Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence - Christian Parenti (2011)

III. ASIA

Chapter 10. Kyrgyzstan’s Little Climate War

People have suffered and have had such a hard time that it was
impossible to go on like this. . . . Land tax has been increased.
Prices for electricity and heating have gone up. . . . Young
people do not have jobs. They just wander in the streets. We
hardly give them an education.

—SHYNAR MAATKERIMOVA , pensioner, Kyrgyzstan, 20101

SPRING WAS ON the way in Kyrgyzstan, the green buds and pale blossoms just pressing forth, the sky a beautiful overcast grey. Soft rain caressed the capital, Bishkek, leaving the wide Soviet-era plazas clean and fresh. Occasional birdsong carried through the moist air and across the city’s empty streets.

But the calm was the product of crisis and fear. Soon the wide plazas filled with thousands of demonstrators. As the Guardian reported, “Protesters said they had been driven onto the streets by recent steep price hikes to communal services such as water and electricity. The hikes had been the last straw in a country already wrestling with huge unemployment and widespread poverty.”2 The New York Times also noted that crowds were “incensed over rising utility prices and a government they considered repressive and corrupt.”3 A week before the mayhem began in early April 2010, the government had announced a plan to boost utility prices by 20 percent.4

Why had it done this? Because the country is almost totally dependant on hydroelectric power and income from electricity exports, and that same prolonged Central Asian drought that was punishing Afghanistan and Pakistan had crippled Kyrgyzstan’s power plants, thus its whole economy. In this regard, Kyrgyzstan encapsulates in the extreme how climate change can trigger violence. This chapter explores how that crisis occurred and why.

Power . . .

The crowds protesting price hikes soon turned into mobs and armed gangs and they attacked government buildings. Gunshots and stun grenades echoed in the streets. Canisters of teargas bounced across the plazas. Flames surged from the windows of government offices. First one building, then another, and then another were gutted by fire. Protesters grabbed and viciously beat the interior minister and took control of the security headquarters and state television. The police started shooting live rounds. Protesters shot back. The police advanced and retreated. The mobs ran away, then ran back. The wounded and dead were carried off in cars: sixty people were killed and hundreds more wounded. Soon Bishkek’s main commercial district was burning, and a frenzy of unchecked looting was underway.

By early May 2010, President Kurmanbek Bakiyev—the pro-Western, free market “reformer” of the Tulip Revolution—had fled south to his hometown, Osh. The opposition had assumed power, and the new president, Ms. Roza Otunbayeva, promised to reduce utility tariffs and provide more aid to the poor. But there was no law and order. Neighborhoods erected barricades; militia formed. Amidst the looting, ethnic violence began—Kyrgyz against Uzbek and some of the opposite. The economic suffering of the people and their resentment of the kleptocrat overclass were quickly mutating into ethnic hatred. The murder and rape of ethnic cleansing drove many thousands of terrified Uzbeks to flight toward the border—but Uzbekistan was sealed closed.5 President Otunbayeva called for Russian military intervention. The Kremlin declined.6 As the rampaging slowly subsided, Kyrgyzstan seemed on the verge of bloody ethnic fragmentation.

On June 10, the violence flared again, this time in the southern city of Osh. A minor fight between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in a casino quickly escalated into pogroms. This time, Kyrgyz elements of the state security forces were involved in hunting down Uzbeks. Historically, the southern towns had been home to sedentary Uzbek traders and farmers, while the mostly nomadic or seminomadic Kyrgyz moved with their herds. But forced collectivization in the 1930s ended that pattern as ethnic Kyrgyz settled in the valleys among the ethnic Uzbeks. Competition for water and land emerged. As a Human Rights Watch report explained, “The problems became more acute as the population grew. Grievances over land and water distribution increasingly took on an ethnic dimension during the perestroika and glasnost era in the mid-to-late 1980s, as ethnic, linguistic, and cultural identities became stronger.”7 Southern Kyrgyzstan saw interethnic rioting in the 1990s during the breakup of the Soviet Union. In 1990, Kyrgyzstan’s Uzbek minority tried to gain autonomy and join neighboring Uzbekistan; the intercommunal violence that followed took 1,000 lives. In 2010, more than 350 died and thousands were left homeless.8

. . . and Water

The sudden spasms of violence reflected, at first glance, a rebellion against a corrupt, self-dealing president and the reignition of allegedly age-old ethnic conflict. But there is an environmental issue at the heart of the trouble. It was, in fact, the catastrophic convergence playing out as ethnic rampaging. In Kyrgyzstan, neoliberal economic shock therapy, imposed after the Soviet Union’s implosion, and the political-military blowback of Cold War proxy fights meet the incipient crisis of climate change.

As noted above, a key grievance of the Bishkek protesters was the price and scarcity of electricity, and that was due to the long Central Asian drought. The dry weather plus bad management had crippled Kyrgyzstan’s hydroelectric power plants. From the spring of 2008 onward, Kyrgyzstan suffered rolling blackouts.9 In some areas, ten-hour blackouts everyday were the norm. Then, in 2009, Uzbekistan made things a bit worse by pulling out of the regional power grid built by the Soviet Union.10

Ninety percent of electricity produced in Kyrgyzstan comes from hydroelectric power stations; the largest single source of its electricity is the hydroelectric dam at the base of the Toktogul Reservoir on the river Naryn. In fact, the Toktogul power station is Central Asia’s largest. A monument to Soviet modernism, it was built between 1975 and 1982 during the Brezhnev heyday of high oil prices, the peak of Soviet prosperity. The drought, however, meant low water levels in the Toktogul Reservoir, thus reduced power production.

Drought was not the only form of extreme weather to fuel the crisis. A bitterly cold winter, compounded by bad management and greed, helped reduce water levels even further. The winter of 2008 saw a deep and prolonged cold snap; temperatures dropped to–31°C, or–25°F—twice as cold as normal. Due to the drought, there were also power outages during the cold snap. Thus, many places had no heat or hot water! Across the country, pipes froze, pensioners died, industry seized up, livestock perished, and schools closed for two months—the country effectively shut down.

The freezing cold forced the government to release more water than planned; it was the only way to generate electricity, to overcome the crippling power cuts. With energy prices on the regional market spiking up, corrupt officials released even more water—to generate extra power to pirate off to Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan.

The winter of 2007 had been the driest since Toktogul was built. And in 2008, the reservoir “received only 70 percent of the average inflows,” and its volume dropped to half its 2005 level.11 As one local political analyst put it, “The water level is lower than the critical mark. So the question of whether we have light and heating this winter, and whether large and small businesses will grow, depends directly on whether the requisite level of water builds up in the reservoir.”12 It did not.

A hardship in and of themselves, the power cuts also had a damaging knock-on effect for the whole economy, creating unemployment and shortages. As industry closed, unemployment rose, and demand fell, creating more unemployment. Most, if not all, economic activity depends on electricity; without it, an economy begins to collapse. A Bishkek baker illustrated the process: “I’m practically ruined because of the rolling blackouts. . . . There have been many times when I’ve made the dough mixture to bake buns and the lack of electricity has meant it’s gone to waste. I took out a loan a year ago and things were picking up steadily. But I’ve suffered badly from the lack of power. I have to pay interest and every month I just can’t work out where I can get the money.” A power-starved garment manufacturer said he was working at only 30 percent of the previous year’s capacity. “Our business partners are cross with us because we’re falling down on delivery agreements. We don’t know how we can repay our loans.”13

Collapsing production led to a shortfall in tax revenues, which worsened the state’s fiscal crisis. Dr. Nur Omarov, professor of international relations at Kyrgyz-Russian Slavic University, had it right when he told a reporter, “A social explosion is in the offing. It all depends on who organizes the protesting masses.”14

Last Straw

In February 2010, even as top-ranking government officials illegally sold power, President Bakiyev doubled the cost of electricity, heating, and water and planned to raise rates again by midyear. Immediately, people in provincial cities like Naryn protested with placards reading, “We can’t pay the new prices for electricity” and “Government, listen to us!”15

Bishkek’s mayor, Nariman Tuleev, had earlier warned the central government that price hikes would have a damaging effect on the city budget and larger economy. The “lonely and elderly pensioners, disabled persons, many workers of public-financed organizations with low salaries” would be hit hardest, warned the mayor. He added that he feared “the wave of discontent” this might bring, and wanted to “prevent social protests” by increasing wages and subsidies to the indigent.16

The free market–loving president did not listen.

Post-Soviet Crisis

The drought that caused the power shortages, which in turn began to cripple the economy and lent justification to Bakiyev’s draconian price hikes on utilities, was only part of the problem. The Kyrgyz system was already weak before the extreme weather pushed it over the edge.

During the Soviet period, Kyrgyzstan’s economy was structured by subsidized integration into the greater USSR, in a pattern that one scholar called “welfare colonialism.” During the late Cold War, Kyrgyzstan became a major producer of weapons and military goods for the Red Army. But it lost those markets in the chaos of the USSR’s disintegration.

In the eyes of Ahmed Rashid, “The salient fact about Central Asia today is that independent statehood was neither coveted nor sought by the region’s ruling Communist elites. It was thrust upon them when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991. Thus the region’s rulers were suddenly compelled to fabricate a new identity for their five ethnically diverse states—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—and to contend for the first time with radically differing ideologies.”17 And, one might add, new economies.

After 1991, Kyrgyzstan became one of Central Asia’s smallest and most liberalized economies. With the sudden loss of Soviet markets and subsidies, Kyrgyzstan went to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund for aid. These institutions in turn demanded an array of neoliberal reforms. The Kyrgyz political elites—high on the academic grog of neoclassical economic orthodoxy—complied more than willingly. Kyrgyzstan privatized agriculture, industry, and utilities; it moved to a freely convertible currency and removed most trade barriers. By the end of the 1990s, three-quarters of the economy had been privatized.18

This was supposed to spur growth, but it only deepened de-industrialization: markets were now swamped by cheap foreign products that entered free of charge. Unable to compete with imports, many privatized firms were simply stripped of assets. Unemployment soared, and workers moved from cities back to the farms or out of the country. Between five and eight hundred thousand Kyrgyz now work abroad, their remittances forming an essential part of the economy. The Kyrgyz GDP fell by approximately 45 percent between 1991 and 1996 as industrial production collapsed and Soviet markets for Kyrgyz dairy products evaporated; inflation hit 1,200 percent in 1993.19 Per capita income has not yet returned to its 1989 levels, and Kyrgyz income inequality is among the worst in the region. The collapse of public services, such as health care and education, has forced people to fend for themselves. Over 20 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day. More than 40 percent of Kyrgyz are poor, meaning they struggle to meet life’s basic necessities.

Three-quarters of the government’s income from the sale of state assets went to paying off international debts. The privatization process was largely stopped and even reversed somewhat after the late 1990s. In 2010 the country had a GDP of about of $11.66 billion and (good news) an external debt of only about $3.4 billion.20 Kyrgyzstan’s mountains hold deposits of gold, rare earth, and other minerals, and its border with China means it could be pulled into the development vortex that is the PRC.

For now, however, Kyrgyzstan’s people are mired in poverty and corruption. 21 Official unemployment is 20 percent, and with little prospect for a better future, elements of the population—its lumpenized, angry young men—turn to crime, drug running, nationalist xenophobia, and radical forms of political Islam.

Central Asian Jihad

The new states of Central Asia are defined by kleptocracy, despotism, dysfunction, and weakness. Over the last two decades, nonstate armed actors—ethnic warlords, drug traffickers, mercenaries, tribal militias, bandit gangs, and internationally connected terrorist networks, like Al Qaeda and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU)—have traversed the region, fought wars in it, and when pressured, moved south into the lawless regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan.22

Once economically and politically integrated and interdependent components of the Soviet Union, the Central Asian states now find themselves squabbling over previously shared resources and lines of communication and transportation. The ethnic populations that form these states’ nominal basis are also scattered across national boundaries. For example, Uzbek minorities live all across Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.

No place embodies these stresses more than the heavily populated Fergana Valley. Here, the boundaries between Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan bend in a convoluted pattern of political fragmentation. The area’s economic infrastructure, however, follows the natural logic of the landscape. The drainage of the Syr Darya River links the three states and peoples. The river offers a Ratzelian logic of economic integration: the water and valley offer the promise of combined hydropower, agriculture, and transportation links. But the post-Soviet chaos, ethnic nationalism of political bosses, and economic suffering brought by neoliberal shock therapy have devastated the Fergana. Today, it incubates violent combinations of political Islam and ethnic irredentism.

We can see the future of Fergana Valley insecurity in its past. As early as 1917, local mullahs, landlords, and clan leaders in the valley and across Central Asia mounted an anti-Bolshevik resistance. These traditionalist, protomujahideen—called Basmachi, meaning “bandits,” by the Soviets—described themselves as standing for Islam, Turkic nationalism, and anticommunism. One of these bands of Muslim rebels was led by Enver Pasha, the former Young Turk, Ottoman minister of war, pan-Turkish utopian, and early abuser of Armenians who had left Turkey to fight further east. Various Basmachi forces used northern Afghanistan as a sanctuary, and those led by Ibrahim Bek were not finally crushed until the early 1930s and only then with cooperation between the royal Afghan military and the Red Army.23

When war again broke out in Afghanistan during the 1980s, radical Islam also churned in Soviet Central Asia. An estimated thirty-five thousand Muslim fighters from all over the world passed through the Afghan war to fight for the mujahideen. Thousands more studied in radical madrassas in Pakistan.24 Through this circuitry of jihad the volunteers flowed, concentrated in the war zone on the border, where they absorbed military skills and radical ideas. Among them were Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Kyrgyz from the Soviet republics.

In 1987 some mujahideen from Afghanistan—elements of the fanatic Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami—crossed into Soviet Tajikistan, attacked border guards, and rocketed the city of Panj.25 At the time, the US press wrote, “The guerrillas announced March 24 that about two weeks earlier, they had fired rockets across the Amu Daryu River into Soviet territory, killing up to 12 people.” On April 8, two Soviet border guards were killed during a second attack.26

Five years later the region imploded. The worst and most intense civil war of that decade was the Tajik conflagration. As many as sixty thousand people were killed, and Human Rights Watch described massive ethnic cleansing campaigns. At the end of the war, elements of an Islamic resistance party joined the extremist IMU and made incursions into Kyrgyzstan’s portion of the Fergana Valley, parts of which are also controlled by Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. In 1999 and 2000, joint Kyrgyz-Uzbek military operations pushed the IMU into Afghanistan and then Pakistan.27

By the summer of 2010, with Kyrgyzstan smashed by its climate-induced unrest, the IMU was rumored to be moving back into the Fergana Valley. The Kyrgyz government had lost control of much of the South of the country. As the head of the International Crisis Group, writing in the Independent , warned, “No one should underestimate the potential for large-scale ethnic violence to spread throughout the Ferghana Valley.” The region was primed for crisis.

The drought in Kyrgyzstan finally broke in 2010. The same weather patterns that brought Pakistan to its knees brought reprieve for hydropower-dependant Kyrgyzstan. By August 2010, heavy rains had restored the water levels in the Toktogul reservoir.28 However, the Kyrgyzstan story is not over. The country remains divided, armed, and desperate. And the weather patterns upon which its hydro-dependent economy relies are increasingly eratic and very likely will become even more so as climate change intensifies.