Running in Circles in Kyrgyzstan

Whenever I am in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, I wake early and run in the central stadium. I enjoy it for two reasons: first, it’s one of the few places where I can exercise without Bishkek’s feral dogs attacking my ankles, and, second, that I actually run on the track provides endless amusement for the gaggle of Kyrgyz politicians I lap as they amble and shoot the breeze.

Some of my stadium acquaintances hold positions of power. Others do not. This week, those on the in and those on the out swapped places. I’m certain, though, that it will be the same gaggle at the track next week, negotiating ever-changing alliances while the rest of Bishkek sleeps.

For those unfamiliar with Kyrgyz politics, it must appear strange that Roza Otunbayeva, who emerged from this week’s coup as the nation’s interim leader, was foreign minister for both Kyrgyzstan’s first president, Askar Akayev, and for the man who ousted Mr. Akayev, Kurmanbek Bakiyev (who himself was forced to flee Bishkek on Wednesday). Stranger still is that after each stint Ms. Otunbayeva subsequently joined the “opposition” and played a central role in the downfall of her boss.

As my experience at the stadium shows, however, concepts like opposition and political parties prove an uncomfortable fit with Kyrgyz politics. The press would do well to drop these terms and begin to analyze the political dynamic for what it actually is — a handful of political elites going in circles — rather than in terms suggestive of what we hope Kyrgyzstan can become, a competitive democracy.

Let me be clear: What happened on Wednesday was not a revolution — it was a hijacking.

Being president of Kyrgyzstan shares much in common with being captain of a plane. The president needs a few people to help him rule, say a first officer and a navigator. Should one of these assistants prove problematic, the president can replace him with someone from the passenger cabin. The challenge, though, is that the passenger cabin is small. Eventually, the president must re-use the same people he previously fired or he must fly solo. At the same time, he remains vulnerable to passengers banding together, as they did this week, and tossing him from the plane.

This makes Kyrgyzstan very different from its ex-Soviet neighbors. Why aren’t the presidents of countries like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, both of whom have been in power since the Soviet Union collapsed, so easily tossed from power? The answer is straightforward: the Kazakh and Uzbek presidents have bigger planes — 747s compared to Kyrgyzstan’s Cessna.

Should a minister falter or be seen as disloyal, President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan and Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan can find ready replacements from within the ranks of hundreds of loyal cadres, many of them holdovers from the bureaucracy of the Soviet system. Moreover, because Kazakh and Uzbek ministers know they can easily be replaced, they are far less likely to prove meddlesome in the first place.

The differences trace back to the 1980s, when the Kazakh, Uzbek and Kyrgyz political elites were all rocked by riots during Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika reforms. Moscow directly intervened to restore political order during riots in Kazakhstan in 1986 and Uzbekistan in 1989. In February 1990, however, Mr. Gorbachev decreed an end to the Communist Party’s monopoly on power and effectively told leaders in the Soviet republics that their problems were, well, their problems.

So when riots came to the Kyrgyz Republic in June 1990, no steady outside hand followed to restore order to Bishkek’s bickering party elite. And while the Kazakh and Uzbek presidents entered the post-Soviet period with a united, albeit renamed single party, Kyrgyzstan’s new president, Askar Akayev, had to scramble to put together a piecemeal political system, which has never matured.

The United States and Russia provide hundreds of millions in aid to Kyrgyzstan each year, largely in exchange for the use of air bases, but the money has done little to stabilize the country or promote democracy. In fact, Russia’s desire to see the Americans evicted created a military bidding war, the spoils of which only fueled Kyrgyzstan’s political chaos.

Kyrgyzstan is a failed state that needs a couple of steady outside hands to help it succeed. When President Dmitri Medvedev of Russia visits Washington next week, President Obama needs to convince him that the United States has no interest in remaking the political status quo in Central Asia. This means affirming what Vladimir Putin, Russia’s prime minister and de facto leader, has already stated: that President Bakiyev — now in hiding in southern Kyrgyzstan — must resign and that we recognize Ms. Otunbayeva’s interim government as the legitimate authority.

Kyrgyzstan is in Russia’s backyard, and the fact that we depend on our air base there for our Afghan war doesn’t change that. Presenting a united front with Russia, however, would help Washington keep its air base and avoid another bidding war. It would also provide some political equilibrium that might keep those now on the outs in Bishkek from hijacking the Kyrgyz state again.

Eric McGlinchey, an assistant professor of government and politics at George Mason University.