In November 2011 I visited Kyrgyzstan during the final stages of campaigning for the presidential election. While the 16 candidates smiled and spoke hopefully of the bright future they offered their country, I struggled to find old friends and acquaintances. Many had left the country or had migrated to the capital city to escape grinding poverty, lack of opportunity, instability and ethnic discrimination.

The following month, Almaz Atambaev was sworn in as the new president. Remarkably, this was the first time that any of the Central Asian republics had witnessed a peaceful and constitutional handover of power since their independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. But if Atambaev is going to address some of the country’s most serious problems, he is going to need a lot more than the good will of international donors that his election victory has bought him.

Map of Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan was among the poorest of the former Soviet republics. Its predominantly agricultural economy was decimated by the loss of the Soviet centrally planned market. Its first president, Askar Akaev, was alone in the region in taking the neoliberal and democratic development path. This exacerbated the basic problem of poverty, and when he backtracked on democratic commitments and tried to pursue an unconstitutional third term of office, he was overthrown by largely peaceful protests in 2005.

Kyrgyzstanis who hoped that the new president, Kurmanbek Bakiev, would check the rampant growth of corruption were sorely disappointed. Under his nepotistic rule, freedoms were curtailed and his family and supporters shamelessly enriched themselves. The growing power of organized crime contributed to an alarming rise in political violence. As he came, so he went – overthrown by protests in 2010. Unlike Akaev, he did not go quietly, his special forces shooting dead almost 90 people.

Celebrating at a wedding in Jalalabad.

Nick Megoran

He was replaced by a temporary government headed by interim president Roza Otunbaeva. The new government lacked the ability to make its writ run throughout the country, and was unable to control the criminal gangs and armed defence units that mushroomed in the power vacuum.

Most worrying was the rise in interethnic tensions, as poverty and the erosion of the rule of law exacerbated recent conflict between the Kyrgyz majority and the Uzbek minority. In June 2010, the city of Osh was engulfed in days of violence. It is impossible to be sure of the precise cause, but thousands of people were injured and nearly 500 were killed. Uzbeks suffered the greatest losses, including most of the 2,000 houses that were burned down.

Whether Kyrgyzstan’s weak and ill-disciplined police and armed forces were overwhelmed by or were complicit in the violence is a moot point, but the aftermath has been disturbing. Uzbeks have been routinely abducted for ransom and their property and businesses seized with impunity. The law provides no recourse: on the contrary, many Uzbeks have been arbitrarily arrested, intimidated and tortured by police in order to extort large sums of money.

Lenin’s statue still stands in Osh

Nick Megoran

Addressing police corruption and providing minorities with the security they need to unite them in the state project must be near the top of Atambaev’s agenda. But he also sorely needs to alleviate poverty and the corruption that so exacerbates it. Forbes recently ranked Kyrgyzstan as the country with the seventh worst economy in the world, and Transparency International ranks the country as the 14th most corrupt of the 178 surveyed. The collapse of Soviet-era universal welfare provision has hit the poor hard, while élites have enriched themselves through appropriating foreign aid and stripping state assets.

In his inaugural speech, Atambaev promised to unite the country, address poverty, and tackle corruption. He is going to have his hands full.


jon spaull / Panos /

In March 2006, a report about Tajikistan’s prospects occasioned a remarkable public row between the UK-based commercial risk analysis group, Oxford Analytica, and the US ambassador to the country, Dick Hoagland. Oxford Analytica wrote that Tajikistan was, ‘a failed state on the brink of civil war’, gravely threatened by poverty, insurgency, Islamic terrorism and drugs. Hoagland reacted angrily to the analysis, accusing it of ignoring Tajikistan’s ‘remarkable job [of] pulling itself up by its bootstraps’. Indeed, he said, the article was ‘so far from reality that if one of my staff had turned this in, I would have responded “What the hell have you been smoking?”’

This spat is symptomatic of how difficult it is to assess the fragile political progress of Tajikistan. Its brief history as an independent state is dominated by one event – the civil war of 1992-97 – and its aftermath.

Although Tajikistan is the heir to an ancient Persian and Turkic cultural legacy, the modern state dates back to 1929 and Stalin’s creation of the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic. The poorest part of the Soviet Union, it nonetheless enjoyed living standards that were the envy of the Third World. Educationally, it had almost as many PhDs per head of population as the US. Little wonder that electors overwhelmingly voted to remain in the Soviet Union in a 1991 referendum.

As the Soviet Union collapsed following the failed coup shortly afterwards, newly independent Tajikistan began a swift descent into a brutal civil war. Over 50,000 people died, and many more were displaced, in an immensely destructive five-year period.

As the fledgling state imploded, leaders of all stripes built the private militias that would plunge the country into crisis.

In late 1992 the Popular Front, a coalition of warlords, captured the capital, Dushanbe, in fighting that destroyed more than 55,000 homes and triggered a humanitarian catastrophe. This coalition brought Emomali Rahmonov to power, a reality confirmed in a 1994 presidential election. Opposition forces, however, regrouped in outlying regions and Afghanistan, and it was not until 1997 that peace accords and a power-sharing agreement brought the war to an end.

Since then, Rahmonov’s priority has been to establish his authority over the country. In a sometimes dangerous game of brinkmanship, he has co-opted or eliminated potential or actual rivals. Political opponents have been sidelined by the manipulation of the electoral process. Despite some isolated incidents of serious political violence, the general decline in warlordism is welcomed by most people.

The civil war had catastrophic impacts on the social and economic life of Tajikistan, and the subsequent preoccupation with regime security has distracted attention and resources from development. Hundreds of thousands of desperate Tajik men seek seasonal employment in Russia – it is estimated that half the country’s young men are working abroad during any one year. These migrants are vulnerable to exploitation and xenophobic attacks.

Tajikistan’s traumas, and the increasingly authoritarian rule of President Rahmonov, have taken their toll on the intellectual and spiritual life of the country, too. Few independent media exist. Religious minorities face increasing intolerance. In 2006 the country’s sole synagogue was partially demolished to make way for new urban developments, and an alarming number of Christian converts have been murdered. But it is radical and pious Muslims who have experienced the worst persecution, by a regime terrified that they might form the basis of a future political challenge.

A realistic assessment of Tajikistan’s progress lies somewhere between Oxford Analytica’s pessimism and Dick Hoagland’s optimism. People thank God for the end of the civil war, but their prayers for a return to the good life have yet to be answered.

Nick Megoran


IF the former Soviet Central Asian republics suffered from inferiority complexes during the years of Russian cultural hegemony, their brash leaders have gone to the opposite extreme since independence in 1991. Chief among them is Turkmenistan's President Saparmurat Niyazov, whose bizarre personality cult makes him possibly the only world leader alongside whom North Korea's President Kim Jong Il appears modest.

Niyazov was of relatively humble origins, being orphaned by a massive earthquake that struck the capital Ashkhabad in 1948. Ashkhabad was used as a military outpost by the Russian Tsars to govern the Turkmen desert tribes they conquered in the mid-19th century, and became capital of the new Turkmen republic created by the Bolshevik regime in 1924.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 Niyazov, who had risen through Communist Party ranks to head the republic in 1985, transformed his new state into a pseudo-tribal polity centred on himself. He adopted the name 'Turkmenbashi', meaning 'leader of the Turkmen'. His face adorns everything from the currency to bottles of vodka; his portrait hangs in offices, schools and on street corners; Ashkhabad's central boulevard and its airport are both named after him. Uniformed guards stand beside statues of him that litter the capital, one of them a gold Turkmenbashi that rotates with the sun. He has even renamed the month of January 'Turkmenbashi' - and April is now known as Gurbansoltan, after his mother.

Yet Niyazov's iron-fisted rule is no laughing matter. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe reckons the Turkmen Government's restrictions on freedom of expression to be the worst in any of its 55 member states. There are no independent media, opposition parties nor trade unions. The import of foreign newspapers is strictly forbidden and internet access tightly controlled. Members of minority religions have been harassed, imprisoned and even deported.

Niyazov's zeal to insulate his country from the outside world has led him to ban opera and ballet and close concert halls, the circus and the Academy of Sciences. They have been replaced instead by Niyazov's notion of Turkmen culture, centring upon the Ruhnama, his book of spiritual sayings. This has all been justified in the name of 'stability' - and it is true that the country has thus far avoided the destruction that engulfed neighbouring Tajikistan.

Yet even these measures have not been enough to insulate Niyazov from all opposition. There was a major assassination attempt on him in Ashkhabad in November 2002, and street protests have been more frequent. Although small in number, these suggest that the population may be increasingly unprepared to accept their lot. The majority of the population live below the poverty line, with conditions particularly bad in rural areas. Turkmens witnessed steep declines in wages and in health, education and other public-service provision, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Many feel that they are not getting a fair share of the state's wealth.

And wealth it has in plenty: Turkmenistan's deserts and Caspian seabed boast copious oil deposits and one of the world's largest reserves of natural gas. Recent increases in production, as Turkmenistan opens more export routes, have led to double-figure GDP growth over the past few years. These returns allow Niyazov to bolster his own rule and subsidize basic foodstuffs so as to cushion the effects of poverty in a way that neighbouring states cannot do.

This hydrocarbon wealth means foreign governments and oil companies are eager to curry favour with Turkmenistan. And its official neutrality did not prevent Niyazov from allowing American military planes to use Turkmen airspace in their war with the Taliban. As a reward for this support, the US State Department refused to include Turkmenistan in its 2002 list of 'Countries of Particular Concern' over the infringement of religious liberties, even though it has the worst record on religious freedom in the former Soviet Union. Inclusion would have incurred automatic sanctions. On the contrary, Donald Rumsfeld personally flew to Ashkhabad to thank Niyazov for his support.

This combination of luck, skill and hydrocarbons may ensure that Niyazov remains in power for some time yet. Perhaps there is something to the Ruhnama after all.

Nick Megoran


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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