Why is Kyrgyzstan in the news all of a sudden?

Don’t Panic!... Your war questions answered

Let me assure you, dear reader, that Kyrgyzstan is not just a name that I made up so that I can finish my column early and go get drunk. In fact, it’s an actual country - a landlocked former Soviet republic in Central Asia. Besides, I work at home, so I’m already drunk.

Since Kyrgyzstan is so widely unknown, let me give you a little background info about the place. Kyrgyzstan, the country, was born Aug. 31, 1991, when it declared independence from the Soviet Union. Prior to belonging to the Soviet Union, it was part of the Russian Empire. Prior to that, the land was given to a guy named Chagatai as part of his inheritance from his dad, Genghis Khan. Prior to that, it was part of the legendary Silk Road, the series of trade routes connecting East Asia to West Asia and Europe. Prior to that, the area’s Saka tribes fought Alexander the Great. Prior to that, of course, there were dinosaurs.

Approximately 5 million people live in Kyrgyzstan, along with 3.1 million sheep and 661,304 goats. How the 2005 World Almanac got such a precise goat count is a mystery to me. Islam is Kyrgyzstan’s dominant religion, but a good 20 percent of the country is Russian Orthodox. They’re mostly in the more urbanized northern part of the country.

Kyrgyzstan’s capital is a tree-filled city called Bishkek. Bishkek is also the Kyrgyz word for the wooden churn used to make the Kyrgyz national drink, kumys. Kumys is an alcoholic drink made from fermented horse milk. If this column inspires you to visit Kyrgyzstan, keep in mind that kumys is only available when the mares are foaling. If you arrive out of season, you might be stuck drinking bozo, an alcoholic drink made from fermented millet. People who’ve had bozo describe it as “thick” and “yeasty.” Make mine a venti!

So why is Kyrgyzstan in the news all of a sudden? Well, it just experienced a coup d’état.

Hold on! I can’t say coup d’état. It’s French. Let’s call it something more patriotic. How about Freedom Spurt?

OK, so Kyrgyzstan had a Freedom Spurt last month. Its inspiration was the increasingly brazen power-grabbing of the now-deposed President Askar Akayev, combined with his long-term inability to get the economy going.

Akayev had been president since the country gained independence in 1991. He started off as a seemingly good and respectable leader. He liberalized the economy and tolerated political dissent. For a while, Western media tagged him “the Thomas Jefferson of Central Asia.”

Unfortunately, it soon became clear that Akayev was no Thomas Jefferson. He wasn’t even a George Jefferson. Askar Akayev was nothing more than a bad president looking after one guy, Askar Akayev.

Kyrgyz annoyance with their leader finally exploded into demonstrations after February’s unfree and unfair parliamentary elections. Candidates opposing Akayev were banned. Meanwhile, two of Akayev’s children managed to get “elected.” That was too much corruption for the Kyrgyz to stand.

By late March, there were protests in several Kyrgyz cities. The protests reached Bishkek on March 23. Police attempted a violent crackdown, but when the protesters cracked back with much more effectiveness, Akayev panicked and fled to Moscow. Looting and a power struggle followed.

For now, opposition leader Kurmanbek Bakiyev is Kyrgyzstan’s interim president. New elections are scheduled for June 26.

Why should Americans care? Well, first of all, now you can totally impress your friends and co-workers by dropping fun facts about Kyrgyzstan’s political and beverage-drinking life. Perhaps more importantly, Kyrgyz political stability is of strategic importance to the United States.

Kyrgyzstan is home to a fundamentalist Muslim insurgency. If insurgents take advantage of the political wobbliness in Bishkek to expand their influence or, Allah forbid, stage a takeover, we’ll lose our military base there. We use the base for operations in Afghanistan. If we go to war with Iran, we’ll need the base for that. The base also gives us political influence in an area where China, which borders Kyrgyzstan, would like to expand its regional superpower-ness. So far, the insurgency hasn’t capitalized on the Freedom Spurt, and Bakiyev’s interim government is making nice with us. The situation could change, though, so watch this space.