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One Year Later, Kyrgyz Revolution Under Threat

  • Gregory Feifer

An injured opposition supporter is carried away during clashes between protesters and police in Bishkek on April 7, 2010.

An injured opposition supporter is carried away during clashes between protesters and police in Bishkek on April 7, 2010.

Shots fired by government forces rang out over the voices of protesters in Kyrgyzstan's capital, Bishkek, one year ago today, marking the start of the uprising that toppled President Kurmanbek Bakiev. Demonstrators in the former Soviet republic accused him of presiding over growing corruption and authoritarianism.

The opposition that took power under the stewardship of interim President Roza Otunbaeva -- a mild-mannered former diplomat who shepherded the enactment of a new constitution -- established the region's first parliamentary democracy and weakened the president's power. That was no mean feat in a region dominated by strong-armed rulers since the collapse of communism.

But one year later, critics say the government is paralyzed by infighting and struggling to function, let alone carry out the monumental task of establishing democracy. The undertaking, already fraught with difficulty, is further complicated by an economy on the verge of collapse and fears that simmering ethnic tensions could again erupt into the type of violence seen in June, when ethnic clashes between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in the south of the country killed hundreds.

April 7 'Means Nothing'

The authorities deny the criticism. First Deputy Prime Minister Omurbek Babanov tells RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service the government has accomplished a great deal since it took power last year.

"We're conducting a strong fight against bribery and corruption despite a serious campaign against the government with a lot of noise and accusations," Babanov says. "Kyrgyzstan has never seen such a battle against bandits and organized criminal gang leaders. They're being arrested now."

But on the streets of Bishkek, many say very little has changed since Bakiev's ouster. Konstantin, who didn't give his last name, says the date April 7 means nothing to him. "It's just another day on the calendar and that's it," he says.

WATCH -- Anatomy of an uprising:

Another critic, Aikol-El party leader Edil Baisalov, returned from exile last year to become chief of staff under Otunbaeva. He resigned in June and says the government can't even take credit for the accomplishments officials cite most: ensuring free media and political debate.

"The government can point only to the election of a new parliament," Baisalov says. "But Kyrgyzstan was always well known in the region for its active legislature. We always had lively debates and strong opposition leaders, so you can't impress Kyrgyz people with such claims."

Elite Infighting

Some in Kyrgyzstan believe their uprising provided inspiration for this year's revolts in the Middle East. But despite the fact that the unrest in both regions was led by young people enabled by the Internet and mobile technology, political analyst Mars Sariev says it's risky to draw comparisons.

"The circumstances aren't parallel because the situations varied too much," he says.

Ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiev speaks to reporters in his hometown of Teyit, in southern Kyrgyzstan, on April 13, 2010.

For one, Kyrgyzstan had a strong civil society and a history of uprisings: Bakiev came to power in the so-called Tulip Revolution of 2005 and weathered many protests himself. Demonstrations are still taking place, most recently over the closure of an outdoor market and conditions in the country's prisons.

So it's ironic that in a country so seemingly used to unrest and change, its revolutions haven't been real revolutions as much as the manifestation of infighting between elites, says John MacLeod of the Center for War and Peace Reporting.

"What appeared to be revolutions were a violent reshuffling of a powerful wealthy elite who were able to engage popular dissent to promote their own interests, settle themselves in power, and redistribute property among themselves," MacLeod says. "In that sense, it isn't a genuine revolution."

MacLeod says the ethnic violence in June -- in which human rights groups say most of those killed were members of the minority Uzbek population -- came about when the usual elite infighting playing out in the streets "moved beyond an extremely dangerous threshold into full-scale bloodshed."

"The net result in Kyrgyzstan," he says, "is that it's gone from being a functioning if decrepit and impoverished state to being almost a failed state if it doesn't get itself together over the course of this year."

Splintering Opposition

Since the June violence subsided into a tense calm, the new government has done almost nothing to deal with its causes. Most of those tried and sentenced in the south in connection to the bloodshed have been Uzbeks, in a region that remains essentially autonomous.

But that's only one of Kyrgyzstan's troubles. Chief among others is the economy. Last February, the International Monetary Fund gave some hope by reporting faster than expected GDP growth, saying it may rise by up to 5 percent this year. But Kyrgyzstan produces very little besides gold, and economists say the country still faces possible economic catastrophe.

The government's attempts at reform, such as the privatization of state assets, MacLeod says, have been racked with corruption that's "consistently devalued the reputation of democracy in the public eye."

Interim leader Roza Otunbaeva visited a Bishkek hospital on April 9, 2010, to meet with protesters injured during the antigovernment riots.

As for political progress, critics of the parliament say its biggest achievements since elections in October have been the naming of a mountain after Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and the establishment of new categories of driver's licenses.

However, with the splintering of the opposition that spearheaded Bakiev's ouster last year, legislators have been very active fighting each other. Popular tactics include accusations that rivals don't hold Kyrgyz citizenship, a charge leveled even against Deputy Prime Minister Babanov.

Presidential Election

That kind of discourse is partly explained by politicians' preoccupation with jockeying for a presidential election in October, in which Otunbaeva says she won't run. While some hope the ballot will provide at least a modicum of stability and political reform, others say the country's parliamentary democracy may now come under threat, amid fears that whoever wins may take power back into their own hands.

The best hope for Kyrgyzstan, MacLeod says, is the "least bad of outcomes" -- that it muddles on without more major bloodshed and unrest. The biggest danger, he says, would be another revolution.

"What would it be for?" he says. "What possible improvement could a new leader offer?"

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