Kyrgyzstan: revolution or not?

About the author
Yasar Sari is a doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia who worked at universities in Osh, Kyrgyzstan; Sureyya Yigit is a doctoral candidate at Cambridge University, who worked at universities in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.

Why did Askar Akayev’s almost fifteen-year rule of Kyrgyzstan, formally concluded on 4 April with his resignation, end in the way it did? Was the people’s protest essentially negative or does it represent a new democratic wave that will impact on the country’s central Asian neighbours?

To answer these questions requires an assessment of what makes Kyrgyzstan politically distinctive within central Asia, as well as an account of events across the country in the days following the second round of parliamentary elections on 15 March 2005.

The Kyrgyz uprising began with protests in the southern cities of Jalalabad and Osh against the official announcement of the election results. These meetings initially focused on the question of why pro-government candidates defeated in the first round of elections were victors in the second, which people attributed to electoral malpractice and bribery.

For two weeks, crowds of angry people stood on the main square in front of government buildings in the two cities. On 18 March several protestors in Osh were beaten and injured in attacks by soldiers and special police forces. They were not cowed, but split into groups of 100-200 people who variously went on to storm almost all administrative buildings – the regional and city administration, the police and security service headquarters, and the prosecutor’s office. Many others roamed the streets, wielding rubber batons they had seized from the militia, and blocking traffic. They said they would unblock the traffic only when state television in Bishkek broadcast a report about events in the south.

The state was not listening. Asel Srazhidinova, from Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan, an applicant to the OSCE Academy in Bishkek wrote: “Some foreign mass media are exaggerating but government media is oversimplifying. The government is making every effort to block information about the protests.”

Sanjar Alimjanov, an Uzbek from a village in the Osh region, says that at this stage post-election anger fused with concerns about their poverty, harvest failures, the high cost of diesel and fertilisers, and the government’s lack of care for their plight. Many protestors came to focus on a single goal: the overthrow of Kyrgyzstan’s president, Askar Akayev, and his government.

Askar Akayev revealed his weakness by organising a pro-government demonstration meeting in Alatoo square, central Bishkek. Samara Turdalieva, from Jalalabad, says that its main goal was to declare to the world’s press that people in northern Kyrgyzstan support Akayev. Students and doctors were told that failure to attend would result in their being expelled or fired. Samara says: “There were lots of people just to show the mass. It is so artificial.” It was one of the regime’s final errors before it was toppled in a popular uprising that, moving from Osh and Jalalabad to Bishkek, involved only a few thousand active protestors.

In Osh and Jalalabad, people targeted government buildings, whereas in Bishkek they also looted large supermarkets and shopping centres (some of them owned by Akayev’s family and close associates). Demonstrators in both regions were clearly angry with extreme inequalities of wealth as well as with an authoritarian government.

Bishkek’s space

Kyrgyzstan under Askar Akayev had three features that made it the “easiest” central Asian state to make a revolution in.

First, Akayev – in contrast to Nursultan Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan, Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan, or Imomali Rakhmanov in Tajikistan – had not been part of the communist nomenklatura before the collapse of the Soviet Union. His support came only from his region; he did not have a thick institutional powerbase.

Second, Akayev allowed international governmental and non-governmental organisations to work in Kyrgyzstan. The Open Society Institute based its central Asian activities there, and Freedom House and the National Endowment for Democracy were also active.

Third, the regime he ruled since October 1990 – despite its election frauds and pressure on independent media – permitted a space of freedom for opposition political parties to organise and participate, thus creating the sense that a transfer of power was possible.

Mary Dejevsky’s sceptical report on the Kyrgyz events emphasises that this political context “may have made (Akayev’s) regime more vulnerable and help to explain why it was the first to fall.” What she neglects is the significance of supposedly defeated electoral candidates on the southern uprising, as well as in Talas in the northwest and Naryn in the east. These candidates incited the local population to demonstrate against the election’s illegitimacy, which became the catalyst of the Kyrgyz uprising.

Bakiev’s turn

If the election provoked the uprising, will post-election events undo it? After a brief period of “dual power”, a compromise recognised the legitimacy of the election results and confirmed the “new” parliament as Kyrgyzstan’s legislature. The leading figures of the post-Akayev regime all held high office under him: Kurmanbek Bakiyev, interim president (until elections in June), was his prime minister; Felix Kulov, Bakiev’s rival for the presidency, was security minister; Roza Otunbayeva was foreign minister. As fortune would have it, all returned to their earlier portfolios the day after the revolution.

These opposition leaders may share power for some time, at least until the June elections. It remains to be seen whether the cabinet can push through structural reforms to establish a grassroots democracy and protect the primacy of law.

Indeed, law has become the litmus test of the Kyrgyz revolution. The quick reversal of the supreme court decision that annulled the election results and affirmed the authority of the “old” parliament is evidence of this. Bakiyev, who had ridden the wave of public resentment over the elections, immediately accepted this, and thus endorsed the legitimacy of their results.

No democracy can function when such legal rotations occur. It is one thing for a politician to reflect changes in power and interest, but for the guardians of legality to rubber-stamp these changes without due procedure makes them look more like Soviet bodies rather than independent legal institutions. This does not bode well for a democratic Kyrgyzstan.

Central Asia’s fear

Kurmanbek Bakiyev has declared his unwillingness to open up for debate the issue of the Russian and American air bases on Kyrgyz soil; he later declared that Russia and Kyrgyzstan were brothers and close allies. For his part, the Russian president Vladimir Putin expressed willingness to work with the ex-opposition. This represents a sharp shift for Putin, who after the revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine hesitated before reconciling himself to the new governments.

The wider international community has taken far less interest in Kyrgyzstan than in Georgia or Ukraine. Georgia itself and Turkey offered mediation and conciliation, while the OSCE declared its intention to set up a legal team focusing on the issue of the constitution and the debacle over the recognition of the new parliament.

Many people in central Asia and elsewhere wonder if and how this regime change will impact on Kyrgyzstan’s autocratic neighbours. The governments of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan watch and fear. They will use all means at their disposal to ensure their political and personal survival.

The new Kyrgyz government is unlikely to change radically the country’s foreign policy orientation – including grudging acceptance of Chinese influence and strategic ties with Russia. The relationship with the United States may, however, become closer.

What exactly happened in Kyrgyzstan and what changed for Kyrgyz people in March 2005 still awaits a full accounting. But as the first example of a government being overthrown in central Asia, we conclude that the events deserve to be described as a revolutionary uprising that set an example for neighbouring peoples and governments.