Almaz Atambaev has been another prominent target of the authorities. Although his brief stint as Bakiev’s prime minister complicated his return to the ranks of the opposition, this northern politician emerged as the opposition’s unity candidate in this year’s campaign for the presidency. With no viable southern politician to carry the opposition banner into the election, Atambaev’s ability to finance his own campaign carried the day.
By Russian and Central Asian standards, Atambaev is from old money. He left his Soviet government post in 1989 to enter business in the newly liberalized environment of the Gorbachev era. He made his first millions in publishing in a country where bookstore shelves had been filled for decades with pulp propaganda. On the 8th of March, 1990, international women’s day, his company published the Soviet equivalent of the Joy of Cooking. He then turned to publishing Russian versions of popular foreign fiction, including The Godfather.
Unlike Tekebaev, he was able to afford a small army of bodyguards. In April 2009, the day before he announced his candidacy for president, I visited Atambaev at his office in a high-rise building on the outskirts of Bishkek. Like many buildings in the Kyrgyz capital, the structure screamed Soviet collapse, with pieces missing from the facade and design flaws everywhere. It was an aesthetic nightmare. A uniformed guard checked passes at the entrance and a number of large-necked men populated the stairs and the waiting room, where a television in the corner broadcast a soap opera. The “secretary” asked me to leave my cell phones on his desk.
The man and his office made very different impressions from the building. The office was modern and well-appointed, and Atambaev gracious and deferential, very much like Akaev, whose scholarly demeanor belied the harsh nature of his last years of rule. As a seasoned politician, Atambaev spoke in measured, purposeful phrases that never revealed more than he intended.
Despite his retinue of security personnel, Atambaev had been poisoned during his short tenure as prime minister. It was a fate he shared with numerous critics of post-communist regimes, including Ukraine’s Victor Yushchenko. When I met Atambaev, he was still recovering from surgery to combat the effects of the toxin, which had caused acute hepatitis. A few weeks after our meeting, he claimed that he was the subject of another attempt to poison him, this time while campaigning for the presidency in a small town in southern Kyrgyzstan. Video from the campaign stop, quickly placed on the internet by the Bakiev camp, showed the stricken opposition leader stumbling through a short speech as if in a drunken stupor. He would later seek treatment overseas for this poisoning. To use the Russian expression, this episode was part of a campaign of “black PR” that was designed to undermine support for Atambaev and the opposition. On election day itself, Bakiev supporters placed another video on the internet. This one suggested that Atambaev was having a liaison with a well-known Russian singer while his wife and children were waiting out the campaign in Turkey.
Atambaev’s presidential campaign had begun two months earlier on a more promising note. With the snow-capped Ala-Too Mountains as a backdrop, a thousand supporters from across the country gathered in a pasture in the village of Arashan, near Atambaev’s family home. It was the Kyrgyz version of a nominating convention, with delegates streaming onto a verdant field holding the red banners of Tekebaev’s Ata-Meken Party, the blue flags of Atambaev’s own Social Democratic Party, and a white banner symbolizing the unity of opposition forces. Stretching out in two wings from a central stage was a collection of yurts, each offering refreshments and refuge to a portion of the crowd: VIPs, the press, and delegates from each of the country’s seven regions. Beyond the yurts were boys and young men on horseback, preparing for the equestrian games that are obligatory at Kyrgyz celebrations.
On this unusually warm spring day, performers in national costumes took the stage to entertain the crowd. Nominating speeches followed from each regional delegation, with a seemingly endless stream of speakers claiming the microphone for their chance to praise the candidate and attack the evils of the Bakiev regime. Three hours later, when Almaz Atambaev rose to give his acceptance speech, the delegates greeted their candidate warmly but without particular enthusiasm. It was clear from the reactions of the crowd that what unified them was not the personality or ideas of Atambaev but their hatred of Bakiev.
Author at the April 2009 presidential nominating convention in the Kyrgyz countryside near Bishkek
Although this kurultai — a word for popular assembly handed down from the Mongols –brought together participants from diverse regions and parties, it highlighted the increasing ethnic and linguistic segregation in Kyrgyz politics. Only a single Russian spoke from the stage, and the only European faces in the crowd were from the media. Also absent were Central Asian minorities living in the country, such as Uzbeks. Although all ethnic groups are welcome at these events, the lack of minorities in party leadership roles and the use of Kyrgyz and not Russian as the language of the proceedings make such assemblies mono-ethnic affairs. Subject to russification for decades under Soviet rule, most Kyrgyz understandably revel in the opportunity to participate in a political gathering that openly celebrates their language and culture.
Following the kurultai, I joined a dozen top leaders of the opposition in a small yurt in a neighboring village for lunch. Over a meal of roasted horsemeat and other Kyrgyz delicacies, the politicians took turns proposing toasts to their newly nominated colleague. Assembled here in an atmosphere that had more in common with a family Thanksgiving than a political luncheon was an older generation of politicians who began their careers as Soviet functionaries and then embraced the challenge of leading a newly independent state. Over the years they had been political allies and adversaries, government officials and opposition leaders, and what united them at this moment was their fear of the Bakiev regime and the approaching end of their own political careers.
Missing from the equation were political ideas. In the rough-and-tumble of Kyrgyz politics, like politics in much of the developing world, personalities and not policies hold together most parties and political movements. But without a dominant personality or a consensus surrounding political values, it is difficult to assure the unity of the opposition and the support of the nation during an election. When I asked Almaz Atambaev about his political platform in the presidential campaign, he admitted that he didn’t have one. Instead of focusing on issues that could mobilize the population behind solutions to the country’s ills, he planned to frame the contest as a choice between a civilized democracy and a return to the cruelty of the Kokand Khanate, which controlled much of Central Asia before the tsars.
Unfortunately for the Kyrgyz opposition, in authoritarian regimes incumbents tend to frame the elections. They control not only the media and the lion’s share of campaign resources but also the election commissions that count the votes. Atambaev and other opposition leaders were all too aware of this reality. As they made clear to me at the beginning of the campaign, they had no illusions about winning the election through the ballot box. Like the oppositionists in Iran, their hope was to win the battle on the streets in the aftermath of the voting.
The script played out as expected on election day, July 23, 2009. The Central Election Commission declared President Bakiev the winner with more than 76 percent of the vote, to only 8.4 percent for Atambaev. International observers from the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe expressed their disquiet about the contest, noting that “election day was marred by many problems and irregularities, including ballot box stuffing, inaccuracies in the voter lists, and multiple voting.” Opposition supporters took to the streets, with as many as 1000 gathering in the small northern city of Balykchy before being dispersed by the police. Further demonstrations were planned for Bishkek and other cities.
But the massive uprising that opposition leaders had hoped for never occurred. Bakiev’s tougher hand had raised the cost of protest, and the failed promise of the Tulip Revolution made it more difficult to rally people to the barricades yet again. Regional divisions also played their role, as some anti-Bakiev southerners were reluctant to return power to a northern president. Finally, the opposition did not help itself during the campaign. Shortly after the nomination of Atambaev, a young, able, and ambitious opposition maverick named Temir Sariev announced his candidacy for the presidency, and thus diverted some support from Atambaev. Despite running a vigorous campaign, which adopted a slogan reminiscent of Obama’s–”Together we can!”–Atambaev did not explain convincingly how he would use the powers of the presidency to remake Kyrgyzstan. And in a risky move designed to de-legitimate the elections, both Atambaev and Sariev withdrew from the race on election day. In the end, the legitimacy and survivability of a regime are not just dependent on its methods of rule, or the underlying social and economic conditions, but also on the perceived alternatives to the status quo.
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For Bakiev, the most welcome international reaction to the deeply-flawed presidential election was the delayed and muted response of the United States. The country that once championed an open society in Kyrgyzstan had abandoned the critics of this authoritarian regime to their fate. In more than 35 interviews with Kyrgyz politicians and NGO leaders during the last two years, the one abiding refrain I heard concerned American disengagement from the internal forces for change in Kyrgyzstan. A year after her arrival in Bishkek, the American ambassador, Tatiana Gfoeller, had still not found time to meet Almaz Atambaev or other prominent opposition leaders. Leaders of NGOs who were sympathetic to Western values found themselves shunned by the American embassy. They were the subject instead of overtures from Russian diplomats, who had ignored them in the past.
The New Leader of Kyrgyzstan, Roza Otunbaeva, in traditional dress at the April 2009 kurultai (presidential nominating meeting)
Bakiev’s “get out of jail free” card with the United States was the Western airbase near Bishkek. As the former Kyrgyz ambassador to the United States, Baktybek Abdrisaev, explained in a Washington Post op-ed piece in February, “…once the base was established, it became clear that while other concerns might be voiced from time to time, only one thing really mattered: the air base.” The”resetting” of relations with Russia at the beginning of the Obama administration also discouraged American advocacy of political and economic reform in Kyrgyzstan. With ties to Ukraine and Georgia already creating tensions with Moscow, Washington was reluctant to spend its political capital in a small post-Soviet country even further from the West geographically and politically.
American acquiescence to the consolidation of authoritarianism in Kyrgyzstan brought its desired reward a few weeks before the Kyrgyz presidential election. In an about-face, the government of Kyrgyzstan agreed to extend the lease on the NATO base for another year. But in exchange for this temporary staging point for operations in Afghanistan, it appeared that the Americans would pay handsomely. The annual fees for leasing rights were tripled, and the Russians, who already had a military base near the Kyrgyz capital, were promised a new facility, this one an “anti-terrorist center” near the southern city of Osh in the Ferghana Valley region. This center was to operate within the framework of the Shanghai Co-operation Agreement, to which Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, and other Central Asian states were signatories.
The opening of a base in Osh had the potential to destabilize further the fertile Ferghana Valley, one of the world’s most densely populated and explosive regions. Divided among Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, the Ferghana Valley has long been an incubator of political and religious radicalism, and it is now a breeding ground for clandestine organizations like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and Hizb ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation). Where the IMU seeks to trigger a popular uprising through armed attacks directed at the government of Uzbekistan, Hizb ut-Tahrir has developed in southern Kyrgyzstan a mass underground party whose alleged commitment to non-violence does not square with its religious intolerance.
Bakiev seemed to believe that a base in the south would serve as a shield for Kyrgyzstan against these militant groups and against Kyrgyzstan’s larger neighbor, Uzbekistan, which had shown little respect for Kyrgyz sovereignty over the years. However, before negotiations with Russia could be finalized on the new base, the United States intervened to acquire its own “anti-terrorist center” in the Kyrgyz south. In early March 2010, Bishkek and Washington reached agreement on the opening of an American anti-terrorist facility in the south, near the city of Batken.
The president of one of Eurasia’s smallest countries was playing two of the world’s great powers off each other, and the costs of this game for Kyrgyzstan and Bakiev soon became apparent. On March 23, state-controlled Russian television broadcast a harsh attack on corruption and nepotism in Kyrgyzstan. This unprecedented Russian criticism of Bakiev clan served as a signal to the Kyrgyz that the Kremlin was abandoning its former ally. As Omurbek Tekebaev later noted, “the people took this as Russian support for the opposition.”
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For Rahm Emanuel and others in the American White House, Kyrgyzstan reappeared on the radar screen on the evening of April 6, 2010. Crowds hostile to the Bakiev regime seized the governor’s office in the western town of Talas. A small group of special forces sent in from the capital removed the occupiers a few hours later, but an even larger crowd, estimated at 3,000, retook the building during the night. The next morning, governor’s offices in several northern cities were in the hands of demonstrators, and large crowds were gathering in the center of Bishkek as an anti-Bakiev kurultai was set to open. At this point, the government intervened to behead the opposition by arresting its leading members. This step further outraged the gathering crowds, whose numbers and boldness appeared to grow by the minute. As the crowds sought to break through the iron gates of the presidential palace, the president’s brother, Janysh, reportedly gave troops the order to fire. Snipers located on rooftops surrounding Ala-Too Square began to pick off demonstrators, most of them young men who with few prospects in life.
Remarkably, the crowds did not disperse. As one colleague relayed to me, young Kyrgyz men simply stared down the bullets like zombies as others were killed and wounded around them. With the dead now numbering in the dozens and the wounded in the hundreds, the crowd seized the less well-defended parliament building north of the main square, and then, after commandeering trucks and armored personnel carriers, began a final assault on the Kyrgyz White House.
Apparently fearful of holding the leaders of the opposition as the battle for the country reached a tipping point, the police released them into the maelstrom that was sweeping through the capital. With the White House burning in the distance, opposition leaders met in the looted parliament building to form a new, interim government led by Roza Otunbaeva, Almaz Atambaev, Omurbek Tekebaev, Temir Sariev, and Azimbek Beknazarov.
The revolution was still not complete. The authorities had to convince the south that this northern-led revolt would benefit the entire country. But the Kyrgyz people had granted the opposition another chance at rule. The question was whether they would be worthy of the popular sacrifice made on their behalf.
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The full story of Russian involvement in the April Revolution in Kyrgyzstan is still to be told, but it appears that while the Kremlin backed the forces of change in Kyrgyzstan, Washington stood behind the forces of repression. In the wake of the revolution, Putin congratulated the new leadership; Obama remained silent.
Allowing basing rights to marginalize all other dimensions of American foreign policy in former Soviet Central Asia has seriously undermined the moral authority and political influence of the United States in the region. The triumph of wartime tactics over a broad and consistent strategy of engagement with governments and societies in Central Asia has disillusioned a generation of local reformers and left the United States ill-positioned to compete with the region’s rising hegemons, Russia and China.
Whether through design or neglect, the Obama administration has continued the cynical and short-sighted policies of the Bush years in Central Asia. The next time I meet Rahm Emanuel, I’ll ask him to remind his boss that in the long run, Faustian bargains carry a heavy price.
Eugene Huskey is William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Political Science and Director of Russian Studies at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida. The author of more than a dozen articles and book chapters on Kyrgyzstan, he spent five weeks during the last two years in Kyrgyzstan interviewing members of the opposition.