Kyrgyzstan’s Clan War

As a Washington-based pundit with some foreign policy credentials, I frequently receive phone calls from secretaries under pressure of a deadline who book “experts” like me for radio and television news shows, asking me to “do Iraq” or chat about some other area of crisis around the world.

I usually don’t get paid a lot (if at all) for those insightful and one-and-a-half-minute long interviews. (Question: “Dr. Hadar, will peace finally come to the Middle East?” Answer: “Perhaps.”) But they do help me win some “visibility” (Neighbor on elevator: “Didn’t I see you on television last night?”) and can therefore serve as great ego-boosters.

So when the lady from a certain cable television asked me a few days ago whether I could “do Kyrgyzstan,” I was tempted for a few seconds. But then I had to admit to myself that I couldn’t even fake a minimal level of familiarity about KyrgyzStan – or is it KyrgyZstan? – and its people. Instead I told the disappointed Rolodex turner that I was coming down with a flu.

A Plain Old Coup

I wish that some of my fellow talking heads in Washington would have also exhibited the same kind of global affairs humility when it came to the recent “events” in Kyrgyzstan as President Askar Akayev was fleeing from the capital. If you were following the initial instant analyses on CNN, Fox-TV, CNBC, or for that matter, on the op-ed pages of some of the elite newspapers, you would have concluded that a democratically inspired revolution was taking place in Bishkek.

First there was Georgia, and then Ukraine, followed by Lebanon, and now Kyrgyzstan. Add to that the election in Iraq, and we had no choice but to agree that George W. Bush’s call for spreading political freedom had been winning the hearts and minds of democracy enthusiasts everywhere, including in Kyrgyzstan. The “Democracy Narrative” that dominated media chatter for at least a few hours was creating the impression that the “Good Guys” were winning.

In fact, there are actually a few American experts on Kyrgyzstan and several Western journalists even traveled to Bishkek, and after a day or two they succeeded in getting their message across, and we discovered that – as the New York Times concluded – the uprising looks now less like a democratic revolution and more “like a garden-variety coup, with a handful of seasoned politicians vying for the spoils of the ousted government,” that is, “a plain old coup.”

The ousted Mr. Akayev is now being described as one of the more progressive political figures in Central Asia, while its opponents are depicted as members of the political and economic elite, mostly politicians from the country’s southern and northern provinces, trying to overturn the results of the last parliamentary elections and inciting mobs to commit acts of vandalism.

What many Americans fail to understand is that the collapse of centralized authoritarian governments in Kyrgyzstan, like in many parts of the world, including Central Asia and the Middle East, is propelled quite often by tribal, ethnic, religious, and nationalist forces.

The anti-government uprising in Georgia and Ukraine reflected a powerful nationalist anti-Russian stance. In the case of Ukraine, tension between the Ukrainian majority and a substantial Russian minority (25 percent), and divisions between the Russian Orthodox and Catholic churches were very much at the center of what was happening there.

Anti-Syrian Lebanese nationalism brought together an ad-hoc coalition of the Maronite, Sunni, and Druze communities that are facing off a challenge from an authentic and powerful community of pro-Syrian Shi’ites. The U.S. is allied with exactly that kind of Shi’ite coalition in Iraq – while confronting opposition from the Sunni minority – and backing the Kurds who want to separate themselves from both the Arab Sunnis and Shi’ites.

It seems that many Americans who regard the U.S. Constitution as the main national symbol that binds them together find it difficult to empathize with the sense of “organic” nationalism that reflects tribal, ethnic, and religious identities – or the power of regional clans, in the case of Kyrgyzstan – that motivates much of domestic and regional politics in the rest of the world.

It’s possible that much of this kind of nationalist movement would end up tearing apart not only Iraq and Kyrgyzstan but other states in the Middle East, Central Asia, and elsewhere. American policymakers should recognize that these developments don’t necessarily herald the rise of democracy, but could ignite civil wars and result in intervention by regional and foreign powers – a plain, old-fashioned war and one that has nothing to do with a shining crusade to spread liberty – into which the United States would be drawn.

Reprinted from the Singapore Business Times, reprinted with author’s permission. Copyright © 2005 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd.