Foreign Policy Blogs

Corruption topples another government

Violent demonstrations led to the fall of President Bakiyev in Kyrgyzstan last week. The opposition has taken control of the country, including the president’s supposed stronghold in the south.

This is, of course, the second time a popular uprising has led to a change of government in Kyrgyzstan in the last five years. Both times, governmental corruption lay behind the discontent (although it did not help when Bakiyev ordered that troops shoot at protesters). In 2005, the opposition took over vowing to clean up rampant corruption and bring democracy to Kyrgyzstan. This year, a faction of that same opposition, which had split once in power and became the new opposition, faced the same challenges and made the same promises. Roza Otunbayeva, who helped overthrow the 2005 government, is now interim leader against the Bakiyev government. Dare we say: Plus ca change….

Will it be any different this time? As I’ve said repeatedly, the fight against corruption must come from the top. But Bakiyev not only lacked the will to combat the corruption below him: he perpetuated it by setting his own example. Nepotism put his son Maksim in charge of the development agency; in his new post, Maksim allegedly transferred funds to tax havens and signed deals with China that were criticized for lack of transparency. President Bakiyev meanwhile presided over suspicious privatization schemes. Thus, the new government has much room for improvement.

Kyrgyzstan has a situation not unlike Afghanistan: deep-rooted corruption, tribal loyalties, no real experience with democracy. Overcoming these things will take true innovation and very enlightened leadership, even without Afghanistan’s conflict situation. Perhaps Otunbayeva, as a woman, is just the person. History is on her side: there aren’t many examples of female dictators. But she would have to stand up to more than a weak and fleeing president: the vested interests in the country may need more than a positive example to turn things around. It is too soon to really know which way Kyrgyzstan is leaning.