Map of Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan’s president Askar Akaev declared upon independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 that he would transform his landlocked, mountainous country into a wealthy and democratic ‘Switzerland of Central Asia’. However, lacking few resources of note apart from the world’s largest free-growth walnut forest, the five million people of this beautiful yet desperate country have not had an easy ride in their first decade. Kyrgyzstan made a promising start to its independent life. During the 1991 _coup_ attempt against Mikhail Gorbachev, Akaev firmly backed Boris Yeltsin against the Moscow hard-liners. This principled gamble paid off, establishing the authority of the genial physics professor who quickly began instituting democratic reforms that made him the darling of the West. He focused his efforts on educational expansion, economic reform and social tolerance. Kyrgyzstan was cobbled together in the 1920s and seems an uneasy mix of recently settled Kyrgyz nomads, sedentary Uzbeks and _émigré_ Slavs and Germans, yet Akaev has been reasonably successful at smoothing tensions. There has been no repeat of the Uzbek-Kyrgyz clashes in 1990 that left nearly 200 dead and saw hundreds of thousands of Russians leave the country in fear. Western states poured money into the fledgling democracy, anxious to establish a showcase of neo-liberalism in Russia’s backyard. Kyrgyzstan has received more per-capita credit than any other member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). It was the first CIS state to establish its own currency and join the WTO. Foreign companies have been welcomed, and privatized farms are ditching Soviet-era cotton production for lucrative tobacco contracts with transnationals. With inflation at a ten-year low and recent figures showing modest economic growth, the IMF is delighted. These reforms have, however, failed to benefit the average Kyrgyzstanis, half of whom live in poverty. While a few have grown rich trafficking drugs from Afghanistan, meagre state wages have driven many trained specialists in health and education to scrape a living as pedlars in the bazaars. The IMF dictates much of economic policy, and has pushed through land privatization, against the mass of popular opinion which fears that wealthy foreigners or corrupt élites will abuse it. Much of the staggering $1.7 billion of debt accrued has been wasted or embezzled with little to show for it. Akaev has admitted that corruption has even reached the presidential palace.

Brian Goodard / Panos Pictures

The economy still essentially revolves around the livestock that graze on the mountains that cover 95 per cent of Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyz lamb was once a delicacy prized throughout the Soviet Union, yet since independence flocks have been decimated by over-consumption to satisfy hunger and by the collapse of state farms and export markets. Destitute shepherds have drifted to the towns to seek work, while many rural young sink into prostitution. In order to stem the rising opposition to his rule that this social and economic crisis has generated, Akaev has backtracked on his commitment to democratic reform. Vocal opponents have been disqualified from elections, physically assaulted and imprisoned, whilst newspapers critical of the Government have been fined or closed down. It would seem that ‘the island of democracy,’ Central Asia’s last atoll of open society, is being submerged under a tide of authoritarianism. The greatest foreign threat has been the invasion from lawless Tajikistan in 1999 and 2000 of an Islamist guerrilla force opposed to the leadership of neighbouring Uzbekistan. The poorly equipped Kyrgyz army was barely able to repel the attackers. The crisis strained relations with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, further drained meagre state finances and scuppered short-term tourism potential. Nevertheless, the threat of terrorism may yet prove a boon to the cash-strapped Government, which was swift to grant US forces use of an airbase in their war against Afghanistan’s Taliban. The US has naturally increased ‘aid’ as a result. This is a far cry indeed from the Swiss-style neutrality that President Akaev once so admired.

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