Book review: “Restless Valley: Revolution, Murder, and Intrigue in the Heart of Central Asia” by Philip Shishkin (2013)

Mao Zedong, the notorious and brutal father of China’s Communist Party, once wrote:

“A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained, and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence.” (Yu Hua, 2011: 130)

Wall Street Journal reporter Philip Shishkin’s Restless Valley: Revolution, Murder, and Intrigue in the Heart of Central Asia covers the wild and mysterious lands to the northwest of Mao’s China—now an eclectic group of six “-stans,” the historic hinterlands of many great empires: Persian, Chinese, British, Russian, Soviet.

By Cacahuate (Own work based on the blank world map) [CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Cacahuate (Own work based on the blank world map) [CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Shishkin’s riveting account of the past decade in Central Asia—mostly of Kyrgyzstan and neighboring Uzbekistan with a touch of Afghanistan , Kazakhstan, and Afghanistan (Turkmenistan is conspicuously missing)—certainly lives up to its title. The pages are overflowing with real-world conspiracies that at times rival the best of murder mysteries or mafia thrillers. The big ticket items in the book are undoubtedly the 2009 murder and elaborate cover-up of Kyrgyzstan’s most famous and ambitious presidential chief of staff, Medet Sadrykulov (himself a sort of villainous mastermind in the likes of Rasputin)—and the unravelling of a worldwide corruption scheme with its locus in Bishkek.

“The Land of Perpetual Revolution”

That is not to discount the seriousness of this book. Restless Valley is not all juicy tales of drugs, money, mobs, and Russian vodka (though there is plenty of that to go around). Perhaps the most interesting thread is Shishkin’s depictions of the intense disorder of revolutions, down to the personal or micro level. The book’s opening scene describes with stunning detail the haphazard plundering of Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev’s office in March 2005, just hours after Akayev fled a revolting nation during what was later cherished as the “Tulip Revolution”:

“The foot soldiers of the revolution, many of them young and covered with grime and a little banged up but delirious with joy and adrenaline, swarmed around the president’s desk and took turns sitting in his chair. Until a few hours earlier, this has been nothing less than a king’s throne, but now it was just a fancy office chair where a commoner could recline.” (p. 1)

Just five years later, history repeated itself in 2010 as the Kyrgyz dethroned Akayev’s successor Kurmanbek Bakiyev, whose reputation was quickly soiled as the overseer of the “fat onion of corruption, intrigue, and geopolitical games” (p. 2) that had come to define—and smother—post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan. As Vladimir Putin put it, the author notes, Kurmanbek (as well as his tenacious brother Janysh and son Maxim) “stepped on the same rake” that had knocked Akiyev on the head. (p. 160)

In one particularly sharp scene, Shishkin turns his attention to the fundamental conundrum of revolution on the streets through the eyes of a conflicted young army cadet tasked with protecting the “White House” (Kyrgyzstan’s presidential palace) from an angry mob:

“Thoughts of saying, ‘To hell with it’ and deserting entered his mind, and he wrestled to shoo them away…‘Cadets too were talking about it. I could see anxiety and fear on their faces. That’s understandable. We have things to lose. And for whom? For the people in power we don’t particularly like? For those who are thinking only about how to save their skin?…Of course we could take off our uniforms right this minute and go face the people with the words ‘biz el menen,’’ Chingiz wrote, using the Kyrgyz phrase for ‘We are with the people.’…But doing this, Chingiz continued, would be treason.” (p. 166)

Like they abandoned Akiyev, the country’s security forces eventually deserted President Bakiyev and his hated cronies, exemplifying a central lesson from Crane Brinton’s The Anatomy of Revolution: a government simply cannot continue to survive without the subservience of its armed forces (see: Egypt 2011).

2010 revolution in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan By Brokev03 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

2010 revolution in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
By Brokev03 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

On a more macro level, as President Bakiyev and his inner circle fled to southern Kyrgyzstan, and then Belarus, the country imploded, like a needle popping a balloon. The charismatic, long-time opposition leader Roza Otunbayeva quickly emerged as the consensus candidate for interim president (with the ease that today’s Egypt or Libya could only dream of)—but the absence of order across the country unleashed ethnic violence in spades. The country’s Uzbek minority, constituting a majority in a handful of southern Kyrgyz towns, renewed a long-time struggle to assert its rights, an effort that quickly devolved into political violence. The Fergana Valley—for which the book is named—became the epicenter of a brief, but nasty “civil war”—as Shishkin terms it.

From the “Color Revolutions” to the Arab Spring

The parallels with today’s sputtering “Arab Spring” are, of course, many. The power vacuum left after Kyrgyzstan’s 2010 revolution mirrors that of Libya’s lawlessness today—and to a lesser degree, Tunisia’s. On the other hand, aside from the defections of Syria’s Sunni Muslim soldiers, the Alawite core of Bashar al-Assad’s security forces has remained loyal and vigilant.

In Restless Valley, Syria’s counterpart is Kyrgyzstan’s western neighbor Uzbekistan, led since independence in 1991 by an autocrat named Islam Karimov. Eyeing the quick fall of despotic leaders in three other post-Soviet republics—Georgia (“Rose Revolution,” November 2003), Ukraine (“Orange Revolution,” January 2005), and Kyrgyzstan (March 2005)—Karimov was determined not to meet the same fate. When 23 prominent businessmen escaped from prison on May 13, 2005 in Andijan, the commanding force of regional security forces nipped the subsequent public clamor in the bud. Disparaging the businessmen and their supporters as “Islamic extremists,” Karimov’s regime massacred perhaps as many 1,500 defenseless civilians at Andijan.

The incident sparked international outrage, but Karimov’s strategy for preserving his grip on power paid off:

“The government’s subsequent slaughter of Andijan residents made sense in the cold logic of a dictatorship. If you are a dictator and want to remain in power, you eventually have to go all the way because there’s nothing more ridiculous than being a half-ass dictator…As a half-ass despot, you don’t kill, jail, or scare enough people to make others think twice about getting rid of you. So, eventually, you fall…In neighboring Kyrgyzstan (just thirty miles south of Andijan), a half-ass dictator had just been overthrown and chased out of the country in a popular uprising. The Uzbek leader decided not to show any weakness in the face of a challenge.” (p. 84)

Similarly, having observed the fate of Muammar al-Qaddafi, Bashar al-Assad sees little incentive to quit fighting. As long as his security forces remain loyal, the Syrian conflict is unlikely to dissipate.

The enigma of Central Asia

If not a true treatise on revolutions and their discontents, Restless Valley at least provides a window into a part of the world that is poorly understood. As legend has it, “the Kyrgyz were asleep when God was distributing lands to the peoples of the Earth. When the Kyrgyz woke up landless, they pleaded with God to give them at least something.” (p. 4) This seems an apt description of Kyrgyzstan or its neighbors today. It is in many ways a listless place—subdued from meeting its potential by a mountain of corruption, cronyism, and organized crime—riding helplessly from one violent and chaotic revolution to the next.

Shishkin’s book is as insightful as it is fun—well worth the read.

(See here for Monica Whitlock’s review of “Restless Valley” in the Wall Street Journal and here for Lewis Garland’s account in the LSE Review of Books.)

Full citation: Philip Shishkin, Restless Valley: Revolution, Murder, and Intrigue in the Heart of Central Asia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013).

This entry was posted in Book reviews, Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan, Libya, Middle East and North Africa, Syria, Uzbekistan and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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