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Kyrgyz Still Struggle To Find Political Footing

  • Bruce Pannier

President Kurmanbek Bakiev now has a pliant parliament, but the opposition is looking to challenge his status.

President Kurmanbek Bakiev now has a pliant parliament, but the opposition is looking to challenge his status.

Four years ago this week, Kyrgyz police and security agents opted not to confront the swarms of people spilling over the gates surrounding the country's presidential offices.

Dubbed by outsiders the "Tulip Revolution," March 24, 2005, came to be widely regarded as a victory for democracy -- a day of triumph for those who united to chase from power the only president Kyrgyzstan had known since its 1991 independence.

The early dreams for the unrest that swept President Askar Akaev from power included an end to corruption and nepotism in government; putting behind the situation in which regional rivalries and clan politics ran the show; hearing the voices of all, with opinions duly considered; and the establishment of effective independent media.

But today, with fresh calls for antipresidential protests in the air, some point to the Tulip Revolution as the day Kyrgyzstan's democratic reforms began to backslide.

Despite promises made by the country's leadership, the Kyrgyz citizenry is subjected to continued crackdowns on media, opposition arrests, and calls for a new groundswell of popular activism to combat President Kurmanbek Bakiev.

Many point the finger squarely at Bakiev -- the former prime minister who became acting head of state in the confusing aftermath of the revolution, and who was formally elected to the office four months later.

For opposition members like Social Democratic Party leader Roza Otunbaeva, the anniversary is not so much a victory as a lost opportunity.

"This day will be marked in Kyrgyz history, but our revolution, our victory, was stolen. We witnessed only how one clan was changed for another one," Otunbaeva told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service around last year's commemorations. "When we were discussing whether we should celebrate this day or not, I said that the revolution is still happening. Those people who wanted to arrest us [in 2005], who became very rich under Akaev's regime, they are still here [around Bakiev now] -- but those who made this revolution are left on the streets, that's why they are all disappointed."

With the added weight of economic uncertainty and the surprise announcement of early presidential elections in July, Otunbaeva stands behind that pronouncement from a year ago.

No Honeymoon

There is little doubt but that the country's course following the Tulip Revolution was fraught with difficulty, and that some of the woes encountered were predictable.

Kyrgyzstan, located in the remote mountains in the heart of the Eurasian continent, is a poor country with few resources to export. Regardless of who is in power and even without the added hurdle of a global economic crisis, Kyrgyzstan's possibilities for economic advancement are limited.

But while the Kyrgyz people may be able to reconcile with such stark realities, what is troubling many is that the country under President Bakiev appears to have moved away from the democratic reforms and the pledges of 2005.

The honeymoon was short-lived, with the revolution's most ardent supporters quickly questioning how such a promising situation went awry. In the first 18 months of Bakiev's presidency, there were near-constant demonstrations as the populace grew dissatisfied with a perceived lack on urgency on the government's part to fulfill promises of reform. Calls of "Bakiev must go!" became common across cities and towns in Kyrgyzstan.

Such calls were met with clear signs of irritation on Bakiev's part, who pointed out that "if someone thinks it's so easy to rattle the president -- who has been working for less than one year -- with rallies and so on, they will all fail."

The tone appeared to have been changed for good.

The opposition that was behind Bakiev immediately after the revolution soon split, with many opposing the new president as vigorously as they had the old president.

Parliament remained packed with loyalists of the ousted president, Akaev. Their own election had ironically helped spark the revolution, but in its aftermath most turned against Bakiev. Independent media turned from unqualified praise to criticism of Bakiev and the government. Bakiev's list of allies began to grow thin.

In November 2006, the largest crowd ever to assemble in the Kyrgyz capital demanded what it thought was a list of long-overdue constitutional changes. After a week, they appeared to have won. Bakiev conceded, and a hastily prepared new version of the constitution -- one limiting presidential powers -- was signed into law.

But Bakiev's counterattack had yet to begin.

Presidential Power

At the end of December 2006, parliament pushed through a package of legislation that nullified those same constitutional changes. Prime Minister Feliks Kulov -- a Bakiev ally of convenience after the revolution -- and his government resigned just prior to parliament's move. Kulov was out for good and three more prime ministers have followed since then.

A new constitution was eventually approved in a national referendum in late October 2007, and it did grant parliament more powers -- after the presidential election scheduled for 2010. Just prior to the referendum Bakiev helped form the Ak-Jol Popular Party, a pro-presidential party Bakiev said he needed to support his efforts at reform. The adoption of a new constitution was followed by parliamentary elections less than two months later. Ak-Jol won 71 of 90 seats.

Kyrgyzstan's media never was allowed to become entirely independent, as Bakiev had promised during his campaigning in 2005. Some are now arguing that it has never been more difficult to be an independent journalist in Kyrgyzstan.

Attacks on journalists are on the rise -- this month, one was knifed multiple times. The well-publicized 2007 murder of Alisher Saipov, an independent ethnic Uzbek journalist in the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh, has never been solved. Foreign media, previously welcomed and even credited with helping the opposition find a platform during the Tulip Revolution, are now experiencing difficulties in renewing licenses.

As for the postrevolution campaign against corruption and nepotism in the government, it apparently ran out of steam after media started reporting on the number of President Bakiev's relatives working in state posts or enjoying successful business lives.

Now, as Kyrgyzstan marks the fourth anniversary of the Tulip Revolution, the country is four months away from early presidential elections -- too early, some observers say, for the opposition to stand a chance of organizing a winning campaign. With the campaigning already started, some key opposition figures find themselves occupied with legal cases that surfaced at the start of this year.

But with the coming of spring, some in the opposition camp are vowing to once again take to the streets, calling for the president to step down and raising the possibility that history could repeat itself.

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