Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

The Coltan Revolution

April 8th, 2010 · 2 Comments


The upheaval in Kyrgyzstan has been both violent and quick, with autocratic president Kurmanbek Bakiyev electing to flee as soon as his security forces proved themselves incompetent. It seems like just yesterday that Bakiyev came to power amidst the hope spawned by the Tulip Revolution. And now destitute Kyrgyzstan is back to square one, in terms of establishing some sort of functional government.

In the grand tradition of recent political tumult, the turnover in Kyrgyzstan will need a snappy name. With virtually every color in the spectrum already claimed by previous events, we’d like to humbly suggest the Coltan Revolution, after the metallic ore found in the capacitors of mobile phones. The name fits because, as this New York Times slideshow briefly notes, much of the people’s rage was due to higher mobile-phone rates. But to get a full idea of how Bakiyev created the straw that broke the camel’s back, you need to check out this dispatch from nine days ago:

Activists are criticizing draft legislation that would expand the Kyrgyz government’s ability to monitor telephone calls and email.

The State Committee on National Security (known by its Russian acronym, GKNB) already has the ability to eavesdrop on suspected criminals, provided that agents obtain a court order. The amendments, however, would substantially simplify state security agents’ ability to monitor anyone.

The legislative changes appear likely to place an economic burden on telecom companies in Kyrgyzstan. And, ultimately, it may be mobile phone users themselves who shoulder the cost of the expanded monitoring effort. That’s because the legislation mandates that phone service providers operating in Kyrgyzstan install monitoring equipment at their own expense.

“The government is passing the expenses for the equipment on to cellular operators. But it is obvious that operators will pass that [cost] on to mobile subscribers,” Mambetalieva said. “Maybe big companies can handle [such expenses], but small mobile companies will not be able to survive because it is a lot of money.”

Mobile phone users already balked earlier this year when the government applied a new tax of 0.6 som per phone call (approximately $0.01).

In other words, it wasn’t necessarily the infringement on civil liberties that nudged the Kyrgyz people into open revolt; it was the government’s boneheaded decision to make them shoulder the cost of increased surveillance. Given his failure to foresee the eminently foreseeable consequences of such a mandate, we’re gonna venture a guess that ex-President Bakiyev isn’t much of a chess player.

(Photo via The New York Times)

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2 Comments so far ↓

  • jackal

    I am somewhat fascinated that the former president, Akayev, was a physics professor (and now, post-deposing, is a professor of some sort in moscow). And that the interm leader is a former professor of philosophy.

    There’s a book to be written about this academic skew of presidents (notwithstanding their brutality) in Kyrgyzstan — at first glance, has to do with how the old communist/soviet system chose high-up folks from Kyrgyzstan..

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    Didn’t know about the ousted president’s Ivory Tower pedigree, nor the incoming caretaker’s philosophy credentials. I guess that makes some sense, given that higher education was such an important institution during the Soviet era. When the empire fell apart, there must have been such a lack of administrative talent with experience operating in a functioning organization.

    Your comment reminded me of a truly mesmerizing academic-turned-politician tale: that of Alberto Fujimori of Peru. I highly recommend the documentary about his reign:

    http://www.falloffujimori.com/

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