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Kyrgyz Find Little To Celebrate On 'Tulip' Anniversary

Protesters in central Bishkek on March 24, 2005 -- were their hopes for change met?
Protesters in central Bishkek on March 24, 2005 -- were their hopes for change met?
A chance to help make history prompted 33-year-old Duishonkul Chotonov to head north to Kyrgyzstan's capital to participate in antigovernment demonstrations.

The March 2005 protests would indeed make their mark, evolving into what would become known variously as the "People's" or "Tulip" Revolution. But as the five-year mark approached, Chotonov lamented that "there is nothing to celebrate."

Duishonkul Chotonov
Widespread discontent over parliamentary elections in February 2005 prompted the mostly haphazard demonstrations that erupted in Kyrgyzstan. Protesters accused President Askar Akaev and his family of heading a corrupt and nepotistic government that did not represent the people.

The revolution that unfolded was supposed to change all that. Sweeping political changes took place, starting with the ouster of Akaev, and the new president, Kurmanbek Bakiev, promised swift reforms. Nevertheless, as Chotonov says today, "It didn't bring the changes we had hoped for."

Lofty Hopes

"Protesters, opposition, people -- everyone was hoping for rapid changes, for reforms; we were hoping our living standards would improve," Chotonov says. "But those changes were not going to happen."

Kurmanbek Bakiev -- more of the same?
The initial optimism expressed by Chotonov -- who helped organize antigovernment protests in the southern city of Osh and is now a member of the opposition Fatherland (Ata-Meken) party -- is representative of the general mind-set outside the capital. Loose-knit and unorganized, the revolution centered on the grassroots appeal of establishing a government that would be truly representative.

Former Prime Minister Bakiev, who hails from the south, was able to capitalize on the events. Soon afterward, he was introduced as the country's acting leader of the country, and he won a presidential election held in July 2005 by a landslide.

Chotonov says it was immediately clear that Bakiev and other politicians were more interested in "fighting for portfolios" than forming a government that would represent all. "For the leaders, the Tulip Revolution wasn't about democratic reforms. It was a fight for top government posts," Chotonov says. "We realized our revolution was stolen from us."

'Stolen Revolution'

Many Kyrgyz look back on the Tulip Revolution as an event that replaced one corrupt leader with another. The driving force behind the 2005 revolution -- public anger with a presidential family many believed had gained enormous wealth at their expense -- is today often affiliated with Bakiev's rule.

Shortly after taking power, Bakiev began to promote family members to senior positions. His brother, Janysh Bakiev, was put in charge of the State Protection Service, a department that only recently expanded its size and budget, according to reports. The president's opponents accuse Janysh Bakiev of manipulating law enforcement agencies against the opposition.

Unbowed by criticism over the appointment of his brother, President Bakiev went a step further in November 2009 when he appointed his son, Maksim, to head the state development, innovation, and investment agency, a post that oversees foreign and domestic investments.

Maksim's appointment prompted speculation that he was being groomed as Bakiev's successor. Thousands took to the streets earlier this month in the northern province of Naryn to demand that Maksim leave his job and the country.

The past five years under Bakiev have been marred by economic hardship, pressure on independent media, and repression of political opposition. Two presidential elections -- Bakiev's initial victory in 2005 and his reelection in 2009 -- were marred by allegations of voter fraud. After early parliamentary elections were called in 2007 following the passage of a new electoral system and constitutional reforms, Bakiev's newly formed Ak-Jol party received 71 of the 90 seats in the expanded legislature.

Playing Favorites

Over the course of five years, Bakiev has lost many supporters who were instrumental to his ascension to the presidency. Some, like former Foreign Minister Roza Otunbaeva, left Bakiev's camp to join the opposition. Others, including former Defense Minister Ismail Isakov, were imprisoned after fallouts with Bakiev.

Some have been jailed in Kyrgyzstan just for gathering to protest against the government.
Just a week before planned nationwide protests by opposition supporters in the run-up to the revolution's five-year anniversary, Bishkek faced international condemnation after access was blocked to independent news websites, including and Meanwhile, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service and BBC news programs were interrupted in some areas.

Bakiev, a native of the southern province of Jalal-Abad, is often accused of promoting southerners to top jobs. While there is no official tally of how many natives of southern provinces such as Batken, Osh, and Jalal-Abad have been promoted to high posts under Bakiev, local experts estimate that since 2005 more than 50 percent of top posts have been filled by southerners. They say most of the appointments are in the areas of the economy, defense, and law enforcement.

Nur Omarov, a Bishkek-based political analyst, says the unbalanced appointments are deepening a historic divide between the country's south and north. "Regionalism is one of the main problems in Kyrgyzstan today. It existed before the 2005 revolution, but it wasn't prevalent in politics," he says. "Now regionalism has become an obvious problem that can result in the disintegration of our society."

No Regrets

Despite the many flaws associated with Bakiev's rule, however, one of the key leaders of the Tulip Revolution that swept him to power, Otunbaeva, says she has no regrets. "I don't think we've lost," she says. "It was a step forward. We are getting more and more experienced."

Otunbaeva says that since 2005, "many political parties have appeared. The opposition has entered the parliament. People are disappointed, of course, but we should not forget that the revolution was an important lesson for us."

Today, while only a handful of political parties are represented in parliament, Kyrgyzstan boasts some 25 officially registered parties, more than any other country in Central Asia.

Despite all the odds, Kyrgyzstan is a place where the opposition is strong enough to take to the streets to voice its discontent with the president and the government. Staging similar protests in autocratic neighbors Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan would be unthinkable.

Unfinished Business

Taking to the streets is exactly what Erkingul Imankojoeva, a former Tulip Revolution protester, wants to do next. For Imankojoeva, a resident of the northern province of Issyk-Kul, the Tulip Revolution is unfinished business. "We need another revolution to save Kyrgyzstan," the 44-year-old engineer says. "I am ready to fight. People are ready to rise up again. They only need a leader to go in front."

Erkingul Imankojoeva
Southerner Chotonov feels the same way. "My friends and I always say we couldn't really change the system in 2005," says the teacher-turned-politician. "Our aim has always been to bring good governance to Kyrgyzstan, to get rid of the corrupt government, and to change entire undemocratic system. It wasn't about one person."

Chotonov says he will have "peace of mind" only when Bakiev is gone, and the country is firmly on a democratic path.

RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service correspondent in Bishkek Gulaiym Ashakeeva contributed to this report
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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