By Richard Spencer,
OK, I have a penchant for small remote countries and am strangely fond of the place, but should any of our British and American readers care about mass murder in Kyrgyzstan? Are not the rapes and killings of hundreds of ethnic Uzbeks at the hands of Kyrgyz mobs, allegedly aided by Kyrgyz troops, just another terrible news story from a far away place of which we know little?
Well, if I pointed out that just a few months ago the United States agreed to fund and train Kyrgyz troops who were gearing up to fight Uzbeks, that might raise a few eyebrows. And, as it’s true, though surprisingly no one else seems to have noticed, point it out I will.
I will also point out that it is no coincidence that the man accused of fomenting the violence, Maxim Bakiyev, son of the leader ousted in a popular revolution in April, was arrested in Britain the other day. It wasn’t just because he had, in the way of dubiously rich ex-Soviet princelings, bought a British football club. It was because we were his sort of country.
His father came to power five years ago on a wave of pro-democracy fervour whipped up by our own Tony Blair. George Bush of course had a lot to do with it – it was his insistence that American power brought with it a responsibility to foment freedom, even in other powers’ backyards, that sent a second wave of velvet revolutions across the former Soviet empire, from Georgia to Ukraine to Kyrgyzstan.
But Blair started it, in Kosovo amongst other places, before Bush was even elected. And we all supported him – the Opposition, the newspapers, even including this one, and me. You may, by now, be a little bit baffled, having probably paid little attention to this part of the world and not really connected it to Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Iraq, Operation Enduring Freedom, etc. So let me take you through it in chronological order. I’ll also explain why, if you should be feeling guilty (you are, after all, responsible for your elected leaders), I am even more so: I have conducted my own internal Saville inquiry, and found myself guilty.
Five years ago, the Kyrgyz leader Askar Akayev, a relic of the old Soviet era, was finally swept from power in a pretty much bloodless revolution – the Tulip Revolution, it was called, after the Rose one in Georgia and the Orange one in Ukraine.
Kurmanbek Bakiyev, the main opposition leader, took his place, amid much fine talk from the West that Kyrgyzstan could somehow become a beacon of liberal democratic development in an unpromising Central Asian hotbed of repression, corruption and fundamentalism. Fine talk? As was pretty much clear throughout, the West did more than talk. As I reported at the time, American international quangos such as Freedom House played a key role in the revolution.
As a reporter, I found it hard not to be swept along with the enthusiasm: the good guys – intellectuals, think-tankers, aid workers, the man on the street, all seemed pretty much in favour of change. I interviewed Bakiyev’s brother in Jalalabad, which had already fallen, on the eve of President Akayev’s helicopter flight from the capital, Bishkek. It was a pretty thuggish experience – I was escorted by heavies to his brooding presence – but one rather overlooked that in the circumstances. He talked the right talk, and it was after all night-time in a city that might have been about to descend into civil war.
Nevertheless, the West’s enthusiasm was pretty soon disappointed. Bakiyev turned out to be as bad, if not worse, than his predecessor. Akayev, in the piece I link to above, lost favour finally when a picture of his new luxury villa was published: Mr Bakiyev’s son (the one now in British custody) soon ended up in charge of the gold mine, the electricity supply, foreign cash payments and the economy. And, yes, bought a British football club.
And what did the West do? America, of course, has an air base in Kyrgyzstan to protect (as did Russia); it is pretty important for the war in Afghanistan, a fact which Mr Bakiyev used to extract more and more cash payments from Washington, even as his opponents started turning up injured and dead (at least Akayev’s simply went abroad).
That was under “nasty” Mr Bush. Then Mr Obama came along, and if Mr Bakiyev was a necessary embarrassment before, suddenly he became a geopolitical fact of life. America now had a “realist” foreign policy, which put strategy before human rights and democratisation.
Kyrgyzstan’s internal workings, once so fascinating to America, became a distant and impenetrable story, as had those of so many countries before it. That reached its end point in April, with the not unconnected handshake sealing the troop training deal between Mr Bakiyev and Washington’s favourite general, David Petraeus, and Bakiyev’s ejection less than three weeks later. Russia no longer saw the need to offer support to Mr Bakiyev, since he had reneged on his promise to kick out the Americans, while the Americans were never actually going to go the extra mile to keep their man in place, that not being the way the world works any more.
Mr Bakiyev fled, and the ethnic violence of today is the last throw of this kleptomaniac, vital, corrupt American ally.
My personal consolation is that at some level five years ago I seemed to sense what might happen. The idea that Kyrgyzstan has managed to repeat history as tragedy and farce simultaneously finds its exemplary quote at the end of this post-revolution report, where I quote a young man saying: ”These leaders saw what happened in the demonstrations. They will realise that if they do anything wrong, the same will happen to them.”
Well, it certainly did.
There is less consolation for the future. In the bad old days, when the Americans really did prop up dictatorships to the end – think South Vietnam – at least everyone knew where they stood. And there was an upside: South Korea, a country whose progress I admire perhaps more than any other, suffered grievously under American-backed dictatorship, but at the same time sent its young to study both science and governance in the universities of the neo-colonial master, becoming eventually the democratic and economic power-house it is today. The Kyrgyz don’t have the money, and they’re less likely to be welcome.
There is hope, of course. Rosa Otunbayeva, Kyrgyzstan’s new leader, is the woman who even five years ago (when she helped Bakiyev drive Akayev out) seemed the most coherent of the new politicians. She has friends in both Washington and Moscow, which she’ll need and which she seems to have the wisdom to use wisely. Likewise, maybe the uncertainty spawned by the semi-democracy of Kyrgyzstan – and of Iraq, and Afghanistan, and dozens of other heroes/victims of the new world order – is to be preferred to the certainty of Soviet-style absolutism. A better world may be on the way, and maybe the pogroms of Osh are really just the last throw of the corrupt Soviet order.
Certainly, it is still hard to feel sad about the disappearance of former President Akayev and his children.
But still, in a world where the accountability of everyday politics has created a form of attention deficit disorder in the great powers, is it surprising that their empire’s offspring behave like teenage hoodlums?
Read Craig Murray’s big read here – Kyrgyzstan: Death, dictators and the Soviet legacy.