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Rethinking Kyrgyzstan's Tulip Revolution

  • Bruce Pannier

Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev -- following the well-tread path of Central Asian authoritarianism?

Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev -- following the well-tread path of Central Asian authoritarianism?

Kyrgyzstan's 2005 "Tulip" or "People's" Revolution was hailed by many as a promising triumph of democracy in the brief era of "colored" revolutions. But the years since have seen a regression on the country's path to democracy. In fact, Kyrgyzstan has assimilated some of the more odious aspects of its Central Asia neighbors' authoritarianism.

In the 18 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, no Central Asian state has seen a peaceful transfer of the office of president through elections. Two presidents have ruled uninterrupted throughout the post-Soviet period. Two were chased from power. One died in office.

In Kyrgyzstan back in 2005, however, there was a chance this uninspiring pattern could have been broken and an example set that the rest of the region would have been pushed to live up to. But that chance was squandered.

On July 23, incumbent President Kurmanbek Bakiev was reelected in a heavily managed election. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) preliminary assessment of the vote said the election was "undermined by an overall uneven playing field."

The "conduct of election day was a disappointment," the report continued, recommending "a serious overhaul in the way elections are organized in Kyrgyzstan in the future." Such an assessment is sobering to those who placed their hopes in the events of 2005.

Bakiev's reelection was a significant setback to efforts to foster democracy in Central Asia as a whole. Despite the country's democratic backsliding over the last four years, Kyrgyzstan remains the most "liberal" state in the region. But the July vote reminds us of the direction Kyrgyzstan is heading. And it makes one wonder if maybe the Tulip Revolution was a wrong turn for the country.

Questions About Third Term

Back in 2005, President Askar Akaev had been president since the country became independent. He was elected president of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Kirgizia (in the Soviet Union) in 1990. The next year, he was elected president of an independent Kyrgyzstan.

Would Askar Akaev have stepped down?
He was reelected in 1995 and, again, in 2000. Although the country's constitution stipulates a two-term limit for presidents, the Constitutional Court ruled that elections held before it was adopted in 1995 did not count.

In 2005, two elections were scheduled -- parliamentary elections in February and a presidential ballot, for which Akaev was ineligible, in October.

Unlike his Central Asian counterparts, Akaev was an academic (a physicist), not a Communist Party apparatchik. Under him, Kyrgyzstan became -- as noted above -- the most "liberal" state in the region. It developed independent media and a vibrant civil society. Its parliament included representatives from numerous political parties and movements. There was no such thing as a "ruling party."

Even before 2005, Akaev had vowed that he was leaving office. The Constitutional Court had ruled that his election in 1995 was his first and the 2000 vote marked the beginning of his second and last term.

There were calls (as there often are in post-Soviet countries) for him to run again 2005 through some sort of referendum or other manipulation. Some supporters had begun collecting signatures in support of a third term.

Rigged Vote As Guarantee?

That was the situation as the country went to the polls in the February and March legislative elections. Although the opposition was unconvinced by Akaev's assurances that he would not seek a third term, the possibility that he would step down raised the stakes in the parliamentary vote considerably.

For the first time, the opposition was crushed by pro-presidential parties in the elections. Demonstrations began even before the first round of voting in February and became impossible for the authorities to control by the time the results were announced. On March 25, Akaev fled the country.

Analysts at the time noted that the overwhelming victory of pro-presidential parties (according to the official results) may have indicated that Akaev really did intend to step down.

Police breaking up an opposition rally in July
They argued that packing the parliament with Akaev supporters would give him the confidence to step down without fearing prosecution. (There were provisions in the constitution protecting him after he left office, but Kyrgyzstan's constitution had been changed so many times under Akaev that those provisions must have afforded him small comfort.)

Had Akaev stepped down -- even after packing parliament in dubious elections -- he would have been the first Central Asian president to voluntarily leave office. Even if he had followed the lamentable example of his neighbors and secured a third term for himself in 2005, he would almost certainly have stepped down when that term ended in 2010 (he will be 70 next year).

But that, I think, was unlikely. Akaev had a different character than any other Central Asian president, and he would have relished being able to claim he was the first head of state in the region to leave office of his own free will at the end of his term.

Bakiev Falls In Step

Instead, however, he was chased out of office and out of the country in March 2005, to the applause of many inside and outside of Kyrgyzstan.

And Bakiev latched onto the popular protests that were organized mainly by domestic nongovernmental organizations and won the early election in July. He received 88.9 percent of the vote in the only Central Asian election ever assessed by the OSCE as generally free and fair.

But what a difference four years can make. Now the independent media are threatened, and several independent journalists have been attacked this year. Four parliament deputies have been killed since the 2005 uprising, and the investigations all uncovered criminal connections.

Bakiev has appointed his brothers to government and diplomatic posts. His son is one of the country's most successful businesspeople. His party, Ak-Jol, has more than two-thirds of the seats in parliament.

Now Bakiev has another, four-year mandate. If Kyrgyzstan's democratic backsliding continues at the rate we've seen since 2005, it remains an open question whether he'll manipulate his way to a third term in 2013.

If he chooses this path, he has plenty of examples to follow among the rulers of Kyrgyzstan's neighbors. If he takes the high road, he'll be on his own.

Bruce Pannier is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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