Mark Almond
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26th September: A Century of Bombing Libya - One Hundred Years since the Italian Invasion

It is exactly a century since Italy invade Libya. It is also the hundredth anniversary of the first use of air planes in warfare. As fighting continues across Libya and NATO carries on its “humanitarian intervention” from the air to support the rebels against Colonel Gaddafi’s forces, the largely forgotten war of 1911 takes on an uncanny relevance despite the passage of time. Seven air bases on Italian soil have been the mainstay of NATO’s centenary celebration of the power of the bomber.  

Clio seems to take a perverse enjoyment in ensuring that history repeats itself, first acting as imperialism then as humanitarian intervention, without even needing to change the stage-set.

On 26th September, 1911, Rome sent an ultimatum to the Ottoman authorities in Istanbul demanding the hand-over of its two provinces in North Africa – Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. Three days later, Italy declared war and its navy bombarded coastal ports and disembarked an invading army. The Italians had expected their swell-equipped force of 34,000 to disperse and defeat the 5,000 Turkish troops defending the territory quickly. They also presumed that the fall of the coastal cities would end any resistance. When contrary to expectations the Turks retreated inland, continued to resist and managed to mobilise local fighters on their side despite recent tensions between the Ottoman authorities and the Libyan tribes, the Italians resorted to increasingly brutal methods and unconventional warfare.  

On 1st November, 1911, Lieutenant Giulio Gavotti dropped the first bomb from an aeroplane. According to the Ottoman authorities it hit the military hospital in Ayn Zara in the Libyan desert. The Italians strongly denied targeting an installation protected by the Geneva Convention. Modern aerial warfare and the propaganda battle which has accompanied it ever since was underway from the start.

Lt. Gavotti’s four bombs were modified hand grenades, but soon the Italians had learned how to drop incendiary bomb and shrapnel bombs – what we would now call cluster munitions.

The initial impact of aircraft overhead was alarming and disorientating to the forces below. Panic spread as an airplane engine was heard approaching. But soon enough the Turks and Arabs below learned the limitations of aerial bombardment and their terror subsided. The Italians decided that they had to increase the terrorising effect of their bombing and strafing to keep the enemy on the run. The Italian pilots also realised that fixed targets like villages or oases were easier to find and strike than mobile guerrillas.

The British Arabist, G.F. Abbott who was with the mixed Turkish-Arab forces resisting the invasion noted that they soon recovered from their fear partly because bombs which fell into the sand tended to explode harmlessly. But he added, “The women and children in the villages are practically the only victims, and this fact excited the anger of the Arabs.”

Antagonising the civilian population was an unfortunate side-effect of the bombing which became a major factor in turning the Italian invasion into a protracted counter-insurgency.

When the idea of occupying Libya as a fiftieth birthday present to themselves to mark the anniversary of Italian unification in 1861  was turned into practice in September, 1911, Italians were assured of a quick victory there. They were told that the Ottoman Turkish regime was thoroughly hated by the Arabs living there and that a warm welcome could be expected for the soldiers bringing civilization and liberation from the Sultan’s tyranny. To use modern parlance, Italians were encouraged to expect a cakewalk. The Italian media assured the soldiers, “Arab hostility is nothing but a Turkish fable.”

Gavotti’s dropping of the first bombs in history barely a month into the campaign was evidence of how quickly the Italians realised that things were not going to plan. Resistance in the main cities like Tripoli was quickly crushed but in the great expanses of territory even the 100,000 troops soon deployed by Italy were not enough to regulate a thousand-mile-wide country stretching deep into the Sahara. The newly-invented airplane offered a way of displaying Italian power across vast swathes of land which were in effect controlled by local Arabs who preferred the Muslim Turks to the Christian Italians – not least when the Italians preached civilization via shrapnel bombs dropped from a few thousand feet.

The alleged cruelty of local Arabs and Turks towards captured Italian soldiers was one of the justifications for the widening use of reprisals from the air and on the ground in Libya. In a fight against uncivilized folk like them the rules of war could be suspended. Revenge was treated as a legitimate response.  But the Libyans proved harder to terrify into submission than Rome anticipated.

Nevertheless, on 9th November, 1911, the Italian government declared victory, even though the war was only just beginning. With the mission far from accomplished, the war was vastly more costly than Italians had expected. Characteristically, the prime minister, Giovanni Giolitti, lied to Parliament in Rome saying the war had cost 512 million lire. That was a huge figure given that the War Ministry’s last annual peacetime budget was only 399 million lire. But in reality off-balance sheet accounting hid another billion lire in costs of the war against the Ottoman Empire over Libya. As for the human cost, 8,000 Italians were killed or wounded. No-one counted the Arab dead: statistics of “terrorist” dead were no more kept then than in contemporary Iraq or Afghanistan – and now one might add than in contemporary Libya.

Although the Italian elite had economic aims in occupying Libya wrapped up in nationalist and civilizational rhetoric, oil was not the Italian motive. Only at the end of the Fascist period was any serious exploration undertaken which indicated that oil lay beneath the desert. Libya’s first major oil strike was outside Gaddafi’s home town of Sirte in 1959. At the end of thirty years of Italian rule, salt was still Libya’s main export. Italians were fed the idea that Libya would return to being the bread basket of the Mediterranean as it had been under the Roman Empire. Few in 1911 seem to have realised that the desert had spread over the Roman fields and cities long ago.

As the war dragged on enthusiasm in Italy waned but the newspapers and instant books of the day record how united the opinion-makers were in support of the war at its opening shots. Above all, there was admiration for the airmen dealing death from the sky. The cult of the pilot soaring across the sky while clinically disposing of a dot-like savage foe below was born.

The greatest living Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio immediately sought to immortalize Lt. Gavotti’s act in his Canzone della Diana. (A few years later in the First World War, D’Annunzio would take to the skies over Vienna and drop leaflets threatening bombs to come.) Giovanni Pascole sentimentalised the feats of Italian pilots as the Libyan war passed it first Christmas in La Notte di Natale. The Futurist, Filippo Marinetti, took the air over Libya itself to urge Italian soldiers below to fix bayonets and charge.

Everybody seemed to support the invasion at the beginning. The great philosopher and future anti-Fascist, Benedetto Croce declared –apparently without irony - that occupying Libya was a worthy birthday gift to Italy on the fiftieth anniversary of its unification. The 1907 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, E.T. Moneta, became the first – though by no means the last recipient of the dynamite fortune’s largesse – to anticipate Barak Obama's faith in aerial bombardment as a tool of progress for humanity and therefore declared it was not against his pacifist principles. The Catholic hierarchy had been hostile to the secular and Masonic Italian political elite but it endorsed Giolitti’s crusade in Libya with as much enthusiasm as its predecessors had backed the original version over eight hundred years earlier. The meeting of the poetry scholars of the Dante Aligheri Society on 20thSeptember, 1911, broke up with cries of “To Tripoli!”

It was not only Italian proto-Fascist intellectuals like D'Annunzio and Marinetti who swooned at the thought of a pilot soaring high over the desert dealing death to savages below. Sweden's Gustaf Janson described the intoxicating sense of unbridled power and of the pilot's impunity in action against primitives below whose air defence was incapable of revenging their casualties: "The empty earth beneath him, the empty sky above him and he, the solitary man, sailing between them! A feeling of power seizes him. He was flying through space to assert the indisputable superiority of the white race. Within his reach he had the proof, seven high- explosive bombs. To be able to sling them from the heavens themselves - that was convincing and irrefutable."

During the First World War, Britain and Italy were allied against Ottoman Turkey as well as Germany. The obdurate rebels against Italian occupation soon found themselves confronted by a new enemy pioneering another new type of warfare.  Prefiguring the use of gun-mounting Toyota Landcruiser "technicals" in 2011, the British responded to Sanusi rebel raids on their Egyptian protectorate by employing armoured Rolls Royce to pursue the Libyans across the Western Desert. On one occasion in March,1916, a participant recalled the Rollers “shooting all loaded camels and men within reach.” Being, of course, very well-built the Rolls Royce "technicals" were still available for service twenty-five years later, this against the Italians on the side of the Libyan rebels - a lesson in how flexible loyalty can be in that part of the world and in great power politics.

Back in 1911, a few Italians protested their country's naked aggression. It was left to the extremist Socialist newspaper editor, Benito Mussolini, to make the most unconditional rejection of the war. He was arrested after dismissing the national flag as a “rag to stick on a dunghill” in a speech denouncing the war in Forlì.

This was a stark contrast with the attitude of the ex-Marxist in power as Duce of Fascism after 1922. The airplane and the destructive power it could project enthralled Mussolini the Fascist as it had repelled Mussolini the Marxist. He declared that the airplane was “the first Fascist.” He became a born-again bomber like the Leftists-turned-cruise missile crusaders for democracy and human rights these days..

Mussolini’s rejection of Marxism and his embrace of the thrill of ultra-modern war was simultaneous. Almost as soon as he came to power, Mussolini was taken up for his first flight by the war ace, Mario Stoppiani, who described the Duce’s  “enthusiastic delirium” with the experience. Then he learned to fly (and to the alarm of his more pedestrian ally, Hitler, would take charge of the controls of planes with the timid Fuehrer on board.) Until George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin has there been a political leader who piloted himself so publicly?

The airplane was also used to suppress his opponents: Mafia bosses and Libyan tribal chiefs would be taken for a one-way flight out over the Mediterranean and pushed to their deaths in the sea below.

Mussolini developed the use of air power to repress rebels in Libya and eventually broke their resistance after almost twenty-five years occupation. In Ethiopia he took his war for civilization to new depths. Fascist Italy announced it would abolish slavery there but first it had to conquer the natives. The exiled Ethiopian emperor, Haile Selassie, described to the League of Nations how the Italians used crop-spraying techniques designed to kill insects to poison his people. Mussolini’s regime made no bones about its methods and did not hide behind cant about having “no reports of civilian casualties.”

Flying Fascists became the order of the day as Mussolini became expansionist in the mid-1930s. His eldest son, Vittorio and his son-in-law, Galeazzo Ciano, took part as pilots in bombing Ethiopia.Mussolini’s son, Bruno, wrote a lyrical description of what it was like to watch Ethiopians explode like petals when he dropped his bombs among them.

Bertrand Russell saw Bruno Mussolini's evocation of air power's immaculate ability to destroy puny humans as embodying the reality of the modern totalitarian regimes, but worse still of a future world controlled from the air. Russell asked, "If one could imagine a government that governed from an aeroplane... wouldn't such a government get a completely different view of its opposition?" Russell feared that a regime of air power would "exterminate" any resistance or dissent. He thought the bomber rendered mass conscript armies redundant and highly-skilled mercenaries would replace them willing to do the bidding of their masters rather being part of the people: "“We seem now, through the aeroplane, to be returning to the need for forces composed of comparatively few highly trained men. It is to be expected, therefore, that the form of government, in every country exposed to serious war, will be such as airmen will like, which is not likely to be democracy.”

But the Italian Fascists were to discover that air power was a two-way street. Libyans and Ethiopians could not declare “no fly zones” over Rome or bombard Florence, but after 1940, first the British then the Americans could and did. Fascist bombers intended to teach their opponents on the ground a brutal lesson, but it was applied to Italians in spades until the end of the war in 1945.

Italian pioneering efforts at air warfare were widely admired and imitated. Fiorello La Guardia was trained to fly by Italian instructors after the United States entered the First World War in 1917. The American pioneer of bombing, Billy Mitchell, recognised Italy’s role as an air power pioneer and became an admirer of the Fascist regime, calling it in 1927 “one of the greatest constructive powers for good government that exists in the world today.” Like Mussolini’s air chiefs, Mitchell was a moderniser who got left behind by the pace of change: he agreed with the Fascist airmen that aircraft carriers had no future.

In Britain, too, there were close links between Fascism and flying. Lady Houston, who funded Supermarine’s embryo Spitfire to compete in the Remy Schneider Flying Trophy also offered £200,000 to the British Union of Fascists led by flying enthusiast Oswald Mosley – so fortunately her contribution to defeating Fascism was greater than the effect of her support for the British Union of Fascists –  an aspect of the patriotic myth which was omitted from the Leslie Howard film First of the Few (1942).

Even today there is the odd, even erotic, irony that Mosley’s step-granddaughter, the glamorous model Daphne Guinness is amorously linked to Bernard-Henri Levi, the chief French exponent of bombing as the path to freedom in Libya. Apart from this mésalliance between the Repubblica Salo and the République Sarkozyste, of course Alessandra Mussolini is dismissive of Gaddafi’s Libyans who protested at her country’s maltreatment of their country under the glamorous model Daphne Guinness is amorously linked to Bernard-Henri Levi, the chief French exponent of bombing as the path to freedom in Libya. Apart from this mésalliance between the Repubblica Salo and the République Sarkozyste, of course Alessandra Mussolini is dismissive of Gaddafi’s Libyans who protested at her country’s maltreatment of their country under the glamorous model Daphne Guinness is amorously linked to Bernard-Henri Levi, the chief French exponent of bombing as the path to freedom in Libya. Apart from this mésalliance between the Repubblica Salo and the République Sarkozyste, of course Alessandra Mussolini is dismissive of Gaddafi’s Libyans who protested at her country’s maltreatment of their country under the Duce. According to her, “They would still be riding camels if it wasn’t for my grandfather.” 

But whatever the role of other countries in pioneering aspects of air-warfare or even Fascism, Italy can fairly claim to have got both off the ground. It put the warplane in the sky soon enough with a Fascist at the joy-stick.  Giulio Douhet was the first serious strategist of bombing. Although he backed Mussolini, Douhet’s career as a practitioner of airpower was stymied in Fascist Italy by rivals with better party credentials.

One of the few dissenting voices in 1911 belonged to a schoolboy in Ferrara who would become the second most famous Fascist after Mussolini not least for his flying exploits. Then the fifteen year old Italo Balbo broke with the nationalist atmosphere and published an article denouncing the invasion of the territory which he would come to  rule after 1933 as Mussolini’s viceroy. But in the meantime Balbo became Italy’s own Charles Lindbergh – a celebrity pioneer aviator who criss-crossed much of the globe to demonstrate the new Fascist regime’s commitment to the most modern manifestation of power – the airplane.

Back in 1911 like Mussolini, Balbo was an odd man out. Of course  not every future Fascist opposed the war. Sergio Panunzion, for instance, remonstrated with the young Balbo for publishing an article against the pro-war consensus: “Why? To go against the grain, against reality, against the government.” Panunzio anticipated the classic Fascist argument that right was made by the might of media opinion and the might of state power.

Italians were to be proud of pioneering military aviation in the cause of civilization. In 1911, Italians achieved a series of aerial firsts: the first night flight, the first aerial photograph, the first aerial bombing – and the first plane to be shot down. Some pedants pointed out that if balloon-launched explosives were included then it was Italian territory which was the first target of bombing as far back as 1849. Then the Austrians besieging rebel Venice sent balloons filled with explosives drifting across la Serenissima which crashed onto the Austrian troops on the other side causing the first casualties of aerial friendly-fire. The governor of Libya, Balbo himself, fell victim to friendly fire when his three-engined plane was shot down by his own anti-aircraft forces at Tobruk on 28th June, 1940. In 1941, Bruno Mussolini was also killed testing a new plane. The airplane was beginning to eat the Fascists and the nation which gave birth to its military role. 

Rejecting any romantic nostalgia for the days of one-on-one fighter-pilot duels in the First World War, Balbo was the proponent of launching “hundreds and hundreds” of planes into the sky in future wars. Mass attacks were to be the Fascist approach to aerial warfare – but Mussolini’s regime was stronger on intimidating bombast than putting resources into such a vast expensive programme. It was the democracies who built and deployed the first fleets of heavy bombers.

As the Second World War progressed, northern Italy was especially badly hit by bombing  as the Allies advanced to drive out the Germans and destroy Mussolini’s Salo regime. Leaving aside the human cost, the cultural losses were enormous. Buildings like La Scala in Milan or the Bramante church housing Leonardo’s Last Supper in its miraculously unscathed refectory could be rebuilt but the works of art in them like the Mantegna fresco of the Life of St. James  in the Ovetari Chapel in Padua were lost when shattered by Allied bombs.

The impact of the Second World War left Italians deeply suspicious of getting involved in warfare, let alone bombing former colonial territory. In 1999, Italy broke the tabu. Led by ex-Marxists, the Italian government accepted the use of their country as the main launching ground for airstrikes on Serbia over Kosovo briefly part of Mussolini’s inglorious new Roman Empire (1941-43). Fishermen in the Adriatic still moan about the risks of falling victim to NATO ordinance dumped in the sea. But now a regime with “post-Fascist” participation competes with the post-Marxists to justify Italy’s renewal of war over Libya just in time for the centenary of a Italy as the mid-wife of aerial warfare.  

On this morbid anniversary, the crusade for civilization then has become a crusade for human rights today. The machinery of the contemporary crusaders may be faster than the bi-planes of 1911 and the bombs are certainly vastly more explosive, but the unanimity of the politicians and media across the West is a strange echo of Italy's sinister consensus between the men in power and men of the press. But today there isn’t even a squeak worthy of the left-wing Mussolini in Europe's parliaments or the media to oppose air power as a force for progress, let alone ask what goes on on the ground. Nor does anyone consider how long and how hard Italy's "pacification" of Libya was despite its declaration of victory as early as November, 1911. Italy could bomb and offer bribes to buy local support, but the resistance of those who were decried as reactionary fanatics opposing progress was not easily snuffed out. It was only eighty years ago, in September, 1931, that Mussolini's regime hanged the main  rebel leader decades after Rome claimed victory. Where is Mussolini's Roman Empire today? Will the regime installed by "humanitarian bombing" prove any more stable or beneficial to Libyans than the one introduced under a wave of bombs a century ago?


Italians have written extensively about the war for Libya in 1911 and the invention of aerial bombardment by their fellow countrymen. Useful sources in English include:

Richard Bosworth, Italy and the Approach of the First World War (Macmillan: London, 1983), Edward Evans-Pritchard, The Sanusi of Cyrenaica (Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1954), Azar Gat, A History of Military Thought from the Enlightenment to the Cold War  (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2011), Alan Kramer, Dynamic of Destruction. Culture and Mass Killing in the First World War (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2007), Sven Lindqvist, A History of Bombing translated by Haverty Rugg (Granta: London, 2001), Dan Segre, Italo Balbo: A Fascist Life (University of California Press: Berkeley, 1987), David Stevenson, Armaments and the Coming of War. Europe, 1904-1914 paperback edition (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2000), and John Wright, The Emergence of Libya: Historical Essays (Society for Libyan Studies: London, 2008).

9th AprilKyrgyzstan: Central Asia’s Poverty-Stricken Roundabout Revolves Again
Pity poor post-Communist Kyrgyzstan.

The bloody events in its capital, Bishkek on Wednesday 7th April are only the most recent round in the political infighting there. Even the flight of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, apparently to his southern stronghold of Osh suggests that continued political violence remains a possibility. But it is the naïve belief fostered by Western media that the violent sacrifice of over 70 lives must mean fundamental change which distracts from understanding the recurring cruel realities of post-Communist politics in Kyrgyzstan.

It is almost exactly five years since Bakiyev’s predecessor, Askar Akaev, took the presidential plane to exile in Moscow. Then the regime-change was greeted as the triumph of “People Power” and the beginning of true democracy and prosperity. This year’s revolution was bloodier than in 2005 but anyone with a memory will recognise not only the street-scenes of pillage and blood-stains but even the faces of the leading revolutionaries.

Despite the new regime’s familiar faces, Western media are reporting the upheaval in Kyrgyzstan as the sign of a geo-political earthquake in the strategically sensitive Central Asian state. Back in 2005, it was quickly clear that the new regime was pro-American. What about 2010’s crop of Kyrgyz revolutionaries and their role in the “Great Game” for control of the Eurasian heartland?

Did the Kremlin’s Hidden Hands pull the rug from under Bakiyev?

The Russian premier, Vladimir Putin, spoke dismissively of the ousted president Bakiyev’s corruption and nepotism on the day of the uprising. Bakiyev’s prime minister complained about Russian media coverage of the crisis as it developed. Putin however telephoned Rosa Otumbayeva, the head of the self-proclaimed interim government and treated her as the legitimate authority in Kyrgyzstan. This showed Moscow imprimatur for the new regime. But are Western conspiracy theorists right to detect the Kremlin’s hidden hand behind the violent events in Bishkek?

The standard explanation by Russophobe media is that Putin was anxious to force the closure of the US airbase at Manas just outside the Kyrgyz capital. The conspiracy theory is that the Russian regime is anxious to make life difficult for the US troops occupying Afghanistan. Since Manas is a key link in the Pentagon’s re-supply route the New Cold Warriors see it as the nodal point of the new “Great Game” between Washington and Moscow for control of the oil, natural gas and opium-rich Central Asian states.[1] 

Although Askar Akaev, who was ousted in 2005, has been interviewed by Russia Today[2] saying that his successor had discredited himself by being too close to the United States and by downgrading relations with Russia, official Russia seems to be engaged in much less of a New Cold War than either US neo-conservative ideologists believe or the victims of US-sponsored “colour-coded” revolutions in 2003-05 would like to think.

After all, on the very day of the coup in Bishkek, Russian president Dmitry Medvedev was in Prague to sign the new START nuclear arms treaty with President Obama. Medvedev’s government agreed in 2009 to facilitate the re-supply of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan by allowing transhipment of supplies across Russian territory to Central Asia. If the Kremlin is playing a Machiavellian game to undermine the United States, the only rational explanation of Russia’s direct assistance to the US war effort in Afghanistan is that Medvedev and co. are encouraging Obama’s desire to be bogged down there! Only the more paranoid of the Pentagon’s grand strategists can really believe that is Russia’s game.

Russia’s acceptance of the new regime fits a pattern of acquiescence in US-backed regime change.

In October, 2000, Vladimir Putin sent his foreign minister, Igor Ivanov, to Belgrade to persuaded Slobodan Milosevic to concede defeat in the Yugoslav presidential elections to the US-backed candidate, Dr. Kostunica. In November, 2003, Ivanov went to Tbilisi to tell Eduard Shevardnadze to relinquish office to Mikheil Saakashvili, the US-sponsored leader of Georgia’s “Rose Revolution.” In April, 2004, Ivanov was on hand to usher Saakashvili’s regional rival, Aslan Abashidze, on to his plane and exile in Moscow. In 2005, Russia gave Kyrgyzstan’s Askar Akaev asylum but recognised the regime which came to power in Bishkek even though Western media broadcast pictures of US-funded resources being used to back the opposition to Akaev.[3]

The Moldovan Model

In April, 2009, a violent uprising in the Moldovan capital, Chisinau, prefigured the events in Bishkek on 7-8th April. A year ago in Europe’s poorest country, post-Soviet Moldova, a similar violent scenario was played out. Parliament was stormed and new elections forced. Like Kyrgyzstan, Moldova had been highly praised in the 1990s as a model of economic reform and admitted into the World Trade Organisation by passing laws and regulations embracing pure capitalism while the real economy crashed.

Like Kyrgyzstan, Moldova is dirt poor and under-developing as each year went by since the collapse of Communism. The Moldovan President, Vladimir Voronin, had made the mistake of drifting into economic dependence on Russia as his country’s economy and society imploded under the burden of poverty induced by the shock therapy imposed on the advice of Western experts and the Soros Foundation. The mob in Moldova stormed the Parliament and forced fresh elections. Naked power rather than the people’s will had been demonstrated and the Moldovan electorate wisely voted for the representatives of parties backed by the mob rather than anyone disliked by it. Russia even accepted this outcome. The EU and USA applauded it.

Both Kyrgyz and Moldovan societies were heavily dependent on remittances from migrant workers scratching a living in Russia or other countries. The financial crash of 2008 and the continuing lack of demand for unskilled labour has had a cruel effect on Kyrgyz and Moldovan migrant workers. At the same time, energy prices in particular have shot up. The last straw for ordinary Kyrgyz in their bleak mountainous Central Asian homeland was the dramatic hike in electricity and natural gas tariffs at the start of 2010. With the arrival of spring, the destitute could come out onto the streets to protests.

The problem for ordinary people in Kyrgyzstan as elsewhere in the post-Soviet realm is that popular protests may topple regimes, but “The People” cannot hold power for themselves. Only a few people can actually sit in office as ministers. It is those with “experience,” however dubious, who fill the ministerial posts in any new regime In Bishkek, political insiders who had fallen out with Akaev before 2005 and then Bakiyev afterwards have been scrambling to occupy vacant ministerial posts. 

Any consideration of who constitutes the new regime in Bishkek as well as Russia’s track-record of accepting and even facilitating “colour-coded” revolutions since October, 2000, must put the neo-con conspiracy theories aside.

New Regime, Old Faces

The Financial Times quoted the former Soros-supported activist, Edil Baisalov as saying, “"What we are seeing is a classic popular uprising. This is a revolution, and it is bloody."[4] Certainly since the Moldovan events, “velvet revolutions” have gone out of fashion but how much change is really heralded by the bloodshed in Bishkek?

Although in Western media Rosa Otunbayeva’s biography begins in 1991 like so many reformers favoured by Washington, her political career began as an official of the Soviet Communist Party as far back as 1981. Like the rest of the Kyrgyz elite applauded periodically as model reformers since 1991, the current self-proclaimed president’s skills at in-fighting and career-building were not honed in the Westminster school of politics but the Leninist one. Explaining the self-proclaimed interim president of Kyrgyzstan to its readers, the international mining magazine, Mineweb declared that she was already “known as the Thatcher of Kyrgyzstan”![5] In fact, she had served as both Akaev’s foreign minister until 1997and then after a brief interval as an ambassador to the UK for instance, she became leader of the opposition Social Democrats, and foreign minister again after the “Tulip Revolution” in 2005. Later she fell out with President Bakiyev before re-staging her role in this year’s bloody re-run of the Tulip events.

Rosa Otunbayeva told Russian Mir TV, “"The security service and the interior ministry, all of them are already under the management of new people.” But the “new people” turned out to be old-hands in these jobs. For instance, the new defence minister, Ishmail Isakov, was Bakiyev’s defence minister from 2005 until 2008. Last October, he was sentenced to eight years in prison for abuse of office. As in Soviet days, charges of corruption are often made in Kyrgyzstan for political reasons but sadly the facts of corruption by office-holders are commonplace. The new interior minister, Bolotbek Sherniyaov, was key organiser of the 2005 revolution. 

These new ministers have Soviet-era pasts which the Kremlin will know about but they have also been deeply-engaged with US government agencies and US-based organisations like the Soros Foundation (in whose office I met Mrs Otunbayeva fifteen years ago, for instance).

The new leadership has reassured his contacts in Washington that Manas can continue to function as the Pentagon’s forward base in Central Asia. Despite their failure to control the anti-Bakiyev crowd, the Kyrgyz special forces trained by US contractors at Tokmok, seen firing their guns, wearing US-style desert fatigues and coal-scuttle helmets on the streets of Bishkek seem set to continue to receive US training and subsidy. Maybe they will do a better job when the next poverty-stricken crowd demonstrates for another regime-change.

New Regime, Old Policies

This rotation within the post-Communist regime’s personnel bodes ill for Kyrgyzstan’s future. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the poverty-stricken Central Asian state has repeatedly undergone traumatic changes. Yet a huge gulf has yawned between Western media coverage of the country and the harsh reality of life there. Worse still, US-funded NGOs specialising in regime-analysis and regime-change show no willingness to learn from their past mistakes nor a readiness to be a little more modest about promoting personalities or policies as the salvation of countries like Kyrgyzstan which have gone downhill following previously approved recipes or leaders. While life has lurched from bad to worse for ordinary people in Kyrgyzstan, on the few occasions the outside world has taken note of events there it has been to announce a re-birth of society and hope rather than to warn against repeating mistakes or following mirages of freedom and prosperity.

The US organisation Freedom House has a dubious track record in the Central Asian state. For years it acted as an advocate of the Akaev regime before suddenly turning on it in 2004 and promoting the regime-change in 2005. At first, Freedom House endorsed the Bakiyev regime but in 2009 it downgraded Kyrgyzstan to a “not free” country.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported on 12th January, 2010, that “Kyrgyzstan -- once the center of pro-democracy hopes in Central Asia -- moved from ‘partly free’ to ‘not free’ category. The downgrade was due… to claims of voter irregularities in the country's July 2009 presidential election, consolidation of power in the executive branch, and new restrictive legislation on freedom of religion. The setback means the entire region of Central Asia is now rated ‘not free.’…” RFE/RL cited Freedom House’s Central Asian analyst Christopher Walker as saying, “the hopes that bloomed in 2005 for Kyrgyzstan and the region are now history.” According to Walker, “Kyrgyzstan has turned out to be a sour disappointment in terms of political rights and civil liberties, and has trended downwards over the last two years.”[6] But such disappointment has not stopped the inter-locking world of US democracy promotion agencies and private foundations like Soros from dropping yesteryear’s favourite and extolling a new champion of freedom.

Remember the “Tulip Revolution.” Dan Fried, still the key State Department architect of US policy promoting so-called “People Power” under President Obama as well as Republican presidents, told us in October, 2005, “Kyrgyzstan experienced what the people there call the March events. Some people call it the Tulip Revolution… An authoritarian president was overthrown because of widespread revulsion at perceived massive corruption and other factors. There followed elections which were just about the freest the region had seen and you have a reformist leadership trying to move the country ahead and trying to get it on its feet.” If the new presidential elections in six months are held and produce another 86% landslide like Bakiyev’s poll in 2005 will the US State Department wait five years to denounce electoral manipulation?

This year’s violent events seem set to repeat the Kyrgyz syndrome of regime change, international approval, followed by further corruption until poverty provides those who lose out in the inevitable in-fighting over the country’s few spoils with enough discontented young men to rush the police cordon around government house. The so-called “Tulip Revolution” in 2005 was, like other “People Power” revolutions, not a fundamental regime-change but a change within the regime. Is the current chaos in Kyrgyzstan the prelude to another game of political musical chairs or something more profound?

North-South Split

One possible spoke in the wheels of the rotation of government posts within the elite is the ousted Bakiyevs refusal to resign. Instead he has fled to his home base in the south of the country protected by Central Asia’s highest mountain chain.

In 2005, there was an initial north-south split. But then, it was Bakiyev’s southern backers who set the revolution rolling. The first sign of the crisis was when crowds attacked government offices and the police in the city of Osh.

Osh at the eastern end of the Ferghana Valley was a key centre in the Central Asian smuggling trade. Situated on the border of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan but also a centre for Afghan and Tajik traders. Bakiyev’s retreat to his homebase raises the risk of a split inside Kyrgyzstan. Certainly in 2005, the smugglers backed him in what was euphemistically called a “free market revolution”! Will the ex-president be able to buy back power? Certainly, the US-led coalition has done nothing to fight the drugs mafia whose smuggling routes criss-cross Central Asia from Afghanistan via Kyrgyzstan to the West – unless verbal denunciations of the evil of opium are to be counted part of the Pentagon’s arsenal of smart weapons. Anyone challenging the Kyrgyz affiliates of the heroin trade would be putting their political careers on the line.

Manna for Manas

What is the role of the Manas airbase which figures so prominently in conspiracy theory accounts of the Kyrgyz coup?

The US military presence in Kyrgyzstan was dramatically increased after 9/11. Until then, small contingents of special forces and intelligence agents – plus “private contractors” – helped train the Kyrgyz security forces and to observe local Islamic militants and events in nearby Afghanistan. The US invasion of Afghanistan after 7th October, 2001, transformed the military relationship between the superpower and the “Switzerland of Central Asia.” The Soviet-built long runway at Manas airport outside Bishkek was ideal for US transport planes. The proximity of Kyrgyzstan to Afghanistan meant that a host of intermediary operations as well as supply from the US homeland could be facilitated through it.

Washington’s local favourite in the 1990s,Askar Akaev, agreed to the US use of Manas for a minimal payment. As the years of Operation Enduring Freedom rolled by he began to ask for a more generous rent. Then his standing as a democrat and economic reformer went into free fall – whither it should have dropped years earlier.

After Akaev’s fall, the Bakiyev regime agreed to keep the base, but his clan too needed cash and Kyrgyzstan has no oil or gas, or even opium of its own, to squeeze as a cash cow.

At first at the start of 2009, it seemed Bakiyev was part of a Russian plot to shut US out of access to Manas. President Medvedev granted Kyrgyzstan a generous line of credit at the height of the crisis with the Pentagon when Bakiyev and his tame parliament had refused to prolong the deal for US use of Manas. But once he had the Russian cash up front, Bakiyev suddenly agreed to let the Pentagon use the air field for US$117 million per annum.

The agreement runs for one year at time. The current agreement runs out in June. Getting in on the negotiations and the sweeteners which drip off such contracts made this spring in Kyrgyzstan particularly tense. Bakiyev’s concentration of economic power and rent-collection in his immediate family and their clan’s hands outraged Kyrgyzstan’s class of reformers who feel entitled to a cut.

It is instructive to contrast Russian and US approaches to the politics of aid. The Russians subsidise societies with loans for projects whereas the Americans buy the political elite with rent. Russia agreed to grant Kyrgyzstan US$2 billion in 2009 but it was tied to economic aid projects while the United States paid US$117m in rent. Even though economic aid would certainly be ruthlessly skimmed by the Bakiyev clan’s control of the economy, the rent for Manas constituted a direct grant to the ruling family. At least if they have lost power, the manna from Manas will cushion their exile. 

Anyone wanting to understand the principles of the much-touted reform process now about to re-start in Kyrgyzstan could do worse than listen to Swedish shock therapist turned Washington insider, Anders Aslund. He reassured worried Americans straight away on 7th April itself that the Manas Airbase was safely in their hands. “This is very much on a pecuniary basis.” Aslund added, “The US pays a substantial amount to hold the airbase” and it continue to hold it regardless of regime.”[7]

Reform-Revolution-Reform - - - the Roundabout Revolves Again 

Western media seem unable to escape from the stereotype of any and every new Kyrgyz ruler as “reformer.” For instance, Isabel Gorst’s report on the events of 7th April, 2010, carried the sentence, “Mr Bakiyev introduced sweeping government reforms that transferred management of the economy and security to new bodies controlled by his family and close associates”![8] If those were “reforms” what would bad policies be? If past form is any guide, we can expect any successor to Bakiyev to be lauded as the new Jefferson of Central Asia, and so on.[9]

Even as the crisis unfolded, the Peterson Institute reassured Beltway insiders reporting arch-shock therapist, “Anders Åslund says the overthrow of President Baikyev was led by pro-democracy forces that will likely continue reforms and maintain ties with Washington.”[10] In other words, the policies which have impoverished the population and promoted periodic brutal revolt and plundering will continue. Pity poor Kyrgyzstan, with such faithful friends and sponsors in Washington it has no hope of escaping from the syndrome of reform followed by impoverishment and then revolution. The continuation of the downward spiral seems pre-programmed.
Maybe ordinary Kyrgyz would welcome someone who plotted a different course from the tragic one pursued for two decades now, but sadly their tiny in-fighting political class has nothing to gain from abolishing a rent-seeking relationship with the Pentagon or other foreign sponsors. Until Kyrgyzstan stops the cycle of regime-change and finds new political leaders it looks doomed to repeat its unhappy past. 

[1] For a British neo-cold warrior version of events, see Simon Tisdall, “Kyrgyzstan: a Russian revolution?The US is on the back foot in Central Asia after Vladimir Putin appears to be winning a round in the new Great Game” in The Guardian (8th April, 2010):
[2] Broadcast 2.30pm GMT, 9th April, 2010. 
[3] See Manon Loizeau, L’evoluzione della Guerra fredda (23rd July, 2007): & fuseaction=user.viewprofile&friendid=45233954 for one Bishkek-based Freedom House US activist’s comment, “We’ve got wrapped up in that story of velvet revolutions, orange revolutions. I keep saying, ‘I want to see a green revolution.’ Bring in the money!” as he waves some US currency.
[4] See Isabel Gorst, “Bishkek curfew as dozens shot dead “ April, 2010):
[5] See Dorothy Kosich, “Kyrgyz revolution unlikely to affect Kumtor – Centerra” Mineweb (8th April, 2010):
[6] See Nikola Krastev, “Democratic Decline Continues across Former Soviet States” RFE/RL (12th January, 2010):
[7] See “Uprising in Kyrgyzstan” Peterson Institute for International Economics (7th April, 2010):
[8] See Isabel Gorst, “Bishkek curfew as dozens shot dead” April, 2010):
[9] Who has forgotten Strobe Talbott’s ineffable encomium of Akaev in 1994?: “We here in Washington think of President Akaev as the ‘Thomas Jefferson’ of Kyrgyzstan, and of Central Asia— and that's not just because he can quote from the writings of one of our own Founding Fathers. After hearing him engage Vice President Gore in a long and animated conversation about the potential of the information superhighway, I realized that President Akaev has more than a bit of Benjamin Franklin in him as well.”
[10] See “Uprising in Kyrgyzstan” Peterson Institute for International Economics (7th April, 2010):