A Writer Writes

The Future of Kyrgyzstan

by Robert Rosenberg (Kyrgyzstan 1994–96)

LIVING IN KYRGYZSTAN only a few years after its independence from the Soviet Union, I once asked my Kyrgyz host-brother what he thought of Stalin. He was a worldly young man, the son of a local politician, who was studying computers in university and had access, even then, even in Kyrgyzstan, to e-mail and the Internet. In those optimistic days of burgeoning freedom, we spoke of the Gulag, of the estimated 100 million people who died because of Stalin’s purges and programs. “Yes,” my host brother admitted, “Stalin had his faults, but he was still a great, great leader. He was a national hero.”
     Kyrgyzstan is the smallest and least known country in Central Asia. For anyone who has ever lived there, seeing its name grace the front pages of our newspapers this week — when a disorganized opposition has taken over the presidential compound and assumed control of the nation — still comes as something of a shock. You do not expect to see Kyrgyzstan written about, you do not expect anyone to take notice of what is happening there. But as much as last Thursday’s coup seems to follow upon elections in Iraq and Afghanistan, and successful street movements in Georgia and the Ukraine, there is one significant difference: no organized party is ready to take over. In the political vacuum, a dangerous jockeying for power has begun.
     The Kyrgyz people I knew in the early nineties were politically timid — simply proud to have a nation of their own. In its tourism literature, the country referred to itself as the “Switzerland of Central Asia,” both because it was mountainous, and because it was peaceful. To see images today of protesters storming the White House, forcing the president to flee the country, and looting the capital is shocking — but speaks of the frustrations of a people who have been denied the true benefits of democracy for too long. President Akayev, in power for fifteen years, was rumored to have been fixing the parliament to his liking, perhaps positioning himself for yet another run at office. The long suffering citizens of his nation have had enough. They do not want a president for life, a dictatorship under the guise of democracy.
     It was always a privilege and a wonder, living in Central Asia in the years after independence, to witness a nation being born. With that birth came inherent post-colonial problems. How would a people, under Soviet rule for much of the 20th century, reclaim their ancient heritage? What role might religion play in forming a new government? Who would be the political model, secular Turkey or Shiite Iran? How would America and China exert influence on Russia’s former turf? But most importantly, how would Kyrgyzstan democratize itself?
     Kyrgyzstan was once the great hope for democracy to take root in Central Asia. Those of us who have followed the fate of the country have seen those enormous hopes of the early years fade, amid obstacles familiar to all nations of the former Soviet Union. Kyrgyzstan is heavily impoverished, and heavily corrupt. The once-developed country faces Third World crises of health and economy. Long under the heavy hand of totalitarianism, with no foundation in democracy, Kyrgyzstan is still fighting today, fourteen years after independence, to create true, fair elections. Those uplifted by the recent elections in Iraq and Afghanistan might take note of how long it takes a fledgling democracy like this to mature, and what kind of difficulties prevent it from happening.
     When a president stifles opposition parties and purges the press, locks away journalists, turns a blind eye to human rights violations — when a country is democratic in name only — there is no room for political growth. The people of Kyrgyzstan desire a government that works efficiently and transparently for the betterment of its citizens, with a ruler who is confident enough in his legitimacy to allow dissenting voices. Starved of basic economic and political freedoms, unsure of what democracy even is, so used to suffering in silence and submitting to the power of larger nations, the Kyrgyz people have at last decided they must change things themselves. They know what they want, but is there any leader who can give it to them?
     Back in 1994, when my host-brother claimed Stalin was still a national hero, my heart sank. I immediately thought, Kyrgyzstan needs new heroes. Who would emerge to take Stalin’s place in the grade-school textbooks, to cleanse the national conscience of decades of propaganda? After all these years under President Akayev, the answer is nobody.
     President Bush likes to claim that “Freedom is on the march.” Freedom, however, was also on the march back in the early nineties, when my Kyrgyz host brother felt free enough to discuss the Gulag, but still claimed Stalin as his hero. Freedom from one source of oppression only opened the door to a different source — smaller, more localized, but no less at odds with true democracy.
     The toppling of the government of Kyrgyzstan does not simply follow in lockstep with events in Iraq and Afghanistan and Beirut, but provides a lesson and a warning to those nations as well. Kyrgyzstan has for a second time shaken off the shackles of a corrupt regime. We must support, once again, their critical search for a true leader — one who cares more about democracy than about consolidating power — to guide them forward.

Robert Rosenberg wrote the literary novel, This Is Not Civilization, which links together an Apache reservation in the Arizona desert and his village in Kyrgyzstan.