On Thursday night, Radio Free Europe's Washington offices hosted a panel discussion on Kyrgyzstan. James Kirchick and scholars Erica Manat and Jeff Goldstein gave their read on the country's alarming disintegration this summer, when clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and the country's Uzbek minority displaced nearly 400,000 people. Kyrgyzstan had been considered the most democracy-friendly country in Central Asia, a region of police states (Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan) and dictatorships somewhat less severe than police states (Kazakhstan, Tajikistan). In 2005 and 2010, disaffected Kyrgyzstanis took to the streets and successfully ousted their corrupt and dictatorial leaders, both of whom had reneged on promises of greater political freedom and government transparency. Goldstein emphasized that the country has "the strongest civil society in the region."
But the current, Kyrgyz-dominated state structure seems intent on making sure that Kyrgyz and Uzbeks continue to live in mortal fear of one another. "I don't think I spoke to a single Uzbek who was the least bit positive about their future prospects in the country," said Kirchick, who reported from the southern city of Osh after this summer's riots. "They're terrified of their neighbors, of the police and security forces, and of the mayor. And they have very little trust in the central government."
Luckily the chaos has created a small but growing space for economic and political alternatives. Kirchick said that when he was in Kyrgyzstan, he met with members of the Central Asia Free Market Institute, a small group of Kyrgyzstanis in their mid-20s who believe that increased economic and political freedom are crucial to the country's future. "It's a very impressive group," said Kirchick. "They're 23, 24 years old, and it was a very inspiring thing to meet them."
I think this was the only time that any of the panelists used the word "inspiring" to describe anything related to Kyrgyzstan. But a look at the group's website offers reason for some optimism. The CAFMI'ers are technically literate, deeply idealistic, and practical about how libertarian ideas can transform their troubled region—for instance, they believe that "more people trading translates into increased prosperity with a greater stake in peace."
The hope is that the CAFM provide a sense of urgency in promoting an alternative to the divide-and-conquer strategy of Kyrgyzstan's government before it's too late. "There's a feeling in the air" said Kirchick. "You just sense that the place could explode again."