Ted Rall on the Revolution in Kyrgyzstan

As you probably know, I have traveled extensively through Central Asia. Among my favorite nations there is the Kyrgyz Republic. Despite formidable challenges—as one of the Central Asian republics without reserves of natural gas or oil, it is one of the poorest, with an average income of about $30 a month—its people are kind and hospitable. Known as the “Switzerland of Central Asia” because of its beautiful Tian Shan mountains, it is also a mecca for outdoorsmen of all kinds, particularly alpinists and white-water rafters.

I am sad about the violence in Bishkek but optimistic that the results will benefit the Kyrgyz people. That is, as long as the United States stays out of it.

During the 1990s Kyrgyzstan was Central Asia’s great democratic hope: the only CAR with a democratically-elected president, Askar Akayev, a math professor. The other CARs were, and still are, run by Soviet-era Communist Party bosses as authoritarian states.

In the late 1990s the World Bank and IMF pressed loans upon the Kyrgyz government that it could not afford, then imposed structural adjustment policies that precipitated economic collapse.

After 9/11 the Bush Administration pressed Kyrgyzstan to accept a U.S. airbase at Manas Airport near Bishkek to supply the occupation of Afghanistan. In typical Central Asian style, the Kyrgyz accepted nominal rent, then asked for an increase after the troops were installed.

The Bush Administration was incensed. They decided to oust Akayev and, in 2005, CIA-backed insurgents from the Muslim heartland of Osh, in the Ferghana Valley, stormed the presidential palace in Bishkek. Akayev ordered security forces not to fire, and he fled into exile. He is now a mathematics professor at Moscow State University.

An Osh-based politician, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, took over. Proving my oft-stated dictum that any bad situation can become worse, Bakiyev brought authoritarian rule to Kyrgyzstan. Opposition politicians were murdered and “disappeared.” Southern provinces fell under the control of local warlords. Corruption escalated; he was reelected in elections that international monitors described as completely tainted. Bakiyev’s men looted what little was left of the country, plunging the economy into freefall.

Misery escalated, and thousands of men with nothing to lose have been fighting with security forces in Bishkek for the past few days.

At its heart, this is a conflict between the Sovietized secular north, from which Akayev came, and the Muslim south, home to Bakiyev.

The current unrest will have sweeping psychological effects upon neighboring states, as the Kyrgyz are widely considered the peacekeepers of the region. When border disputes break out between other CARs, Kyrgyz mediators are often called in to settle them.

There will also be repercussions for the U.S. Not only could we be ejected from the airbase, anti-Americanism could escalate. After all, Bakiyev and the misery over which he presided was in no small measure the fault of U.S. foreign policy.

The worst-case scenario would be civil war. Bakiyev is said to be hiding in Osh, the country’s largest city. Were he to try to rally his forces to retake the capital, the bloodshed could be extraordinary.

The Obama Administration, closely linked to the Bakiyev regime, would be well advised to stay out of Kyrgyz politics and lock down the airbase at Manas before recognizing whatever new regime takes power. One can only hope that secular democratic forces take over the government and restore Kyrgyzstan to its rightful place as the friendliest, most beautiful nation in Central Asia.

For further information about Kyrgyzstan, the 2005 Tulip Revolution that overthrew President Akayev, and Central Asia in general, please check out my book Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?

Also worth checking out for breaking news from Central Asia is EurasiaNet.org.

PRESS INQUIRIES: I am available for comment and interviews about the situation in Kyrgyzstan. Please contact: chet@rall.com

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About the Author

Ted Rall
Ted Rall
Setting himself apart from the herd with a unique drawing style and a take-no-prisoners approach, Ted Rall began editorial cartooning in the 1980s with a handful of alternative weekly newspapers whose editors saw his photocopied work hanging from lampposts in New York City. In 1991 San Francisco Chronicle Features began syndicating Rall’s three-times-a-week editorial cartoons syndication with newspapers including the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Des Moines Register and Philadelphia Daily News.

Universal Press Syndicate picked up Rall’s cartoons in 1996. Today the man often called “the most controversial cartoonist in America” appears in more than 100 newspapers throughout the United States, ranging from the Washington Post to the Village Voice.

His trademark “Generalissimo El Busho” is an iconic caricature of President Bush. It has drawn criticism from conservatives. He was called “treasonous” by the right-wing Weekly Standard and “anti-American” by the Wall Street Journal’s conservative editorial page. The Right Wing News website named him 2003’s “Most Annoying Liberal” and was named number 15 in Bernard Goldberg’s book 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America. He has received numerous death threats.

Rall has also won awards, including the 1995 and 2000 Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Awards for Outstanding Coverage of the Problems of the Disadvantaged. In 1996 he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

Rall also draws non-political strips for MAD magazine and cartoon journalism for EurasiaNet, a news website about the former Soviet republics of Central Asia.

"Editorial cartooning is an intrinsically negative medium,” Rall says, “but I’m an optimistic person. My hope is that, by calling attention to hypocrisy in our government and the inward focus of American culture in an amusing way, things will change for the better.”

Four collections of Rall’s cartoons have been published: Waking Up In America, All The Rules Have Changed, Search and Destroy, and America Gone Wild, as well as three award-winning graphic novels, My War With Brian, Real Americans Admit: The Worst Thing I’ve Ever Done! and 2024, a parody of Orwell’s 1984. He edited an influential three-volume anthology of edgy alternative weekly political cartoons, Attitude. He wrote the bestselling 1998 “generational manifesto” Revenge of the Latchkey Kids.

Rall covered the war in Afghanistan in cartoon form, where his harrowing experience—3 of the 44 journalists with whom he traveled were killed—led to the critically acclaimed book To Afghanistan and Back. He released two books of prose during 2004, Wake Up, You’re Liberal: How We Can Take America Back From the Right and Generalissimo El Busho.

Rall’s most recent book is Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?, a detailed analysis of the region in prose and cartoons.

See his books from NBM!

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