KABUL, Afghanistan—Democratic freedoms are seldom granted peacefully by the dominant class/culture and in virtually every case must be wrested from the tyrants, the autocrats, the occupiers, the oppressors, or the protectors of the past at great cost and bloodshed. Every life lost, every person maimed in the pursuit of any cause, noble or otherwise, is a tragedy, which can ripple for generations.
But how do we measure those awful losses against the casualties of not revolting?
On Wednesday, the government of Pres. Kurmanbek Bakiev fell after two days of violent demonstrations in Kyrgyzstan, which left at least 75 persons dead and more than 1,000 injured. (For his account of “two days running with the mob,” read Blood on the Streets of Bishkek by Ben Judah in Foreign Policy.)
Some of the deceased were publicly mourned today, Friday, the Sabbath for the nominally Muslim nation. The transitional government led by a former prime minister Roza Otunbayeva swiftly dissolved parliament and pledged national elections in six months, while Bakiev fled Bishkek, the capital to southern Kyrgyzstan by plane. From his native Jalalabad, Bakiev on Friday refused to resign, though it is uncertain what parts of the government he could depend on in any counter-offensive.
By any measurement, Bakiev betrayed the “Tulip Revolution” that put him and Felix Kulov into office in the spring of 2005 under the terms of a power-sharing agreement that Bakiev would soon abandon. Bakiev, who was often photographed looking over his reading classes, quickly turned into an autocrat and sacked Kulov, the prime minister, before he was scheduled to rotate into the presidency. He then accelerated the consolidation of power into the presidency by rewriting the constitution in 2007, rigging subsequent elections, and creating a political party, Ak Zhol, or “Bright Path¸” whose only ideology was loyalty to him. Then he unleashed the dogs on his political opponents, journalists, and human rights activists, who were intimidated, jailed, beaten, run out of the country, and killed.
Bakiev, his family and his loyalists fattened themselves on public resources and monopolized the few growth sectors of the economy, like telecommunications, while the nation’s infrastructure crumbled. He recently reorganized the government and appointed his son, Maxim, director of a new economic development authority that was immediately assumed to be corrupt. One of the first acts of the transitional government was to file mass murder charges against Maxim and two of his siblings, The New York Times reports.
Despite some private development in Bishkek, the quality and affordability of housing, healthcare, food, utilities, and education deteriorated under Bakiev. Nothing was done to curb the corruption that was imbedded in any exchange involving money or credentials. Cash still bought driver’s licenses, public school grades, and university degrees. In a culture that prides itself on its respect for elders; meager pensions could not keep pace with rising costs of food, light and power, and forced many of the elderly into destitution.
Bakiev also militarized Kyrgyz society by hiring thousands of young men, and some women, into the police and military, paying them pitiful wages and drilling them in obedience—a shrewd move that reduced unemployment among young adults hungering for the undelivered fruits of post-communist neoliberal abundance. For many vulnerable citizens (e.g. women, youth, and minorities) and foreigners, the police under Bakiev were often feared more than the criminals. For many Kyrgyz, the professorial president had become the nation’s chief thug.
There exists a pitifully naïve belief among the comfortable classes that democratic reforms are politely negotiated by well-dressed and well-behaved men and women seated around a polished table with fresh fruit and bottled water. That belief is built on a foundation of historical ignorance. Democratic reforms usually are torn from hands of the privileged few who typically resist them with all their resources.
The more the Kyrgyz opposition attempted to engage Bakiev in dialogue aimed at reform, the more brutally he opposed them. To do nothing in the face of systemic injustice is to tacitly endorse the policies of the status quo, which in the case of Kyrgyzstan meant poverty, malnutrition, brutal imprisonments and countless deaths.
The last in a serious of utility rate hikes pushed the Kyrgyz public over the top. Desperate, angry people seldom behave well and some of the protestors were opportunistic looters. After being fired upon by and killed by security forces, some protestors retaliated, beat up the police and military, stole their weapons, and turned them against their former oppressors. Did all of the protestors behave with dignity? Of course not. Did some of them loot and steal what was not theirs? Of course they did. Should their crimes be excused? Of course not.
But lest we forget, it was the corrupt government of Kurmanbek Bakiev that tolerated injustice, engineered fear and intimidation, brutalized its opponents, while plundering the national economy, leaving behind a paltry $80 million, according to the Guardian.uk.co, the equivalent of about $16 for each of the nation’s 5 million people. Yes, let us mourn those people killed in the street demonstrations but let’s also mourn the persons who were slain or had their lives destroyed under Bakiev’s cruel rule, and let us never forget the price of indifference, what we allow to happen when we refuse to stand up to tyranny.