It’s Not a Revolution

Whatever just went down in Kyrgyzstan, one thing in clear: this isn't how it was supposed to happen.

View a slideshow of today's events in Kyrgyzstan

Protests have been growing against Kurmanbek Bakiyev's government for weeks, but the speed with which the situation in Kyrgyzstan descended into violence and chaos Wednesday surprised even dedicated Central Asia watchers. Events are still unfolding, and it's far from clear who will emerge the winner in the power struggle in Bishkek. But it's not too soon to ask whether warning signs of today's events should have been seen in advance, whether Western countries could have done anything to prevent today's bloodshed, and how to prevent another repressive government from taking place, as after 2005's "Tulip Revolution."

What is clear is that even Bakiyev's staunchest opponents aren't happy with the way his regime ended. I spoke with Edil Baisalov, a former Kyrgyz opposition leader and participant in the events of 2005 who has been living in exile in Sweden since 2007. He's preparing to return home tomorrow.

"The events of today don't look very nice on TV," he told me. "We don't have the flavor of the Orange Revolution. We don't see peaceful European protesters standing in the square holding candles. Despite our efforts to organize a national movement around civil resistance, this was a bloody uprising. It was clearly provoked by the regime and arrest of opposition leaders this week."

Casualty numbers are still unreliable, but at least 40 people were thought to have been killed on Wednesday as police used live ammunition, tear gas, and stun grenades on the protesters who had gathered outside the presidential palace in Bishkek. The protesters, some carrying automatic weapons themselves, stormed government offices and state broadcasters. Bakiyev fled the capital in his presidential plane and his location is still unknown.  

Bishkek-based International Crisis Group analyst Paul Quinn-Judge -- reached by phone in Tajikistan -- said international observers should avoid viewing today's events through "Color Revolution"-tinted glasses.

"We're not dealing with a revolution, and if anyone starts calling it a revolution in the next couple of days, we're going to have to slap that down," he said. "The unrest is spontaneous, and largely disorganized, which is very bad news."

Outside observers have fallen into this trap before, Quinn-Judge, who was Time magazine's Moscow bureau chief from 1996-2006, noted. "The ‘Tulip Revolution' wasn't a revolution. It was we journalists who called it that, or at least allowed our editors to call it that, who are to blame for that distortion of history."

"It was a fairly well-crafted, concerted extra-constitutional reshuffle of the government whereby some key former members of the government pushed out the government."

Quinn-Judge says the discontent with Bakiyev's government that led to today's events has been building for weeks, and was driven less by political repression than by bread and butter issues.

"A few weeks ago, the government sudden raised the prices on gas, water and electricity," he said. "This turned out to be quite literally the final straw for a population that is generally very apolitical and willing to take whatever is thrown at them by the regime."

"This sort of crystallized the anger people have had over the years over suspicions that the government was fixing the election and looting the country. These little boring things like utility increases that no foreign correspondent is interested in brought everything home to people."

As the discontent grew, Bakiyev's government became increasingly repressive, tightening its control over the media and political opposition. Baisalov is infuriated that the United States never spoke out about the situation.

"How can the Obama administration and the State Department explain how they kept silent over the last three months?" he said. "We've seen television and radio shut down. We've seen newspapers shut down. We've seen public rallies being dispersed. We didn't hear a single American voice, even at an embassy level. The United States cannot claim that they didn't know. Their own Radio Liberty was being shut down! There are many people who used to be loyal friends of the United States who now feel let down. They feel the United States was on the side of Bakiyev."

Erica Marat, a Washington-based analyst of Kyrgyz politics, thinks the U.S. airbase in Manas, a major transit point for the war effort in Afghanistan, may be one reason for the administration's silence. "On an unofficial level it may have been felt that the U.S. base in Kyrgyzstan was more important than democracy in Kyrgyzstan," she said. "At this point, whoever comes to power, the U.S. has to be more vocal. When the U.S. doesn't say anything it looks like the U.S. is protecting the regime."

When asked about support for Kyrgyzstan at a press briefing today, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley acknowledged that "we are allied with that government in terms of its support for international operations in Afghanistan" but also stressed that "we identify with the concerns that the people of Kyrgyzstan have about their future."  Crowley also expressed concern over the violence in Bishkek, urging "all parties to show respect for the rule of law and resolve differences in a peaceful, orderly, and legal manner."

Some International observers have noted the deteriorating human rights situation in Kyrgyzstan. In a speech before the country's parliament earlier this month, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that "recent events have been troubling" and stressed that "all human rights must be protected, including free speech and freedom of the media." But Ban declined to mention any specific incidents -- including the forced dispersal of protesters outside his speech.

So what happens now? Opposition leaders claim to have seized control of the government, but no one seems to be officially in charge of the country right now and the prospect of another destabilizing power struggle looms.

"At this point the Kyrgyz opposition doesn't really have a clear leader," Marat said. "There are some prominent figures but I'm afraid that at four or five of them see themselves as president. Kyrgyzstan's modest history shows that whoever suffered most will try to fight for power."

As he heads back to Bishkek, Baisalov reflects on the lessons of 2005, agreeing that a return to authoritarian rule remains a serious possibility. "Out of this uprising, will we have a revolution that will change the country for the better, or will it turn into another coup d’etat? We assumed that by throwing out Askar Akayev's family, we taught society a lesson. But it didn't turn out that way.

"All those people who helped Akayev before, they helped another dictator. " We must not fall into this trap again."



Power Banking

If the World Bank refuses to fund a controversial coal-fired power plant in South Africa, the most likely outcome isn't more clean energy -- but rather a financial arrangement that neglects it.

A major showdown is under way at the World Bank over a coal-fired power plant under construction in South Africa, which if approved would be the largest and dirtiest investment project the bank has ever financed. The fight pits big developing-world governments and economic development advocates, who argue that the plant is essential to growth and poverty reduction, against those worried about climate change, who contend that the bank should not support carbon-spewing power.

The bank's shareholders -- primarily developed-country governments -- are caught in between. Their vote on the $3.75 billion package, expected April 8, will not only determine the course of this one project, but will influence how global institutions balance their current core priorities with climate change going forward. The debate raging over this plant is a case-study in how multilateral organizations adapt (or don't) their central missions to the emerging focus on climate change. How will these global heavyweights balance their primary goals -- for the World Bank, enabling development -- against the trade-off of pumping more carbon into the atmosphere? In this case, the bank's shareholders should say yes now, but reinforce a cleaner future direction.

The fight over the Medupi plant, a 4.8-gigawatt behemoth -- equal to more than 10 percent of South Africa's current generating capacity, roughly equivalent to five nuclear plants -- is unfolding against the backdrop of two crises. The first is a crisis in South Africa's electricity sector. The country is plagued by chronic power shortages, which are only projected to get worse, crippling economic growth.

When plant construction started in 2007, Eskom, the South African utility that is building it, expected to pay for it through a mix of rate increases, government money, and private financing. But the 2008 financial crisis, combined with mismanagement and poor planning, has left the project unable to tap sufficient private capital. As a result, Eskom turned to the World Bank to keep construction on track.

If this were the entire picture, the case for approving the loan might be relatively straightforward (though mismanagement and corruption would still have to be taken into consideration).

Instead, the debate over Medupi's fate is unfolding against a second crisis in global climate-change policy. Governments are struggling with the task of shifting their economies onto a cleaner, less carbon-intensive trajectory, and the World Bank, with its dominant position in shaping developing-country economies, could be a critical tool in that effort.

Given that, backstopping Medupi would seem to be taking things on the wrong track. Indeed, many argue that the World Bank should instead fund a mix of renewable energy and energy-efficiency projects to close South Africa's power gap.

This is superficially appealing, but it is the wrong way to go. There are simply no alternatives that could provide power at anywhere close to the same cost as Medupi, particularly given that the plant is already partially built. Moreover, the relatively small scale of the renewable energy business (particularly in Africa) would make it impossible to deliver the same capacity as Medupi in the same amount of time.

Perhaps surprisingly, the World Bank loan would also deliver real if admittedly limited benefits for renewable energy. Eskom's original project was focused purely on coal. The new loan, in contrast, would include 100 megawatts of wind and 100 megawatts of solar energy (each equivalent to about a tenth of a nuclear plant).

Although a fraction of the generating capacity of the overall project, these numbers are big in the renewable-energy world. The proposed solar project, in particular, would be the biggest solar-power project connected to the grid in a developing country. Projects of this size would help build technical and regulatory capacity in South Africa, bringing down the cost and risk for future renewable-energy projects, thereby encouraging South Africa's clean-energy transition.

If the World Bank refuses to fund the Medupi plant, the most likely outcome isn't more clean energy, but rather a financial arrangement that neglects it. European export credit agencies might step in, but public opposition would probably be strong. China might come to the table, but most likely without any clean-energy benefits. Alternatively, South Africa could try to fund the project itself, but at the expense of other development efforts (and without the renewable-energy components). The bank, meanwhile, would damage its relationship with South Africa and much of the broader developing world, making it more difficult for it to engage developing countries in promoting climate-friendly growth.

The bank's shareholders should thus say yes. Yet in a world where climate is becoming increasingly important, it cannot let the Medupi situation be the template for future business. Shareholders should emphasize that this is an exceptional circumstance: To the extent that they are necessary, major coal-fired power projects in wealthier developing countries normally can, and should, be financed through private banks.

The World Bank should gradually transition to a model that supports expanded generation only in states that do not promote inefficient consumption -- something South Africa has failed to do by subsidizing a bloated industrial sector. Indeed the bank should consider further linking its support for energy projects to pro-clean-energy policy reforms in recipient countries, in order to boost its long-term impact.

Such steps are important not only in their own right, but because other international institutions will undoubtedly look to the bank for cues. Last December's U.N. climate negotiations in Copenhagen made clear that there will be no single answer to the climate challenge. A proliferation of initiatives and institutions is much more likely. And because new institutions are so difficult to establish, policymakers will likely turn to existing ones, such as the World Bank, for solutions.

We recently published a study that surveys existing institutional capacity to deal with climate change. Two findings stand out: There is an extraordinary amount of capacity out there waiting to be tapped -- but doing so will increasingly create tensions of the sort that the World Bank is addressing this week.

The World Trade Organization (WTO), for example, will need to balance an open trading system with carbon tariffs that might be part of national climate-change policies. The G-20 will decide how much time to devote to climate as it still struggles to get a grip on the global financial system. Development efforts by organizations like the U.N. Development Programme will need to incorporate climate risks into their activities, as will disaster relief agencies like the World Food Programme. The International Atomic Energy Agency will face pressure both to facilitate the spread of near-zero-emissions nuclear power and to clamp down on nuclear proliferation.

These institutions will need, in each case, not only to balance competing priorities, but also to maintain strong relations with the states they seek to influence. Just as the World Bank would have little leverage over South Africa if it alienated it through its decision on Medupi, the WTO will have little influence on states that decide that the WTO is out of touch with current reality. The G-20, meanwhile, would have little power if its developing-country participants decided that it was focusing too much on climate change and not enough on their own immediate economic priorities.

All of which reinforces the importance of this Thursday's vote on Medupi. The world will not succeed at tackling climate change if it attempts to make it its sole priority -- but it will also fail if its international institutions continue with business as usual. This Thursday's vote, and the World Bank's strategy going forward, will be an early indicator of how the world will handle this tension. But it will certainly not be the last time it will need to be addressed.