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Democracy in Central Asia

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Colors and Flowers… and Soviet Spoils

Two weeks ago, shortly after the political upheaval erupted in Kyrgyzstan, I received an email from my journalist friend in Azerbaijan, Anar Orujov, who is deputy director of ICFJ (International Center for Journalists) in Baku, wanting to engage in a discussion about the problems of democracy in post Soviet countries, including Azerbaijan.

After stating those nations’ continuing struggle for media freedom and democracy, he posed the questions: “What is wrong here [those republics] that there is no democracy?  And, what is [the] beginning point for democracy?”  From the pulpit of my column, in a roundabout way, I hope to touch, if lightly, on my take to the news from Central Asia.
 
Once upon a recent past, as opportunity came about for some nations to emerge from totalitarianism, they did so in a very gentle, pacific and velvety way... and we all smiled, applauding the outcome.  Freedom came to Czechs and Slovaks with the smoothness one would expect from a carefully cast and well-rehearsed play.  More than a decade earlier, the Iberian Peninsula had experienced its own evolutionary political awakening, after the deaths of Franco and Salazar.  Spaniards, Portuguese, Czechs and Slovaks, all brought about r/evolutionary change on their own terms.
 
One could say that, democratically at least, all four r/evolutions were truly successful.
 
But many soft and not-so-soft revolutions that were to come thereafter, flashily named from the botanical and color spectrums, were more often than not a temporary change in command induced some times, provoked in other cases, by ulterior motives of either inducers or provokers of such change.  Revolutions at times of the fake-variety, which more aptly should be referred to as pseudo-democratic coup-d’états!
 
And that happened as the Warsaw Pact nations unyoked themselves from the USSR; and the USSR transformed itself into the Russian Federation, shrinking from one-sixth of the earth’s land area to one-ninth after many of its republics attained independence.
 
And, little surprise, there was the United States ready to claim the spoils of dissolution after the 46 years of Cold War following the defeat of the Axis, the end of World War II.
 
Well meaning, idealistic students were all too often led astray, as were other segments of the population, by propaganda financed via the tentacles of the only empire left: the United States of America.  Overtly at times, and covertly most often through a number of US organizations/agencies, the CIA and infiltrated NGO’s, it seemed obvious to some political observers how and why three former Soviet republics (Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan), two of them bordering Mother Russia, so easily detached their umbilical cords from Moscow in order to break bread with the West; also, why American efforts fell short in Belarus and Uzbekistan.
 
Along the Caucasus and Central Asia, two colors and a flower emerged in 2004-5.  The Rose Revolution in Georgia – supported by the Kmara civic resistance movement – replaced Gorbachev’s principal reformer and Foreign Minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, with Mikheil Saakashvili, a friend of the United States.  Similarly in Ukraine, here with the support of Pora, the sprouting of the Orange Revolution brought to power Viktor Yushchenko, another good friend of the West.  In Central Asia, the color pink, perhaps best known as the “Tulip Revolution,” gave Kyrgyzstan, with the support of KelKel – a youth movement, its place in the garden… or the political color spectrum.
 
A poor, landlocked country without its neighbors’ oil, Kyrgyzstan’s major economic resource became one of geo-political nature: the sphere of influence that it could provide Russia and the United States, Manas Air Base representing the focal point as both a transit center for US military operations in Afghanistan and a strategic listening post to the Turkic-speaking Uighur province in Xingjian (China).  Although the rent paid by the US for the base has increased several-fold, now representing 5 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s GDP, the now exiled president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, apparently emptied the nation’s coffers in the pockets of his relatives… leaving Russia and the United States to tend to the ensuing economic crisis, while he sets up domicile in Belarus courtesy of its strongman-leader, Alexander Lukashenko.
 
The bottom line to all this, my dear friend Anar, is that democracy is not something that you borrow or inherit, but something that people need to build from scratch… without the help, or accommodation, of outside “do-gooders.”  Democracy is not as exportable as we in the United States claim it to be.  For over a century, America’s efforts in Latin America were less about democracy and more about economic interests (exploitation, some will say)… and the democracy which now exists in some of those nations can be only attributed to their own efforts, and not any American help.  The same will occur anywhere else, including Central Asia, when people demand social justice and respect for human rights… in bona fide political r/evolutions, and not make-believe colors or flowers that usually play to the design of empires. 
 
Spain, Portugal, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and a few Latin American nations may serve as initial models in the arduous and very difficult path that leads towards a semblance of democracy.  Then again, perhaps Central Asia needs to create its very own model(s).  
 
© 2010 Ben Tanosborn


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