Tuesday, August 08, 2006


A popular Imam has been killed in Southern Kyrgyzstan, in what the state has reported as an attack on Islamic militants in the area. Two members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan appear to have been killed along with him. His family has denied his involvement with the group.

Kyrgyzstan is an unhappy country. It is troubled by an assortment of things left behind by Russian colonialism, in both its Tsarist and communist forms: poverty, corruption, crumbling infrastructure and rampant alcoholism.

It’s the only one of the former Soviet Central Asian states to have meaningfully cast off the remnants of communism. A couple of years back, they booted out the Soviet era ‘elected’ president in a more or less bloodless revolution. Instead of improving, though, the country’s been on a slow slide ever since. The government lost control of the prison system a while back, and for a time literally pulled all the guards out of the jails. Poverty, corruption and alcoholism have remained entrenched. Law and order have been in broad-based decline for years. The elected post-revolutionary government (in fact anointed when the two chief rivals for the presidency cut a deal) has proven unable to address any of this.

Perhaps these other failures help explain why the government has begun to attack Islamic fundamentalism with such gusto. As a foreign relations issue it’s a winner—Washington, Moscow, and the neighbors in Uzbekistan are all actively fighting it as well. It also works as a reliable domestic issue, insofar and almost any violence can be blamed on extremists.

However, rapprochement with the post-communist dictatorship of Uzbekistan might prove the new Kyrgyz government’s big mistake. The Karimov government in Tashkent represents everything the Kyrgyz revolution stood against—corruption, institutional violence, and an intrusive, totalitarian state that does almost nothing for its own people. Karimov appears to fear Islamists more than anything else, and rightly so. Armed extremism is the only channel of opposition open in a country where all peaceful resistance to the government is crushed. It’s the only serious challenge he faces.

So why would the Kyrgyz government associate with him? Well, no one likes to make an enemy of one’s neighbors, and Islamists are a genuine cause of instability in both countries. But the country might be better to attack the root causes of the issue—most pressingly, the grinding poverty that affects a large portion of the population. The country has serious unaddressed social issues, including unemployment, ethnic tensions, collapsed infrastructure and substance abuse—Afghan heroine has now joined vodka among the nation’s drugs of choice. The government needs to give its youth less reason to turn to violence.

Cozying up to the dictator next door and killing the clergy won’t do it.

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