After the collapse of the USSR, Kyrgyzstan, despite its isolation and lack of development, was considered to be one of the more promising newly independent states, “the Switzerland of Central Asia” with its mountains, pragmatic president, and relative lack of ethnic tensions or repression. The U.S. and others poured in aid to help establish free markets, promote democracy and human rights, and provide much-needed food and medical aid (cumulative U.S. aid to Kyrgyzstan from 1992-2010 was $1.2 billion; Kyrgyzstan ranks third in such aid per capita among the Soviet successor states).
Some of those projects were less than stellar, such as the contractor who recommended that Kyrgyzstan boost its cheese consumption by eating more fondue. However, perhaps not surprisingly, the dreams of those early days did not pan out, as corruption and authoritarian tendencies took hold.
Edmund McWilliams was Charge d’affaires briefly from its opening until the arrival of Edward Hurwitz, who was the first U.S. Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, serving from September 1992 to 1994. Thomas R. Hutson was the Deputy Principal Officer at Embassy Bishkek for a few months in 1992 before leaving due to conflicts with Ambassador Hurwitz. All three were interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy, beginning December 2005, August 1996, and April 1999, respectively.
“The Switzerland of Central Asia”
McWILLIAMS: I think Kyrgyzstan was unique. Certainly one of the reasons that we opened in Kyrgyzstan before we opened anywhere else in Central Asia was because the leadership there was deemed to be particularly progressive. It was thought of as the Switzerland of Central Asia.
President Akayev was a former [physicist], not a Communist apparatchik at all, with progressive policies. And I think there was a real hope that something could be developed that would be a model in some ways for some of the other Central Asian, much richer, much more in some ways important Central Asian states. Ultimately that didn’t come to pass.
HUTSON: Akayev was viewed as enlightened. He played the game well. He was the hope of the future. With him in Bishkek and [Foreign Minister Rosa] Otunbayeva in Washington, Kyrgyzstan seemed to have a bright future. So the future seemed filled with opportunities. Unfortunately, the country really has few natural resources. That became the reality.
The Wisdom and Folly of AID Contractors – “One suggestion was that their barns should be air-conditioned”
HURWITZ: You may remember there was a lot of money being thrown at the Soviet Union. The question for the embassy was to convince the administration and the administration to convince Congress that Kyrgyzstan deserved a really good share of this aid. So, we kept close track of what they were doing right and informed the Department as events progressed.
There was another problem of seeing that this aid was properly used. I would have maybe 15 people a week come through who had either already gotten AID [U.S. Agency for International Development] grants or were seeking AID grants.
Some of the schemes were dreams, simply off base, unrealistic, displayed a lot of ignorance about the situation on the ground in Kyrgyzstan and about what they really need and how they operated. My role was to tell them this wouldn’t work or, if it was already on paper and beginning to take effect, to tell the Department this was a mistake.
Let me give you one example of something that had taken off and was operating. This was the farmer-to-farmer program, which to some extent was very useful, but had many aspects that were silly. Basically, the idea is that this farmer-to-farmer organization would send out — and it is operated quite usefully in a lot of areas in that part of the world — delegations of American farmers or other specialists, not government officials, people who had or were working in the field, and they would go around and visit their counterparts in the dairy industry, whatever, and advise them what they were doing wrong and what they could do better.
However, in a lot of instances they come unprepared for what they were seeing. I recall a dairy delegation, actually had to do with cheese-making, and they wrote a report after their visit. I had seen them once and then had nothing to do with them, they were out in the countryside.
Some months later I got a copy of their report which was filled with suggestions and observations that were either totally silly or self-evident. For instance, one suggestion was that the Kyrgyz need more modern equipment. They should have milking machines here and there. Or their barns should be air-conditioned.
These were things that the Kyrgyz knew but were totally unrealistic, far beyond their means. I had sent this report back to Washington and a lot of people had a good chuckle over it.
The report among other things listed ways that cheese could be used in the Kyrgyz diet and had a recipe for cheese fondue which said to take half a pound of Swiss cheese and a glass of white wine, all things that the Kyrgyz peasant never even heard of.
While that was a little far out and a little silly, it did typify the approach a lot of these people coming to Kyrgyzstan and looking around and dropping off their advice and leaving.
At first the Kyrgyz were very flattered with all of this attention and they saw dollar signs floating in the air whenever one of these delegations came through. But, when the delegations didn’t leave behind a pile of money and when they left behind a lot of totally irrelevant advice, the Kyrgyz began to get a little annoyed.
I talked to many Kyrgyz officials who said, “Look, we really appreciate the attention but we don’t have time to talk to all of these delegations.” And you know how Americans are, you get a chairman of a small company in Ohio and he has been put on an official delegation and he comes to me and says, “Well, I would like to see the President and the Prime Minister and the Minister of Agriculture.”
For a while we managed to get them rather high-level meetings but the Kyrgyz soon learned what the score was. But, a part from that there was a lot of useful aid, of course. There was surplus grain that was donated. We gave very crucial advice to a very crucial segment of Kyrgyzstan’s budding industry, water power.
The whole concept of water as an exploitable resource which was one of Kyrgyzstan’s riches. They had gotten used to this Soviet approach that we are all one big happy family, so whatever Uzbekistan gets from Kyrgyzstan that doesn’t matter because we are all Soviet brothers.
But after the Soviet Union fell apart, Uzbekistan had its gold within its borders, which it could extract and export at will. Kazakhstan had its oil and gas, to say nothing about enormous territory to grow wheat on. The Kyrgyz had basically only the water. It is very rich in water resources.
But they looked on their water, which was flowing right into Uzbekistan, which was irrigating all of those vast cotton fields, not as a resource but something that came from God and just flowed down. We tried to tell them that their water was a resource and they should get some quid pro quo for it.
One of the most useful ideas was brought forth by an AID-sponsored hydroelectric group that pointed out to me — and I from then on used it with every Kyrgyz that had anything to do with the economy — that Kyrgyzstan not only let the water flow into Uzbekistan but it regulated that flow in such a way as to lose not only the water but what the water could do for Kyrgyzstan.
In other words, the water was dammed up in the winter so that it didn’t flow when it wasn’t of use for the Uzbek cotton. Of course, when the water is dammed up and not flowing you can’t produce hydroelectric power from it, the way their system was set up.
So, at the very time that they need the electric power in the winter to run the heaters to heat the country, the water couldn’t flow. In the spring, when they lifted the sluices and let the water go through, that was when they didn’t need the electric power in such big quantities.
So, what they really needed was a dam further up stream so they could let the water flow down to the second dam and have the electric power produced up stream….
AID put together all kinds of programs, State did too, for individual ministries, for banking people, for planning organizations. There was a great deal of that. I did a great deal of talking from the President on down about general approaches such as a free press.
We talked to them very much on my level and AID groups who brought out specialists, contractors, on the question of constitution. They were working out a constitution. The whole question of human rights, on police abuses, etc. We were talking to them constantly.
Kyrgyz-Russian relations – A genuine friendship
HURWITZ: The whole subject of Russian-Kyrgyz relationship is interesting. When I got to Kyrgyzstan I had expected to see what you think of when you think of a colonial situation — the mother country sort of dominating a colony.
You would expect to see Kyrgyz street sweepers, Kyrgyz truck drivers and Kyrgyz plumbers and maids and dishwashers, and Russians walking around in suits and briefcases. It was exactly the opposite.
The whole Kyrgyz-Russian relationship was historically developed in an unusual way from the standpoint of a colony. When the Russians got there sort of mid-19th century, there was virtually nothing.
The Kyrgyz were largely pastoral, sheepherders, etc. The Russians brought in all the labor force, the technicians, so you always had a Russian, blue-collar working class there often doing menial work in the cities.
Then the general scheme was carried on by Stalin. The Russians were obviously calling all the shots and had the power in the area, but there was this union of brotherly republics and they needed to have them focus on Kyrgyzstan’s sovereignty, if not independence.
So, in all the ministries, in all of the government organizations, the top dog was usually a Kyrgyz who did what his Russian masters told him, obviously, but it was the Kyrgyz who walked around carrying the briefcases with the fedora hats and pens in the pocket. That has continued. The teachers, most of the bureaucracy, except for the very top behind the scenes, were Kyrgyz. The Kyrgyz always walked around well dressed and it was the Russians who were street cleaners, and gardeners, etc.
[But] the Russians were essential to making the place go. When your telephone wouldn’t work, when your plumbing went bad, it was always a Russian who did it. I think the Kyrgyz realized that and although you had the young firebrands saying, “Russians get out!,” most of them realized that the Russians were very necessary. Plus the Kyrgyz are just basically just extremely tolerant, quiet people. They are very reasonable people.
The feeling between the Russians and Kyrgyz was basically quite good. Plus which the Kyrgyz never had much of a developed culture of their own. They will argue with that, of course.
But, as a basically nomadic nation they didn’t have much time to build up a culture or great religious or artistic tradition. Kyrgyz always looked to Russia for its cultural roots, its language — most city dwellers in Kyrgyzstan do much better in Russian than in Kyrgyz. So, this naturally tolerant attitude plus all they knew they owed to Russia in terms of culture, economy and infrastructure, meant the relationship was good.
“I told them, ‘Look, you have very little going for you except your reputation'”
HURWITZ: I could see anybody I wanted [in the government]. Before my first year was over, the President and I had a very good relationship. I spoke very good Russian at that time. I would see him maybe once a month for lunch.
He had me out to his hunting lodge three times. He would call me up and say, “Come to lunch.” We would go to either his office or his home. I don’t know if it did any good though, because towards the end that changed….
[It] all started up in perhaps late August, September, 1994 and I left in October. The President simply lost patience with various segments of the press that were being very critical. There were a number of scandals about issues that had taken place pretty soon after independence. The disappearance of some gold from their reserves. The letting of contracts for gold mining, particularly. So, you had the press being critical and you had the national assembly being extremely critical.
The President decided that he liked being president and there would be an election, I believe, in February 1995, as well as a National Assembly election in November 1994, so the President shut down a newspaper and threatened to shut down another one and to put editors in jail. Then he came out with a referendum as to whether there should be a totally different parliament system.
Instead of a one-house system that there should be a bicameral legislature and that the election procedure would be such that in effect he would be in control.
We tried to talk him out of it. I went to see him constantly during the last couple of weeks. He invited me for a hunting session with him with the head of the KGB or security services and the Foreign Minister, and I couldn’t budge him on it. And, indeed, things have developed that way now. He has lost a little of the sheen of being the only island of democracy, as they like to call themselves.
I told them, “Look, you have very little going for you except your reputation. This was the one thing that distinguished Kyrgyzstan from being just another one of these backward little Third World countries.” I pointed things out to him which he should have understood.
For example, he paid a private visit to the United States in May 1993, in connection with the [famed Soviet physicist] Andrey Sakharov Fund. Being himself a physicist he was a close friend of Sakharov’s widow, who has been living in the States and he came over to make a speech at the National Academy of Sciences do in connection with Sakharov.
He wanted desperately during this visit to see the President. Well, we turned handsprings in the embassy and in the Department to try to get him in to see the President. So, it worked out that Akayev was received in his office by Vice President [Al] Gore and during that visit Clinton came in and they had about 15 or 20 minutes, with lots of photos, of course, so he could say he had been received by the President.
Well, he was in seventh heaven. I kept saying to him, “You see, when the President of Uzbekistan came here he only got as high as Under Secretary of State. You have gotten in to see the President. You know why? That is because you are a democratic country. You are bucking the whole trend. You are proving that something can rise out of the ashes of the Soviet Union.”….
After my departure at some time they had their referendum and you could certify it as being rather fairly carried out, but on the other hand, votes in that part of the world for various reasons are not the same as in the West.
I was terribly disappointed. It was a complete reversal. It happened rather suddenly. We tried very hard. There were messages that flew back and forth. Even Clinton sent messages that were very harsh. But, it didn’t turn him around.
One element that is relevant here was brought to our attention by the most knowledgeable economic planner in Kyrgyzstan, a guy who really had some experience with the West. He point-blank said to us, “Look, you guys aren’t going to be around for a long time. Your aid, despite your best intentions, is going to drop off. So, no matter how much you think we are nice guys, you are not going to do a heck of a lot for us. Besides we have the World Bank, the IMF, the Japanese, who pay a lot less attention to these political factors. So, we thank you for your help and advice but it really is not crucial.”
And he is undoubtedly right. I don’t know what our aid level is now but it is going to come down or has come down. The sad part of it is, the Kyrgyz being as tolerant and easygoing and basically fair-minded, I think, as they are, they could have pulled this off.
In other words they could have had a democratic society….As the Soviets always say and as the Kyrgyz and other people who are about to impose harsh restrictions always claim, “You know, we have to do it in the name of stability, we can’t have this dissent. You in the West can afford the luxury of dissent, but we can’t here. We are new at democracy.”
Well, they were new at democracy, that’s true, but they could have made it work because of their general attitude towards each other and towards working together.