There are many things that have helped provoke the violent revolution in Kyrgyzstan this week: extreme poverty, financial crisis and possibly a nudge from Moscow, to name just a few. But more than anything, ordinary Kyrgyz are angry with the nepotistic regime of Kurmanbek Bakiyev. Perhaps nothing – and no one – sums up this corrupt family-business approach to ruling than the elevation of the president’s son, Maxim.
Maxim Bakiyev, who is just 32, was put in charge of a massive investment fund and was widely seen as the second most powerful man in the country. The word on the street was that Bakiyev was grooming his son to be the successor, and in the meantime the rumours went, Bakiyev Jr was making a nice fat income for himself.
Bakiyev’s other son, Marat, and three brothers also held top ranking positions under his regime. The fury that ordinary Kyrgyz felt about this was evident from the fact that two of the buildings that the marauding gangs of looters headed for on Wednesday were the residences of Maxim and Marat Bakiyev.
Bakiyev came to power in the Tulip Revolution of 2005 promising to end the corrupt rule of his predecessor, Askar Akayev, and yet in just a few years he seems to have forgotten the principles that swept him to power.
Dynastic politics are nothing unusual in Central Asia. In neighbouring Kazakhstan, President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s daughter Dariga is one of the leading political figures, and many suspect her father is grooming her to succeed him. Major business interests are linked to other members of the family, and one of the country’s biggest political scandals of recent years came after the acrimonious break between Dariga and her husband Rakhat Aliyev, himself a deputy foreign minister and prominent businessman. When the marriage ended, so did the privileges, and Aliyev fled the country. He has since attempted to position himself as part of a democratic opposition to Nazarbayev.
In Uzbekistan, another neighbour of Kyrgyzstan, President Islam Karimov runs one of the most unpleasant and isolated dictatorships in the world. His daughter, Harvard-educated Gulnara, is based in Geneva, where she allegedly manages the regime’s assets through the company Zeromax. Said to be worth billions, she has her own fashion and jewellery lines and releases the occasional pop video. Meanwhile, millions in Uzbekistan live in appalling political and economic conditions.
“These societies have always been based on family relations,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, a Russian foreign policy expert. “When the Soviet Union collapsed they reverted to their previous states; there was nothing else on which to build. The societies are not sophisticated enough for real democracy.”
Bakiyev himself sees it differently. He is hiding out at an undisclosed location in the south of Kyrgyzstan, refusing to concede the presidency and mulling his next move. When I spoke to him on a crackly phone line last night, I asked him if it was not a little hypocritical to come to power vowing to fight corruption and nepotism and end up with your two sons in top government positions. He insisted that both of his sons were highly qualified for their posts, and said he picked Maxim due to his knowledge of business, finance and foreign languages. Perhaps thinking of the Bushes and the Clintons, he made the counterintuitive suggestion that clan politics is no different in Central Asia than it is in the West.
“In Europe or the United States, people don’t seem to think it’s so bad. A father can be president, one of his sons can also be president; another son can be a governor. But for some reason when it happens here, people get upset and call it nepotism.”