Bakiyev’s gift

As details emerge, Russian involvement in Kyrgyzstan appears undeniable. However, Georgia’s lesson lies not in the FSB’s machinations, but in the authoritarian and undemocratic rule of ousted Kyrgyz leader Kurmanbek Bakiyev.

Tbilisi | While events in Kyrgyzstan continued to unfold in early April, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s spokesperson, Manana Manjgaladze, declared that it was “obvious that Russia is roughly interfering with Kyrgyzstan’s internal affairs,” suggesting that Georgian policy towards Kyrgyzstan had already taken for granted Russia’s hand in the matter. The US, however, was did not appear to be so concerned, as White House Eurasian affairs advisor Michael McFaul echoed. “This is not some anti-American coup,” said McFaul. “That we know for sure.” [1]

Even Georgian Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze seemed to contradict the words of his boss’s spokeperson. “I do not have any facts, which could possibly prove any foreign involvement into those events,” he reported. [2]

As the situation has developed since then, it’s worth revisiting who was right and who was wrong. According to many analyses, a general consensus seems to have emerged that Russia was almost certainly involved, somehow, in the rapid change of fortune for the beleaguered Kyrgyz opposition.

“The manner in which every piece necessary to exchange one government for another fell into place in such a short period discredits arguments that this was a spontaneous uprising of the people in response to unsatisfactory economic conditions,” noted StratFor’s Lauren Goodrich. “Instead, this revolution appears prearranged.” [3]
StratFor’s assessment has also been echoed in the New York Times, the Nation, and the Zurich-based International Relations and Security Network, [4] among others.

Does this mean that Saakashvili called it correctly? Overall, yes, although a question still lingers over Manjgaladze’s timing. Her quip on Saakashvili’s position was on April 8, several days before full details began to emerge and questions unearthed over the ‘spontaneity’ of the upheaval. Ten days later, Saakashvili telephoned Kyrgyzstan’s de facto leader, Roza Otunbayeva, to pledge Tbilisi’s support for her new government after sending humanitarian aid to Bishkek. [5]

This telephone call, and the humanitarian aid, is significant, as it suggests that Saakashvili is attempting to reach out to Bishkek’s new government to repair the damage done by the April 8 outburst that questioned the new government’s legitimacy. It seems that after some much-needed consideration, Tbilisi took action to ensure that relations didn’t start poorly with a relatively large, and nearby, country like Kyrgyzstan. The last thing the Georgian government would have wanted, Russian meddling or not, is for Bishkek to respond to Tbilisi’s finger pointing by recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia, a relatively low-cost move that would have deeply ingratiated them to Moscow. The West, and particularly the US, would have few options beyond bland protocolese because of their dependence on the Manas air base. Despite the poor initial reaction by Tbilisi, peppered with insensitive wording over the legitimacy of deposed Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s authoritarian rule, current efforts are a better reflection of geopolitical realities to which Tbilisi must abide.

More importantly, the exact dimensions of Russian support have yet to be entirely revealed. While Russia certainly preferred a staff change in Bishkek, it remains unclear exactly how Russia was able to facilitate the Kyrgyz operation beyond media assistance to the opposition and a variety of other intangibles. More to the point, there is no reason to think that Russia’s hand in Kyrgyzstan was such an overwhelming force, given the conditions in the country.

When considering this case, it’s also sensible to examine the greater context of other ‘colored revolution’ countries like Ukraine and Georgia. Like Kyrgyzstan, though to a far lesser degree, Ukraine’s return to the Kremlin camp was more a consequence of poor governance and petty politicking by Ukraine’s now-sundered Orange coalition. Viktor Yanukovich’s return to government was facilitated by democratic means and enjoyed at least a modicum of popular mandate, given the poor performance of former President Viktor Yushchenko and the myopic populism of oligarch Yulia Tymoshenko.

In Kyrgyzstan, there are few who would claim that Bakiyev’s government was an honest reflection of popular support, as his erratic and brutal rule only sowed anger among the population while leaving Russia angry and the US suspicious. Indeed, Russia’s ability to manipulate opposition forces in Kyrgyzstan may have been instrumental, but nonetheless marginal, as a deep well of public disaffection already existed and provided for an extremely ‘low-hanging fruit’ for Kremlin operatives to exploit to their favor.

Conversely, there is little indication that Russia has any such ability to perform a similar operation in Georgia. For all the faults of the present government in Tbilisi, it enjoys relatively broad popular support and an opposition that is fractured and mostly, though not exclusively, unbeholden to Russia. In short, Moscow lacks a critical mass of factors in Georgia to pull off a similar maneuver to dislodge the current government from power, and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.

Of course, this could change. If anything, the Kyrgyzstan experience shows that the best way for Georgia to avoid handing Russia the keys is to be as clean as possible. Somewhat ironically, Russia cynically utilized the language of free expression and liberty as it pulled the levers to push along Bakiyev’s ouster. Georgia, which by many accounts continues to suffer from a very real democratic deficit, will better insulate itself from similar external threats with stronger democratic institutions, a genuinely free and critical media, and an active and constructive opposition.

As it is, Georgia is nowhere near the point of irreversibility. As the country’s democratic institutions remain young, fragile, and very much incomplete, a turn to statism and/or further erosion of liberal standards could tip the country back into economic devastation, deep political unrest, and a black hole of local legitimacy: the perfect cocktail for a repeat of the Kyrgyzstan scenario. Despite exhaustive rhetoric, the current government appears to be non-committal about tackling less-sexy but no less important issues like ‘elite’ corruption, the election-administrative resources nexus, rationalizing the tax structure, dispersing power, and true media freedom. Refining the undeniable progress Georgia has already made, and confronting still-existing shortcomings, is the single best way for Georgia to avoid a Bishkek outcome. Of course, there’s always the KGB/FSB route, but aside from the dire human rights implications, it’s doubtful that Tbilisi could out-FSB the actual FSB.

Russia’s hand in the Kyrgyzstan uprising is now clear, but the Bishkek experience better underlines the role that Bakiyev had in his own undoing than presenting Russia as an omnipotent puppeteer. Russia took advantage of a ripe situation that was partially created, perhaps unwittingly, by Bakiyev and his cronies themselves. This is the real lesson of Kyrgyzstan. If Georgia hopes to avoid a similar fate, it must meaningfully accelerate reforms and bring Georgian democracy to a point of irreversibility. This process will take time, but as they say, there’s no time like the present.

Footnotes

[1] See: http://evolutsia.net/?p=1468
[2] http://civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=22173
[3] http://www.stratfor.com/weekly/20100412_kyrgyzstan_and_russian_resurgence
[4] See: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/19/world/asia/19kyrgyz.html; http://www.thenation.com/blogs/dreyfuss/551548/the_kyrgyz_great_game; http://www.isn.ethz.ch/isn/Current-Affairs/Security-Watch/Detail/?lng=en&id=114855
[5] http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=22206

Michael Cecire

Michael Hikari Cecire is an associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Project on Democratic Transitions.

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