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Faction and Revolt: Kyrgyzstan in Light of American Foundations

April 7th, 2010 | 5 min read

By Tex

Kyrgyzstan is in revolt but it is unclear what the revolt will accomplish.  The opposition parties are demanding democracy and equality, fed up with the cronyism of current President, Kurmanbek Bakiev and convinced that the government is working to undermine their rights and silence their dissenting voices.  These claims, however, sound remarkably similar to those of the Tulip Revolution in 2005, which put the current president in power and sent his predecessor into exile on charges of authoritarianism and granting favors and power to close associates and family members.  While the details triggering the revolts differ, the disenfranchisement of the Kyrgyz populace in the face of unyielding government is the thread that ties the two together.

From where I sit, approximately fifteen miles north of the capital city, Bishkek, and the location of today’s riots, it is quiet.  The stability and tranquility I am experiencing at the U.S. air base just miles from the scene of an armed mob attacking the presidential offices is, in many ways, due to the manner in which American government has dealt with factionalism among its citizens and endeavored to deal fairly with the various grievances of the people.

The brilliance of the American Constitution is often seen in contrast with various dark alternatives, alternatives that come into existence due to a faulty analysis of the source of strife within a Union.  James Madison, one author of a number of the Federalist Papers published in support of the ratification of the Constitution of the United States, placed his finger on the issue that must be addressed by any proponent of a popular government:

Among the numerous advantages promised by a well constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction. The friend of popular governments never finds himself so much alarmed for their character and fate, as when he contemplates their propensity to this dangerous vice. He will not fail, therefore, to set a due value on any plan which, without violating the principles to which he is attached, provides a proper cure for it. The instability, injustice, and confusion introduced into the public councils, have, in truth, been the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished.” (Federalist #10)

Factions, defined by Madison as, “a number of citizens […] who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community,” tear apart the bonds of a community as various interest groups promote their cause over the interests of others.   Sometimes factions are large (as in the case of a popular uprising against government authority), other times they are top-heavy (as in the case of a self-serving governmental elite gaining power for personal gain), at all times they are divisive and difficult to peacefully quell.  Each faction is unwilling to entrust its cause to arbitration by any other (all arbitration, being accomplished by men, is vulnerable to the party interests of another faction) and so provides no peaceful way for conflicting interests to be adjudicated.  The friction of one party grinding against the interests of another party eventually lead to some sort of conflagration, unless the friction can be ameliorated.

The genius of the Federalists and the U.S. Constitution is found in the American provision against factionalism.  Madison recognized that the causes of faction could not be done away with except by destroying liberty or ensuring that every citizen had identical interests (both of which are not acceptable solutions) because human nature is selfish and passionate and will not be governed by perfect reason:

The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.”  (Federalist #10)

Rather than decry factionalism as a horrible evil to be exorcised, Madison recognized it as a part of human nature that could not be transformed through human endeavors (he’s not the first, Christians have been calling it sin or depravity for ages).  With this recognition came an unusual solution: a government that sought to limit, rather than remove, the effects of vying interests among the populace.  Madison and the Federalists brooked no sympathy for utopian schemes and  would not countenance any regulations based on the twin falsehoods that either human nature can be altered through education or that human nature is basically good.  The system of government arising out of their understanding of humanity has created a trustworthy system through which citizens are confident that their grievances will be heard and addressed and that the interests of some powerful majority or vocal minority will not overwhelm the private interests of others.

Two hundred and thirty-four years of relative peace and quiet stands in stark contrast to the violence of Kyrgyzstan, a nineteen year-old country that has been in the grip of an authoritarian leader for fourteen years, already seen a major revolution that placed another authoritarian leader in power, and now is falling into chaos as the people take to the streets to resist the oppression of a government that has done little to promote the general welfare of her citizens.  A revolt every five years is hardly the mark of a successful country and suggests that the instruments of power have not yet been accommodated to the nature of the people.  The chaos overtaking Bishkek even as I write is tragic evidence that popular governments require more than voting booths, an understanding of human nature is requisite to the formation of viable governing bodies and to the continuation of a nation in prosperity and peace.