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The Revolution In Kyrgyzstan Lives On

Acting Prime Minister Kurmanbek Bakiev addresses the public in Bishkek on March 25, 2005.
Acting Prime Minister Kurmanbek Bakiev addresses the public in Bishkek on March 25, 2005.
As we approach the fifth anniversary of Kyrgyzstan's so-called Tulip Revolution, it is appropriate to ask some hard questions. For instance, were the events of the spring of 2005 really a revolution at all? Some observers -- particularly those who are tied to the ousted regime of former President Askar Akaev -- argue that it was not.

It is interesting that even those who opposed the ideology of communism have been using various pronouncements by Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin to argue both sides of this question. Using Lenin's formulations, some argue that there was no major socioeconomic change in the direction of post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan as a result of the 2005 events. They argue that what occurred was really a coup, aimed simply at replacing one president with another.

Of course, Akaev was ousted and did flee the country, the same day that his White House in Bishkek fell. He signed his letter of resignation from Moscow on April 4, 2005. But there certainly was no military coup and no Kyrgyz Augusto Pinochet emerged. The Kyrgyz military remained neutral during those heady days, in accordance with the constitution. This remained true even after the commander of the National Guard that provided security for the government building was severely beaten by protesters.

The commanders of the law enforcement forces never publicly declared their support for the mass protests of 2005. They merely refused to lead the country into civil war by ordering troops to fire on unarmed, peaceful demonstrators.

Not Another Aksy

A former regional official who is now an ambassador in Western Europe told me that some senior Akaev figures had tried to persuade him to order police to storm the Kochkor district administration building in the Naryn region, which was occupied by protesters from March 16 until the end of the Tulip Revolution events. But he refused to do so, saying that he would not risk another Aksy shooting -- referring to the events of March 17-18, 2002, in the remote Aksy district of Jalal-Abad region, in which Kyrgyz police fired on peaceful demonstrators and killed six of them.

A monument to the victims of the Aksy shootings
At the same time, there was no order, either from the judiciary or the legislature, telling security forces to oust the president (as was the case in Chile, where the Chamber of Deputies ordered army commander Pinochet to remove President Salvador Allende in September 1973).

Clearly, the Kyrgyz events of 2005 were no military or police-backed coup.

Back when I was studying the history of revolutions at the history department of the Kyrgyz state university, we were taught that "revolution" is a healing process for societies. This, for instance, was the main lesson drawn from the events of the Paris Commune, which was a sort of city council formed by ordinary protesters that exercised power in Paris for two months in 1871.

So it is natural for me to ask whether 2005 brought any healing to the Kyrgyz. I recently read a new book called "The March Revolution: The Historic Choice Of The Nation" by President Kurmanbek Bakiev. Bakiev, it should be recalled, was brought to power as acting prime minister and interim president by the Tulip Revolution.

While pro-Akaev and pro-Russian analysts focus on the negative consequences of the March 2005 events (and miss no opportunity to blame the United States -- or, at least, financier George Soros -- for instigating the uprising), Bakiev stresses the positive political, social, and economic legacies of those developments. At the same time, he and fellow Tulip Revolution leader Roza Otunbaeva, a former foreign minister, reject the allegations that the United States or anyone in the West financially supported the popular uprising.

In addition to reading the works of Bakiev and other participants or opponents of the March events, it is necessary to also read books by Erica Marat and other objective analysts, such as those published by the Institute of War and Peace Reporting, RFE/RL, and the Bishkek Press Club, to get an accurate picture.

Return To A Multiparty System

When discontent peaked and people in various parts of the country began spontaneously storming local administrations, protesters uniformly demanded free and fair elections within their representative districts. And only when Akaev failed to satisfy their demands and when it became public that two of the president's children and several relatives of senior officials and governors had been declared the winners of seats in the legislature did demonstrators begin demanding Akaev's resignation.

Former President Askar Akaev
Unfortunately, the window for postrevolutionary reform in Kyrgyzstan did not last long. For the first two years following the March 2005 events, the power of the president was weak and the legislature was able to force the executive branch to heed the public's demands. A new constitution was adopted under which capital punishment was abolished. Opposition parties and independent media flourished.

Although the December 2007 parliamentary elections were marred by massive fraud, they did represent a return to a multiparty system and increased opportunities for women and minorities to be represented in the national legislature. Nongovernmental organizations -- a key part of the country's emerging civil society -- were strengthened. Taxes were collected in a more transparent way, and the economy improved due to increased opportunities for small business.

Needless to say, statistics about these achievements are highlighted in Bakiev's book. But what is missing in that book? Although Bakiev harshly criticized the Akaev regime, he does not respond to charges that his own government has begun repeating Akaev's mistakes. He does not mention the postrevolutionary activities of some of his former allies (whose support in 2005 was crucial) who are no longer among his friends.

He forgot about Ishenbai Kadyrbekov, a former lawmaker who served as interim president for several hours before Bakiev took over at midnight on March 25, 2005. Kadyrbekov is now serving a suspended sentence after being convicted on corruption charges he claims were politically motivated.

Some Kyrgyz businessmen who supported Bakiev's political opponents have been forced to close their businesses and flee the country. Several independent newspapers have ceased publishing. Some outstanding journalists, including Alisher Saipov and Gennady Pavlyuk, have been killed, while others have fled the country.

Dozens of protesters are in jail for nothing more than exercising their constitutional right of freedom of assembly. Several opposition leaders have been jailed or placed under house arrest, while others have also fled the country. In recent days, some independent websites (,,, and others) have been blocked and obstacles have been created to keep affiliates of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service from airing its television and radio programs.

A Revolution At All?

In short, many Kyrgyz citizens feel betrayed by Bakiev's government.

Does this mean that there was no "revolution" in 2005? If we are returning to semi-authoritarianism, can we say that any revolution took place at all?

Feliks Kulov
I put this question to Feliks Kulov, the opposition leader who was freed from jail at the demand of protesters on March 24, 2005, and who was a crucial supporter of Bakiev during the July 2005 presidential election. After Bakiev won that vote, he named Kulov to head the cabinet (a position he held until January 2007).

Kulov, who was prime minister when I spoke to him, answered directly and honestly: "This was a genuine popular revolution. But it is another matter to say who benefited from it."

The rulers of the authoritarian regimes of Central Asia love to highlight every failure of postrevolutionary Kyrgyzstan to make the argument that all revolutions lead only to disaster and poverty. They want to distract attention away from the fact that the Kyrgyz people demonstrated that, even in Central Asia, the people can demand the ouster of a government that acts against the popular will.

Despite the retrograde actions of Bakiev's government, Kyrgyz civil society is much stronger now than it was in 2005 -- stronger because it has been struggling for democracy now for 20 years since independence in 1990. Recently, the Kyrgyz Constitutional Court rejected laws and Bishkek city council rulings the violated the public's right to assemble. The latest protest rallies are also evidence that Kyrgyz society has indeed been revolutionized -- and is developing the legal means to continue on the path toward democracy.

No one in Kyrgyzstan in 2005 merely sought the replacement of one president with another. The uprising of 2005 was based on democratic ideals and expectations that remain strong. The Kyrgyz people now are calling on their government to return to those ideals and to deliver on the promises they made five years ago, the pledges that persuaded the people to confer power upon them.

Tyntchtykbek Tchoroev (Chorotegin) is director of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL