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Kyrgyzstan: Was 'Revolution' A Worthy Successor To Rose And Orange? (Part III)

  • Jeremy Bransten

Protestors take to the streets of Bishkek on 24 March It is tempting to view events in Kyrgyzstan alongside other revolutions in the former Soviet Union and conclude a wave of democracy is rolling across the region. But is this really the case? The third part of this three-part series on Kyrgyzstan's "revolution," looks at whether the March uprising that overthrew President Askar Akayev is comparable to the Rose and Orange revolutions.

Prague, 8 April 2005 (RFE/RL) -- On the surface, last month’s demonstrations in Kyrgyzstan looked and sounded a lot like the earlier revolutions that rocked Ukraine and Georgia.

American professor Kelly McMann, an expert on the region’s politics at Case Western Reserve University in the United States, says the three events do share common traits.

"The similarities that we see are that clearly in all three countries, the immediate catalyst was questionable elections," says McMann. "And in all three countries there were clearly underlying grievances about corruption and standards of living. A couple of other similarities we see as well is that we really saw the force of civic activists and people coming out onto the streets. And we saw incumbents make decisions not to use force."
Kyrgzystan’s new provisional leaders say they do not intend to alter the country’s foreign or domestic policies for now, in sharp contrast to the 180-degree change seen in Kyiv and Tbilisi after the Ukrainian and Georgian revolutions.


But to many others, it is the differences in the Kyrgyz uprising that set it apart from the Georgian and Ukrainian revolutions.

For a start, says Aleksei Malasehnko of the Carnegie Center in Moscow, unlike in Ukraine and Georgia, no one in the Kyrgyz opposition planned to have a revolution. Their goals were much more modest.

"On the eve of the events, I spoke with representatives of the Kyrgyz opposition and they did not talk about [a revolution]," Malashenko says. "Discussions centered on getting 30 percent of the seats in parliament. There was no talk of a revolution, no talk of needing to depose Akaev. These events happened almost by themselves. There was an impulse, some provocations as always happens in any revolt. One cannot compare what happened in Kyrgyzstan with what happened in Georgia and Ukraine, for many reasons."

Edil Baysalov is head of the For Democracy and Civil Society coalition -- an alliance of Kyrgyz nongovernmental organizations. He has been vocal in his criticism of the March events in Bishkek -- and especially of what has happened since then.

He tells RFE/RL that, in his opinion, the Bishkek events were not a genuine popular revolution. There was no build-up to the storming of the government headquarters, no mass popular participation, and no leaders with a broad program for change. As a result, the people who have taken over the reins of power have done little more than replace Akaev.

"What happened here was a 'premature revolution.' We had a premature revolution because we did not have [large-scale public demonstrations as in] Kyiv, as I noted in my interview to 'The New York Times.' And secondly, all of the demands which we put forward to President Akayev about changing the makeup of the Supreme Court, of the Central Election Commission, remain unfulfilled as before," says Baysalov.

Sergei Luzyanin, a professor at the Moscow Institute for International Relations (MGIMO), notes that most of the "new" leaders in Kyrgyzstan - including Feliks Kulov and acting President Kurmanbek Bakiyev -- are former senior officials who had fallen out with Akayev. To Luzyanin, the Bishkek events are akin to a palace coup.

"This is a typically 'Oriental' process. What lies at the core is not the creation of a civil society or the arrival of a new political elite espousing new values and new domestic and foreign policies, but rather a struggle among clans. It is a battle among clans that have regularly alternated power over hundreds of years, in ruling the state or their regions," Luzyanin says.

As a result, he says, the burgeoning civil society organizations and democracy advocates who had begun to make themselves heard under the Akayev regime risk being completely shut out of the political process.

"Civil society in Kyrgyzstan is split, it is in the beginning stages and of course, civil society is unable to control the processes that are now taking place," Luzyanin says. "This is absolutely clear. The family clan structures have completely smothered the civil society that had been forming for the past 14 years."

Kyrgzystan’s new provisional leaders say they do not intend to alter the country’s foreign or domestic policies for now, in sharp contrast to the 180-degree change seen in Kyiv and Tbilisi after the Ukrainian and Georgian revolutions.

Luzyanin believes that behind the scenes, what is really going on is a battle over economic control of the Akaev family’s assets.

"In the enterprises controlled by his clan, Akaev always installed his own people," Luzyanin says. "In the legal and economic sense, these enterprises were not his private property, but he installed his 'minders,' who got a cut of the profits. Today, the minders are gone and there is a battle over who will control, who will mind this property."

Kelly McMann takes a more optimistic view of events in Kyrgyzstan. Still, she emphasizes the need for economic change and decentralization to anchor democracy in the country.

"What I found in my own research in Kyrgyzstan is that even if you have formal democratic institutions, like elections, they won't operate in a free and fair manner," McMann says. "There won't be true opposition unless people are economically autonomous of their local leaders. So unless you reduce the extent to which the state plays a role in the economy, the extent to which local leaders have economic monopolies -- whether themselves or whether their friends and family -- people are a little wary of getting involved in opposition politics.”

What it boils down to is that Kyrgyzstan needs to create an independent middle class that is not dependent on subsidies and is ready to defend its interests at the ballot box. That's a tried-and-true recipe for a stable democracy. In that respect at least, Kyrgyzstan's "revolution" faces many of the same challenges as the Rose and the Orange ones.
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