How Much Did the US Contribute to Kyrgyzstan?

A few days ago, Henry Farrell downplayed the role of the United States in the Kyrgyz revolution, arguing that a geographic contagion effect and regional institutions deserved the actual credit. I’m pretty sympathetic to his first claim — “countries are more likely to move towards democracy if other countries nearby are established democracies (or have recently moved towards democracy)” — as my previous post suggests. But I think that Henry should have given the US more of its due. In particular, I find the following statement a bit problematic:

…[T]he US administration has been persistently unwilling to invest actual political resources in pushing for democratization in Central Asia. As long as the states in question were helping in the war on terror, the odd boiled Uzbeki dissident here and there scarcely merited a tut-tut. Even as matters stand, the US hasn’t recognized the new regime in Kyrgyzstan, and appears to be rather uncomfortable with the prospect of widescale change in the region, fearing that instability might help local Islamists to establish themselves.

The US may hold some of these fears, but it’s hardly been “persistently unwilling to invest actual political resources.” At least, if this New York Times report is to believed:

U.S. Helped to Prepare the Way for Kyrgyzstan’s Uprising [RSS]

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan quickly became an aid magnet with the highest per-capita foreign assistance level of any Central Asian nation. Among the hundreds of millions of dollars that arrived came a large slice focused on building up civil society and democratic institutions.

Most of that money came from the United States, which maintains the largest bilateral pro-democracy program in Kyrgyzstan because of the Freedom Support Act, passed by Congress in 1992 to help the former Soviet republics in their economic and democratic transitions. The money earmarked for democracy programs in Kyrgyzstan totaled about $12 million last year.

Hundreds of thousands more filter into pro-democracy programs in the country from other United States government-financed institutions like the National Endowment for Democracy. That does not include the money for the Freedom House printing press or Kyrgyz-language service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a pro-democracy broadcaster.

“It would have been absolutely impossible for this to have happened without that help,” said Edil Baisolov, who leads a coalition of nongovernmental organizations, referring to the uprising last week. Mr. Baisolov’s organization is financed by the United States government through the National Democratic Institute.

American money helps finance civil society centers around the country where activists and citizens can meet, receive training, read independent newspapers and even watch CNN or surf the Internet in some. The N.D.I. alone operates 20 centers that provide news summaries in Russian, Kyrgyz and Uzbek.

The United States sponsors the American University in Kyrgyzstan, whose stated mission is, in part, to promote the development of civil society, and pays for exchange programs that send students and non-governmental organization leaders to the United States. Kyrgyzstan’s new prime minister, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, was one.

All of that money and manpower gave the coalescing Kyrgyz opposition financing and moral support in recent years, as well as the infrastructure that allowed it to communicate its ideas to the Kyrgyz people.

Henry, of course, is aware of this history. When confronted with similar news items by Crooked Timber reader RD, he replied:

RD – as the WSJ article [Note: I think he means “the Financial Times article”–RT] makes quite clear, the US refused to fund activities in Kyrgyzstan that might be construed as creating an effective opposition, encouraging civil disobedience etc. Its efforts had only marginal consequences. The US manifestly is rather worried at what is happening in Kyrgyszstan — it didn’t want this. Different story in Georgia — but there, energy politics played a not-insubstantial role.

The NYT seems to dispute Henry’s portrayal of Kyrgyz aid, though. Note its passages on Alexander Kim:

…Mr. Kim went on to found another newspaper, which went through several incarnations as the government tried to prevent him from publishing. He has been helped by about $70,000 in American government grants, mostly to pay for newsprint.

The problem, though, was finding a press: they were all controlled by the government and refused to print newspapers from the opposition.

Then Mike Stone, Freedom House’s representative in Kyrgyzstan, arrived.

“When Freedom House opened their printing press, it was the end of our problems,” Mr. Kim said.

By January this year, Mr. Kim had begun national distribution of the newspaper, called MSN, for My Capital News. Opposition candidates in the parliamentary elections bought truckloads of the papers to distribute as campaign literature.

Those Kyrgyz who did not read Russian or have access to the newspaper listened to summaries of its articles on Kyrgyz-language Radio Azattyk, the local United States-government financed franchise of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

Other independent media carried the opposition’s debates. Talk shows, like “Our Times,” produced in part with United States government grants, were broadcast over the country’s few independent television stations, including Osh TV in the south, where the protests that led to Mr. Akayev’s ouster began. Osh TV expanded its reach with equipment paid for by the State Department.

Here’s the money quote, with emphasis added:

As corruption grew worse, the country’s nongovernmental organizations began speaking out, and [President Askar] Akayev grew wary of the foreign pro-democracy assistance he had long allowed.

The published pictures of his house outraged him. [Freedom House representative Mike] Stone, who runs the printing press, was summoned to the Foreign Ministry and berated.

A week later, just before the press began printing a 200,000-copy special issue of MSN, the power at the press went out. Radio Liberty was also taken off the air, ostensibly because the government was putting its frequency up for auction.

Mr. Akayev began suggesting that the West was engaged in a conspiracy to destabilize the country. A crudely forged document, made to look like an internal report by the American ambassador, Stephen Young, began circulating among local news organizations. It cast American-financed pro-democracy activities as part of an American conspiracy. “Our primary goal,” the document read, “is to increase pressure upon Akaev (sic) to make him resign ahead of schedule after the parliamentary elections.”

But Mr. Akayev, who had begun his presidential career as an advocate of democracy, did not go further.

The American Embassy sent Freedom House two generators the day after the power went out, allowing the press to print nearly all of the 200,000 copies of MSN’s special issue. The power was restored on March 8, and Mr. Kim’s newspaper became one of the primary sources of information for the mobilizing opposition.

In other words, even after Akayev began to “construe[]” American-supported activities “as creating an effective opposition, encouraging civil disobedience, etc.,” the Embassy continued to provide resources that helped with mobilization.

Again, I think that some of Henry’s arguments are plausible. But his characterization of the US role seems off in the face of the initial reports emerging from Central Asia.

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Robert Garcia Tagorda
About Robert Garcia Tagorda
Robert blogged prolifically at OTB from November 2004 to August 2005, when career demands took him in a different direction. He graduated summa cum laude from Claremont McKenna College with a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics and earned his Master in Public Policy from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.