 5 million people of Kyrgyzstan live from hand to mouth. Widespread corruption and the post-Soviet failure of the welfare system reduced many settlements to misery.
Today, life expectancy for males is 59. As for modern conveniences, Kyrgyzstan has 49 TV sets per 1,000 people (vs. 844 in the U.S. and 421 in Russia). The latter indicator means that most Kyrgyz learn about regime change from their neighbors, not from the mass media.
One wants to be a little spider on the wall, first at the American air-base facility in Kyrgyzstan and then at the Russian one. The two forces are stationed in the Central Asian republic like Roman legionnaires in backwater areas of the Mediterranean. What makes the situation difficult is that the two forces belong to two competing powers.
Both America and Russia downplayed Akayev’s abuses of power, as both needed his territory for military deployment against Islamic fundamentalists. Russia also wanted to keep a vestige of its imperial presence in place. But who now will get the ear of the new government in Bishkek — U.S. President George W. Bush or Russian President Vladimir Putin?
U.S. influence prevails in two other hot spots of the former Soviet Union — Ukraine and Georgia — but Kyrgyzstan is a Muslim nation and, given the unpopularity of the Iraq war among Muslims, the chances are that Moscow will win out over Washington there.
Still, it would be better if the two nations acted in accord. Kyrgyzstan is a Central Asian backwater with a stormy potential, bordering the three post-Soviet Muslim republics of Kazakstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan as well as the Muslim areas of China. Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden presumably still lurks, is just 120 km away.
Apart from bin Laden, Afghanistan is also a major source of heroin, derived from the aforementioned beautiful Oriental poppy. As heroin kills more people worldwide than Islamic fundamentalism, every potential new outlet for Afghan drugs ought to be blocked. No doubt, policymakers in Moscow and Washington realize these challenges.
In Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, the looting frenzy subsided due to the limited number of goods available. People returned to their poor households carrying the spoils of the revolt. The presidential palace is being cleaned up and ready for a new occupant. Now what?
No country in the region has ever had anything even remotely resembling democracy, and Kyrgyzstan is hardly the one to start the tradition. The opposition leaders could be well-intentioned and the society waiting for change, but poverty and isolation are bad vehicles to carry a nation to an accountable government and freedom of speech.
After another undemocratic regime farther south, that of the shah of Iran, was swept away by popular revolt, what followed proved much worse — a Dark Ages rule by religious fanatics who banned the free press as well as lipstick.
Ironically, the presence of American and Russian troops in Kyrgyzstan can prevent this from happening. Unable to overhaul yet another Muslim nation, Moscow and Washington could nevertheless stop it from becoming a venue for drug traffickers and ranting mullahs.
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