Following the December 6 fatal shooting of a Kyrgyz truck driver at the U.S. military base in Kyrgyzstan, anti-U.S. sentiments have been mounting in the country. That incident has moved beyond a mere diplomatic spat between the Kyrgyz government and the U.S. embassy and has turned into a central theme for public discussion about looming “Western hegemony” over Kyrgyzstan (see EDM, December 11).
The death of the truck driver, Alexander Ivanov, fanned the flames of the ongoing protest against Western domination in Kyrgyzstan associated with the country’s prospective membership in the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Initiative. HIPC is a debt-relief program founded by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in 1996 to help countries whose external debt surpasses their GDP to recover economically. The program allows the World Bank and IMF to intervene into state public administrative and financial sectors and design economic policies.
If Kyrgyzstan joins the HIPC, $500-800 million of its $2 billion debt will be written off in two years. But there are four broad economic steps that will be required in order to secure the write offs: designing an economic development strategy, auditing public finances, reforming the social sector, and restructuring control over the energy sector (Akipress, December 13).
Several protests against HIPC have been staged recently in various locations in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital. The NGO “Kylym shamy,” led by Aziza Abdirasulova, has been particularly active. Protestors burned scarecrows symbolizing HIPC, paraded a black coffin marked with a white cross, and displayed numerous posters with graphic images in front of the World Bank’s Bishkek office and the parliament building.
The ongoing debate suggests that most Kyrgyz state officials, civil society activists, and scholars have a very vague idea about what HIPC in fact represents. Most local experts appeal to nationalist arguments, claiming that the West will deprive Kyrgyzstan of its national dignity in order to control its natural resources. Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev and Prime Minister Felix Kulov, both advocates of HIPC, are regarded as “traitors of the motherland.” Civil society activists, such as Edil Baisalov, leader of the Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, who also call for a positive attitude towards the Initiative, are accused of being corrupted by Western donors. In this regard, Western assistance towards promoting civil society is also considered to be a negative factor.
Ironically, talk about alleged Western hegemony in Kyrgyzstan is not juxtaposed with the fact that the recently adopted Kyrgyz constitution is written in the Russian language. Russian dominance in Kyrgyzstan is regarded as organic and any arguments against it are dismissed as nationalist. By contrast, rising up against the West is treated as expression of genuine patriotism. In these terms, the West is primarily associated with the United States not only because of its military base in Kyrgyzstan, but also because other Western countries have been rather passive in engaging in Kyrgyzstan or the Central Asian region in general.
Russia is likely to use the rising anti-Western sentiments to its favor. Sergei Ivanov, a legislator from the Russian Liberal Democratic Party, has argued that the Kyrgyz government must restrict the activities of U.S. military personnel similar to what Georgia has recently done towards Russian military servicemen (Akipress, December 13). Ivanov also argued that Kyrgyzstan must shut down the U.S. military base.
It is important to emphasize that the accidental shooting of Kyrgyz citizens by military men is not unprecedented. At the borders with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, Kyrgyz civilians often suffer from violence at the hands of the border guards. Armed guards use violence against civilians on almost a weekly basis near the border with Uzbekistan. Local skinhead groups often harass Kyrgyz citizens working in Russia as seasonal labor migrants. Yet these instances, although widely acknowledged, do not raise such widespread anger among the Kyrgyz public. They also receive little concern from the Russian side.
Partly, public frustration with the incident is caused by the fact that, contrary to what the U.S. soldier asserted, the Kyrgyz truck driver was not carrying a knife, but a nail file. He thus did not represent a threat and, in fact, no incidents of Kyrgyz citizens using violence against U.S. servicemen have been recorded previously.
The death of the Kyrgyz citizen united the anti-U.S. forces in Kyrgyzstan. Local civil society activists recalled previous cases of U.S. soldiers’ unprofessional behavior by U.S. soldiers both in Kyrgyzstan and elsewhere. These include the reckless behavior of U.S. soldiers at Bishkek’s night clubs before the U.S. military contingent was restricted from visiting public places, the mysterious disappearance of U.S. Major Jill Metzger three months ago, the damaging of a passenger aircraft by a U.S. jet on September 26, and the case of a U.S. serviceman running over two women two years ago. Prisoner abuse scandals in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay were also incorporated into the discussion on the significance of the current killing of a Kyrgyz citizen by a U.S. serviceman. Importantly, some Kyrgyz questioned whether such incident could occur again.