The coup d’etat or whatever has occurred in the former Soviet Republic of Kyrgyzstan has developed so quickly that even opposition leaders don’t seem to have been prepared for assuming power. More than a welling up of democratic impulses, however, what appears to be happening is a redistribution of the power and wealth of the state among the various clans that have tussled over effective power since before the Soviets took power during Stalin’s era.
What happened politically? Briefly, following two rounds of parliamentary elections, widely viewed as rigged (then-President Askar Akayev saw to it both his son and daughter were elected), opposition groups in the impoverished south took over major cities and marched toward the capital of Bishkek. When they got to the presidential palace, they found Akayev had fled — perhaps to Russia. What to do next?
Well, they released one Felix Kulov, a former vice president and former head of the KGB in Kyrgyzstan, from prison, and he has been acting as head of security forces since Thursday. But there are two parliaments that claim to be in control — the old one and the new one, stacked with even more, newly elected, Akayev supporters — and the two have been issuing conflicting decrees.
What is really going on, according to Theodore Karasik, an historian at the Rand Corp., is a reshuffling of clans and, to a lesser extent, ethnic power. “Kyrgyzstan is an artificial creation of the Soviet empire,” he said, “and although there are 22 major clans, it is constructed so there will always be a north-south split.”
The opposition leaders are all former Akayev cronies, not budding tribunes of the people. Indeed, some stories suggest that Akayev, a physicist by training, had tired of politics and only tried to stay in power to protect the interests of his wife’s clan.
After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan was widely praised as a bastion of free speech and democracy in Central Asia. But clan interests soon predominated and the government became increasingly authoritarian. If demonstrations that look democratic succeed in putting a former KGB boss in power, the irony will be complete.
All this is of interest to the United States because it has a military base in Kyrgyzstan that continues to be important in supporting U.S. operations in Afghanistan. It is unlikely, however, that the current opposition would ask the United States to leave.
The speed of the coup demonstrates the fragility and artificiality of governance in Kyrgyzstan. The United States would do well to stay in touch with all sides until the highly volatile situation stabilizes.