Will the invisible hand save or destroy Kyrgyzstan?
Editor’s note:The question on everyone’s minds is: what next for Kyrgyzstan? neweurasia’s Schwartz describes three possible scenarios. At stake is Kyrgyzstan’s social contract and solubility as a country. The choice Schwartz proposes is tough, but “any other strategy might leave Kyrgyzstan too much at the whims of the invisible hand…” [This is an expanded version of the editorial that appears in this week's "Our Take" on neweurasia's partner site, Transitions Online.]
A month ago today Kyrgyzstan erupted into its second popular uprising in five years. Despite Bakiev’s exile to Belarus and the interim government’s steady movement toward establishing its authority, the situation remains dangerous.
Poor ethnic Kyrgyz in the north are illegally seizing private property for themselves. Encampments of yurts are reportedly cropping up all over the suburbs of Bishkek. Middle class residents have responded with vigilantism by organizing patrols to protect their property.
Meanwhile, the south, which is ethnically and socio-economically more diverse, is grumbling with discontent. neweurasia‘s Tolkun Umaraliev reports on his blog that the situation “feels like the calm before the storm” and “a powder bomb”.
According to Tolkun, small clashes have already broken out between the area’s Uzbeks and Kyrgyz. Moreover, rumors are circulating that rich local clans are stockpiling weapons to defend themselves in the event that matters get out of hand. Tolkun ruefully remarks,
“If the interim government will not take urgent measures the south, inter-ethnic conflict is unavoidable. But if that happens, it won’t be like the Nineties, with just a few houses burned and a few people killed.”
He’s not alone. I think there’s a lot of fear for the country’s future circulating throughout the Kyrgyz blogosphere.
However, there is also some optimism. Take for example neweurasia‘s Mirsulzhan Namazaliev, our Kyrgyz bridge-blogger who is stationed in Bishkek and witnessed the uprising firsthand. In a recent e-mail to me he remarked,
“Kyrgyzstan’s civil society is the strongest in Central Asia and the interim government knows this. They understand that civil society is vital not only to attract Western investment, but also to ensure fair political competition and an eventual end to the violence.
“I think everybody in the interim government understands that they might become political competitors in near future. This fear will push them to create a system of checks and balances that will eventually end the systematic problems our nation’s been having.”
Mirsulzhan is channeling Adam Smith’s famous notion of the “invisible hand” — the idea that if everyone acts on their narrow self-interest eventually the entire group will prosper. The problem is that no one can see what the invisible hand has hidden up its sleeve.
Nevertheless, we can envision some scenarios.
The worst-case scenario
This one’s obviously civil war. In such a situation, the country would splinter along both ethnic and class divisions as each seeks its own agenda. There would be few clear front-lines, with insurgencies in the north and ethnic cleansings in the south.
Fortunately, Kyrgyzstan’s fate depends on more than just internal elements. A decisive factor would be whether the country’s neighbors, as well as Russia, China, and the United States, decide to intervene. After all, it would be in no one’s best interests to allow another Afghanistan.
The best-case scenario
This one has Bishkek choosing further liberalization but with far greater efficacy in redressing systemic inequalities and guarding its population from the inevitable pitfalls of the development process.
Obviously the track record isn’t good, to say the least. Two presidential administrations met their violent end precisely because they were busier with using liberalization as a rationale to pillage state monies and suppress the political opposion.
Indeed, according to Botur Qosimi, one of neweurasia‘s bloggers from Tajikistan, the previous governments not only failed easing the pains of liberalization, but their failure only entrenched distrust of Bishkek. He remarks in his post on The Registan,
“The [first] revolution was carried out on the tide of people’s dissatisfaction with corruption and deception of Askar Akaev’s family rule and with the purpose of bringing more equality and justice, unfortunately, did not help promote democratic and economic development in Kyrgyzstan.
“Contrary to expectations, the new leaders set in place after the successful coup d’etat quickly forgot their popular slogans and became very much like the officials of the previous regime by putting their self interests above national priorities and population’s wellbeing.”
The less-bad-case scenario
This one involves more civil strife and more struggle among the political elite for control over state institutions. In other words, it’s essentially the current post-Bakiev situation. This scenario is highly volatile situaiton, but it may also be the country’s best shot.
That might seem crazy at first glance. Bishkek is confronted with plummeting legitimacy among its population and distrust from international investors. Both groups want development, but in the short-term they are demanding security, one social, the other financial; the trick is how to reconcile the two.
At stake is the very viability of the country’s social contract, but this may also be the key. Bishkek may need to move in the direction of socialization – essentially, buying off the malcontents long enough to disentangle state institutions from the clanism that has perverted development since independence.
Because Kyrgyzstan has little exportable resources or products, it cannot finance the new social contract on its own. It would therefore need generous aid from the international community, especially the West.
However, this aid should come with scalpel-like scrutiny and control. That means Kyrgyzstan might have to temporarily relinquish some of its sovereignty while it works toward a viable future. That’s sure to be controversial for the country’s political elite. Yet, because a key part of the strategy would necessarily be co-opting Russia, they might go for it.
I could very well be wrong. Yet, I suspect the alternative is allowing the pre-Bakiev situation to re-emerge, in which case the country would continue falling prey to narrow-sighted greed and simmering discontent. That’s essentially abandoning Kyrgyzstan to the invisible hand, and in my opinion, that’s nothing less than a scenario for disaster.