Thursday, October 09, 2014

A Comparison of Ghana and Kyrgyzstan

At first glance Kyrgyzstan and Ghana appear to have very little in common except for the fact that they are both geographically rather small countries with large lakes. A second glance will show that overall that most people living in both Kyrgyzstan and Ghana are quite poor in comparison to most countries in the world. In 2013 out of 187 independent states the IMF ranked Kyrgyzstan as number 146 in terms of PPP and Ghana as number 138. Other similarities, however, are not immediately apparent. Ghana is clearly a post-colonial country that was one of the early leaders of the various Pan-African and  Afro-Asian solidarity movements and later the Non-Aligned Movement that defined the Third World. Kyrgyzstan in contrast was part of the USSR and hence clearly a Second World country at least until independence was forced upon it. The relative poverty of Kyrgyzstan is thus quite new. During the 1960s not only was Kyrgyzstan richer than Ghana it was also richer than Iran (ranked 78 in 2013) and Turkey (ranked 67 in 2013).[1] Its development along socialist lines further meant that it had a much more equal distribution of wealth than Ghana as well as a much higher literacy rate. The building of infrastructure, industry, schools, and hospitals as well as the provision of salaries, wages, services, and benefits in Kyrgyzstan was heavily subsidized from other regions of the USSR prior to 1991.[2] Ghana on the other hand both before and after independence was unable to access the level of capital provided to the Kyrgyz SSR by Moscow. Its economy followed a rather typical colonial and post-colonial model of dependency and poverty despite efforts by its first president, Kwame Nkrumah, to break this cycle from 1957 to 1966.

A closer look, however, reveals that the state formation of both Ghana under colonial rule and Kyrgyzstan as part of the USSR has far more in common than appears at first. In both cases the boundaries of the states were  largely created by a single outside power out of territory conquered from the indigenous populations in stages. The state of Ghana granted independence on 6 March 1957 consisted of four separate territories. These were the original Gold Coast Colony along the coast, Asante around Kumasi, the Northern Territory, and finally British Togoland. The territory that became Kyrgyzstan in contrast was annexed by the Russian Empire in two stages. The northern half between 1855 and 1868 and the southern half by 1876. Pishpek was incorporated into the Russian Empire in 1863 and the Ala-Too Cinema on Chui Prospekt was built in 1963 to commemorate the centenary of this event. The creation of borders by outside powers has led to a number of problems for both states following their independence. In particular their small size has led to economic difficulties once severed from the greater markets of the British Empire and USSR respectively. These imposed borders, however, enclosed two very different types of state formations in the cases of Ghana and Kyrgyzstan. In Ghana a multi-ethnic state emerged while the Soviets purposely created Kyrgyzstan like all other national-territorial formations in the union as the homeland of a single essentialized ethnic group.

Another similarity between Kyrgyzstan and Ghana that is not readily apparent without some historical digging is that despite all of its claims to be granting the Kyrgyz and other non-Russian nationalities national self-determination,  the Soviet policy of korenizatsiia (indigenization) looks to be nothing more than the logical conclusion of the policy of indirect rule imposed upon the Gold Coast and other West African colonies by Lord Lugard.  Whether Soviet rule over Kyrgyzstan constituted colonialism is a contentious issue that revolves around whether one considers the core of colonial rule to be economic or political. In a political sense Kyrgyzstan was just as much subordinated to a Russian dominated Moscow as the Gold Coast colony was to an English dominated London. The local elite in Kyrgyzstan executed political and economic policies formulated in Moscow and had no real autonomy in these spheres.  Where Soviet policy towards Kyrgyzstan appeared radically different from British policy towards its colonies has already been described above. There was a net flow from the center to periphery in the case of the USSR with the richer European areas heavily subsidizing the poorer Asian ones. The economic exploitation of  the periphery by the metropolis that characterized classic colonialism was missing in the case of Soviet rule of Kyrgyzstan and other Central Asian republics.  Instead you had politically subordinated areas ruled by indigenous representatives of the metropolitan power that benefited heavily from a net flow of economic resources from the center to the periphery. Thus Soviet rule over these territories resembled colonial rule in political terms, but not economic ones. Voselensky has described this situation as semi-colonial.[3]  In terms of political self rule the non-Russian republics of the USSR had no more real autonomy from Moscow than most European colonies in Africa. Central Asia, however, was free from the economic exploitation that marked the European colonies. Instead of suffering from a net extraction of resources from their political masters, the Central Asians, especially the Kyrgyz benefited from receiving a net influx of capital from other regions of the USSR.

Despite this key economic difference,  there were significant similarities between Soviet rule over Kyrgyzstan and the British policy of indirect rule in the Gold Coast in the political and cultural spheres. This is hardly surprising considering that ultimately every colonial venture required some degree of indigenous collaboration to work. What is unusual about the Soviet case is that Central Asia like Algeria had a very large settler population at the time of the Bolshevik Revolution. That the Soviets prudently opted for a strategy that stressed indirect rule through indigenous cadres over direct rule by Russian settlers shows they had a much greater understanding of how to maintain political rule over their non-European territories  than did the British or the French in similar situations.

[1] Alec Nove and J.A. Newth, The Soviet Middle East: A Model for Development (London: George Allen & Unwin, Ltd., 1967), 105-112.
[2] Nove and Newth, 40-104.
[3] Michael Voslensky, Nomenklatura: The Soviet Ruling Class: An Insider's Report (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1984), 284-285.


Lorraine said...

It's interesting that you allow for the existence of political colonialism not accompanied by economic colonialism. What about economic colonialism with no (de jure) political component? If such a thing existed, what would be its maximum historical extent, or its most prominent current examples, if any?

J. Otto Pohl said...

Look at Nkrumah's 1965 book, Neocolonialism to see a discussion of economic colonialism without dejure political control.