For the third time in 15 years protesters in the Kyrgyz Republic capital of Bishkek have seized and set fire to the “White House,” the seat of parliament and presidential staff. The situation is chaotic with multiple political actors claiming to be in charge and the threat of chaos expanding to the provinces. It is a scene all too familiar to Kyrgyzstan in the last 15 years, leading to a cycle of protests and calls for advancing democracy followed by backsliding into authoritarianism. While working to stabilize the situation in the short term, the United States and regional actors should be cognizant of the country’s deep regional and ethnic fault lines and support actors in Kyrgyzstan who will address them so that this time the cycle does not repeat itself.
“Do you know how nomads prevent conflict?” a Kazakh friend once asked me. “I turn this way; you turn the other way. We start walking.” In ordinary times in Central Asia, this traditional “social distancing” may be enough to avert friction. But in a time of pandemic, it isn’t. Like elsewhere, the novel coronavirus is challenging Central Asian states and societies in new ways and revealing a great deal about the character of peoples and their governments. Here’s a look across the region at how the crisis has affected its states and how leaders have responded.
Ukraine and the countries of Central Asia wouldn’t seem to have much in common other than their former Soviet past. But post-Soviet Russian ambitions may be linking them in unexpected ways. The outcome of Ukraine’s current effort to consolidate its democracy, against Russia’s resistance, has ramifications for whether the Central Asian countries view civil society and democracy as a driver of instability or a force for reform.