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Kyrgyz Regimes Share Same Bloody Entrances, But Profoundly Different Inheritances

  • Bruce Pannier

Acting Prime Minister Kurmanbek Bakiev adresses the public at the government building in Bishkek in late March 2005 during the Tulip Revolution.

Acting Prime Minister Kurmanbek Bakiev adresses the public at the government building in Bishkek in late March 2005 during the Tulip Revolution.

In early April, when the people of Kyrgyzstan chased their president from power for the second time in five years, it appeared spasmodic regime change was becoming a permanent fixture of Kyrgyz politics.

But while there are similarities in the root causes of the March 2005 Tulip Revolution that ushered in Kurmanbek Bakiev's presidency, and the bloody unrest that led to his ouster, there are also stark differences in the way things are playing out. And for Kyrgyzstan's newest incoming government, it basically comes down to a matter of trust.

Or more precisely, a lack thereof.

Kyrgyzstan's political opposition played minor roles in both regime changes. Events in both cases moved so quickly that no political opposition group could direct events, although their calls for the resignations of the presidents surely fueled the flames.

Patience Exhausted

The source of popular discontent with both Bakiev's government and that of former President Askar Akaev was blatant corruption and nepotism. The patience of the people was simply exhausted.

"The similarities are that, both in 2005 and 2010, these were people's uprisings," says Erica Marat, who has written about Kyrgyzstan for the Washington-based think tank Freedom House. "People went into the streets to demand better government. Basically, they protested against the corrupt regime. They were frustrated with their living standards."

In the case of Bakiev's ouster in April, the president was chased from the capital, Bishkek, on April 7, less than 48 hours after a riot in one western city.

Former President Askar Akaev
The opposition had been calling on people to participate in an unsanctioned nationwide rally on April 7. They wanted to protest steep rises in electricity costs; the reported misuse of a large Russian loan meant to ease the country's power problems; state posts being given to Bakiev's immediate relatives; and Bakiev's drastic change in the structure of the government without public debate or even the necessary constitutional amendments.

But it was reports that opposition leader Bolot Sherniyazov had been detained in the northwestern city of Talas on April 6 that suddenly prompted crowds there to seize the local administration building.

When the crowd held the building overnight, despite the building being stormed by special police, the protests spread to the capital, Bishkek, in the north. People clashed with police outside the government building the morning of April 7, and by that night Bakiev and his security team were crashing their way through blockades to Manas airport in an effort to escape.

The rioting that forced Bakiev to flee was confined to two cities. More than 80 people were killed in barely 24 hours.

The Georgian, Ukrainian Scenario

Marat explains that things were different going into the 2005 Tulip Revolution.

"The March 2005 events -- demonstrations -- began across the country well ahead of March 24, when the regime led by Askar Akaev was ousted," Marat says. "Again, it was expected and unexpected. Nobody expected that Akaev would flee the country so fast, the first day after demonstrators came to Bishkek on March 24. People expected [events] to follow more the Georgian and Ukrainian scenario, where the opposition is waiting for several days and pressuring the government for several days."

The discontent that led to the 2005 revolution started right after the new year. Rumors spread of a "secret meeting" the country's prime minister had held with regional and electoral officials, where they discussed ways to ensure that pro-Akaev candidates won seats in parliamentary elections scheduled for late February. These rumors gained credence on January 6 when popular opposition figure Roza Otunbaeva, the current leader of Kyrgyzstan's provisional government, and later other opposition figures were barred by the Central Election Committee from competing in those elections.

Otunbaeva was running for a seat in the same district as Akaev's daughter, Bermet, who was registered as a candidate. Pro-Akaev candidates won nearly all the seats decided in the first round of voting on February 27.

Peaceful protests that started days before the first round became more aggressive. The administration building in Jalal-Abad that has figured so prominently in Kyrgyz events since Bakiev was chased from power was also the first major building that protesters occupied in the country in 2005. Many of the protesters from the south came to Bishkek in the last days leading up to the storming of the government building in Bishkek. After Akaev fled the country, many people in the south had the impression that Akaev's ouster was the result of a countrywide effort, but one in which the south had played a particularly key role.

South-North Unity

Marat notes that Bakiev, who is from southern Kyrgyzstan, was quick to address the potential north-south divide and ease concerns.

"Bakiev was very proactive in maintaining south-north unity in his first year of presidency," Marat says.

Omurbek Tekebaev (right), Roza Otunbaeva (center), and Almazbek Atambaev -- the heads of the current Kyrgyz interim government
That differs greatly from the approach of the current provisional government, which has repeatedly called for unity and stressed Kyrgyzstan is one country but has been unable to convince some in the south that this is true.

Opposition leaders such as Otunbaeva and interim government deputy chairmen Omurbek Tekebaev and Azimbek Beknazarov are from the south. But so far they have been unable to appeal successfully for calm in the Jalal-Abad area. Bakiev went there after fleeing Bishkek, initially causing tensions between his supporters and opponents in the area. Later, a problem broke out between the local ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks.

As Marat explains, this is perhaps because this new government has not been able to inspire in the people the same sense of confidence seen after the 2005 revolution.

"The biggest difference between 2005 and 2010 in the aftermaths of regime change is, of course, people's trust in the new government. Bakiev enjoyed widespread, almost unanimous, trust among his political supporters inside his government and among the society, and this public trust lasted for some time. It lasted for a few months until presidential elections in July 2005," Marat says.

"Whereas the current government does not enjoy this privilege and the public is very skeptical about its potential to democratize the country and to fight corruption. Within the provisional government now, we see that members of that government do not trust each other."

All Was Forgiven

Outside Kyrgyzstan there are similar concerns.

"Five years ago, Kyrgyzstan was considered to be the third country in the former Soviet space that underwent what back then was considered to be a democratic regime change," Marat continues. "It was the third country after Ukraine and Georgia where a similar change occurred after unfree elections. "Because of that euphoria after the Georgian and Ukrainian revolutions, Kyrgyzstan was supported by the international community. Kyrgyzstan was put in the same basket as Georgia and Ukraine.

Relatives grieve in Safarovka, outside Jalalabad, on May 16 during the funeral of a person killed during clashes between Bakiev supporters and the interim government.
"And for the international as for the local civil society community, whatever mistakes were made by the Bakiev regime and whatever inefficient policies were implemented by the Bakiev regime, it was all forgiven because back then both the international community and the local civil society organizations believed that in a longer-term perspective this is all for the better and that this democratic change will eventually result in a more open society, in a more democratic government."

Marat said foreign governments are more cautious this time around.

"Now Otunbaeva's government is treated with very cautious optimism, if optimism at all," Marat says. "It's approached very cautiously by European and Western partners, organizations, and governments because of the fear of repetition of what we saw happening with the Bakiev regime."

Nearly two months after assuming power, Kyrgyzstan's interim government has yet to be officially recognized by any other government.

Bakiev's government also benefited from an unexpected respite, and also outside support, some six weeks after it came to power when unrest erupted just over the border in Uzbekistan. The Uzbek government's use of deadly force to reestablish order in Andijon sent a wave of refugees across the border into Kyrgyzstan. The UN and humanitarian organizations were sympathetic to the situation of the fledgling government and helped out materially and financially. The event also diverted domestic attention from Kyrgyzstan's economic and social problems, giving Bakiev's government extra time to deal with pressing issues.

There is an important similarity between the two regime changes in the way they were received by Kyrgyzstan's Central Asian neighbors. It is clear that the long-entrenched leaders in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan see the revolts as a bad precedent. Kazakhstan closed its border with Kyrgyzstan for weeks after crowds chased Bakiev from power. Uzbekistan still hasn't opened its border with Kyrgyzstan.

And Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev has clearly expressed the conformity of his views of the two revolutions. Following the 2005 overthrow, Nazarbaev said that "what happened [in Kyrgyzstan] cannot be called a revolution. According to [Kyrgyzstan's] current leaders, it was banditry and pillage." The 2010 overthrow, he said, was "the result of complete banditry."

A comparison of the two regime changes highlights the inability of the Akaev and the Bakiev governments to sufficiently improve the lives of Kyrgyzstan's people. This, when coupled with the unusual success enjoyed by close relatives of the presidents, proved too much for Kyrgyzstan's people, and reveals a line that should not be crossed.

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