Sunday 10 March 2013

What Kyrgyzstan can learn from Brazilian politics

Kurmanbek Bakiev was ousted in a revolution in Kyrgyzstan in 2010

Being myself a Brazilian, I am often tempted to draw parallels between the reality in my country and in Central Asia. I have never attempted to do it in this blog, though, since I believe these realities are like chalk and cheese. Nevertheless, by analysing the Bakiev conundrum, I think there are some interesting parallels to be drawn upon between Brazil and Kyrgyzstan, both young democracies, still developing their institutions.

In 1992, like many young people of my generation, I took to the streets to protest against president Fernando Collor, who, after a groundbreaking story published in the country leading magazine (Veja), had his reputation tainted beyond salvation. The story detailed his obscure dealings, linking him to a corruption scandal. Soon enough, the Brazilian Congress moved to impeach him. The fact that he forced to resign was celebrated at the time as a “victory of the people”, who organized mass protests to pressure MPs into removing him from power. However, even at that time, there were dissonant voices. Although weak, they claimed that, even though it was clear that Collor was not innocent, the masses were being exploited by powerful elites who did not like the way the government was conducting its affairs. The unhappy elites, so goes the hypothesis, were encouraging the protests, using the media to mobilise the youth, and we were all fools.

Some food for thought here: Collor was the first democratically elected president in Brazil after the end of the military dictatorship in 1985, therefore was under immense pressure to deliver – a pressure that originated from the Brazilian people and also from the Brazilian elites. He himself set as one of the core goals of his newly elected government to tackle corruption, going after the so-called “maharajas” on the public sector, people who earned a lot of money basically by doing nothing. The press in Brazil is controlled by few families, who clearly have their own interests and, conceivably, might use their newspapers and TV channels as a political weapon against a leader who did not have a talent for political negotiation. And Collor was quite young at the time – it is also conceivable that he might have thought that his election as president was enough to guarantee his victory against any political foes.

Now let’s move to Kyrgyzstan. This is a key moment for the country, since it is putting on trial the “legacy” of former president Kurmanbek Bakiev. He was ousted on a popular revolt in 2010, during which security officials fired against protesters near the presidential palace in Bishkek, killing around 90 people. At the time, like Collor, Bakiev was widely perceived as corrupt. People became sick and tired allegations of embezzlement and, to add insult to injury, of the constant black-outs. He was forced to flee Bishkek, first to his political base in the South, and then to Belarus, where he was granted political asylum and lives happily today. Last month, the Kyrgyz Justice sentenced him in absentia to 24 years in jail for his alleged role in the deaths of three people linked to the opposition in 2009. He is still being tried for the deaths of many other activists who took to the streets during the 2010 revolution.

Like Brazil, but certainly with a much more stronger tone due to ethnical differences and a nationalism component, there has been a struggle between elites from the South and North in Kyrgyzstan. Bakiev comes from the South and his power base was linked to ethnically Kyrgyz politicians who advocated policies who still raise tensions among the Uzbeks who historically are the majority in cities such as Osh (Kyrgyzstan’s second biggest) and Jalal-Abad. After the 2010 revolution, it was expected that the Northern elites would, like all elites do, make an effort to weaken the Southern elites and guarantee their grip to power for years to come. And one way to do it, arguably, is to emphasise, using the press or otherwise, the “bad influence” of the previous dominant elites from the South.

I am not saying that the Kyrgyz people is gullible when believe that Bakiev was a bad president. Certainly not – there are very serious allegations against him, relating to corruption or the deaths of protesters. The same goes to Collor in Brazil, I don’t think he was innocent of the accusations against him. But, regarding Bakiev, I, personally, believe he was an extremely lousy leader, especially because he allowed the Kyrgyz-Uzbek ethnic tensions in the South, a bad legacy of Soviet times, to rise without control, leading to the 2010 pogroms in the Osh region. Living in Bishkek last year, I talked to people and quickly realized that he was hated for many reasons - for not being able to maintain order, for not being able to avoid black outs, for being “a thief” and so on. During the winter blackouts in Bishkek last December, I asked some people there if that (the blackouts) was normal. “Yes, it happens often. But three years ago, during Bakiev, was much worse” was an answer I heard more than once. The environment in the Kyrgyz capital helps to keep alive this bad impression regarding Bakiev. Take a visit to the historical museum in Ala Too square as an example. When I was there in November, there was an exhibition dedicated to the 2010 revolution, leading one to see Bakiev as guilty even before his judgement. On the Chuy avenue, a monument erected in April last year (one year after the revolution) remind all passers-by of its victims. I understand the suffering and the trauma and agree that the victims deserve to be commemorated in the museum and in the monument. However, the government could have chosen not to do this, or to commemorate the dead in a more subdued way. Why did it choose not to?

In other words, I guess the Kyrgyz government is taking political advantage of what happened in 2010, exploiting it for its own benefit. It reminded me of how the Southern elites took advantage in Brazil in 1992. After Collor’s impeachment, his vice-president (a veteran from the South-eastern Minas Gerais state, Itamar Franco) took over. Then, in 1995 his former minister of Finance, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, from the Sao Paulo State (southeast), was sworn in as president. Granted, before the election, Fernando Henrique was given the opportunity to launch a successful currency reform which allowed Brazil to get rid of the scourge of inflation – a widely quoted reason for his election. But he was given the opportunity only when the Southern elites took power – he was certainly not linked to Collor. Fernando Henrique Cardoso would remain in power for a long time, until 2003.

Unlike in Kyrgyzstan – where not only Bakiev, but also members of his family and associated are being tried and sentenced –, however, Collor bore pretty much by himself the burden of the public wrath in 1992. After he was ousted, he was banned from politics for eight years and forgot by the press and the people. Now, he is even back to politics – he holds a seat in the Brazilian Senate. Moreover, obviously, the most striking difference here is that in Brazil there was no revolution, no blood. It was purely a political process. But many people forget that, despite the deaths in 2010, Kyrgyzstan also saw a political process, a change of power. Everything was also part of the political game. Who was behind the start of the 2010 revolution? Who, eventually, benefited from it?

A local analyst, Mars Sariev, quoted in the Central Asia Caucasus Institute website, says that the jail term against Bakiev is the start of a process of “political housecleaning” by the current Kyrgyz government, led by president Almazbek Atambayev. According to him, the Kyrgyz authorities “plan to launch a political purge against the former president’s allies who are still in power or plan a return to the political scene”. This implies that the Justice in the country is controlled by the executive and is being used against its enemies. An additional example of this alleged “purge” already underway is the trial of Kamchybek Tashiev, a former minister under Bakiev and a well-known nationalist from the South. His trial is mobilizing supporters in protests the South. The political use of the Judiciary against political foes of the regime is often noted in other former Soviet countries, like Kazakhstan. I see this analysis can be an exaggeration and I will not say that the same is happening in Kyrgyzstan. Instead, I believe it is undeniable that, without a transparent trial of Bakiev and his former associates, Kyrgyzstan risks a widening gap between North and South, with expected bad consequences. It is an especially sensitive issue because of the ethnic tensions and the fact that leaders like Tashiev are not shy of tapping into them for political gains. And this is, for sure, the key difference between Brazil in 1992 and Kyrgyzstan now. In Brazil, there were only regional elites vying for power in the political arena. In Kyrgyzstan, regionalism gets mixed with ethnical tensions and nationalism, and this is an explosive combination.

Besides brokering a transparent trial for Tashiev and Bakiev, the government need to find a way to bridge the gap with the Southern elites, but without adopting a course of action that would alienate the Uzbeks (here is one example of this taking place now). In other words, Atambayev need to be vigilant to the extremes of nationalism, but need to be able to establish an effective dialog. Conduct free and fair elections, but enforce laws that control political extremism. This is no easy task, and analysts are already forecasting a difficult spring ahead. But maybe Brazil’s pacific and democratic experience could give some insights to my dear friends in the Tien Shan.

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