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Kyrgyzstan questions

Mary Dejevsky
29 March 2005

The world’s press has been filled in the past week with news about a “tulip” or “daffodil” revolution in plucky little Kyrgyzstan and the universal – and inevitable – appeal of democracy. Only a few days since the events of 24 March in the central Asian country’s capital city, Bishkek, it all looks much more complicated. In fact, it was much more complicated all along.

What we know is this. Kyrgyzstan held parliamentary elections on schedule in February-March 2005. OSCE observers reported widespread violations. Street protests began, not in the capital, Bishkek, but in the southern city of Osh, which has seen inter-ethnic violence at least twice in the recent past: in 1990, when Soviet authority was waning, and again in 2002.

By 23 March, the protests spread to Bishkek. They seemed to be more about economic hardship and the mismanagement and nepotism of the president, Askar Akayev, than about rigged elections. Police and internal security reinforcements used horses and sticks to try to control the crowds, but not armed force. On 24 March, the security forces fell back and the protestors ransacked the parliament building and invaded the presidential compound. The president had already fled, reportedly by helicopter, to neighbouring Kazakhstan and thence to Russia. There was widespread looting overnight and at least three people were killed.

On 26 March, apparently from Russia, Akayev issued a defiant statement – by email – insisting that he had been illegally deposed in an anti-constitutional coup and would return. In Bishkek, among several opposition leaders repressed by Akayev, Kurmanbek Bakiyev was named – or named himself – acting prime minister, then acting president as well. He also set a date for presidential elections – 26 June. Felix Kulov, a former security minister imprisoned by Akayev’s regime and said to have been freed from prison by the protestors, was named – or named himself – head of security. These appointments were supposedly validated by the outgoing parliament, whose mandate did not expire until 14 April. Kyrgyzstan’s supreme court approved that parliament’s authority.

Over the weekend of 26-27 March, members of the newly-elected parliament suddenly appeared on the scene, claiming that they should be running the show. Law and order still had not been fully restored. After a tense 48 hours, the old parliament ceded to the new one – notwithstanding the fact that it was the dubious manner of the new parliament’s election that had apparently triggered the protests and the overthrow of the president. The new parliament confirmed Bakiyev and Kulov in their jobs. This is roughly where we are now.

It is now just possible that the country can stagger on until the planned presidential election in June. With the new parliament already sitting and taking decisions, it is not clear whether there will be new parliamentary elections as well.

At best, what we now have is a parliament which is the product of elections designed to keep the old, Akayev, regime in power, and a self-appointed executive from an opposition whose only significant point of agreement was the need to get rid of Akayev. This is not a recipe for long-term stability. Nor, by any stretch of the imagination, can it be defined as democratic.

There was a great deal of wishful thinking in the early days of this “revolution” which precluded sober analysis of the facts. Much western opinion insisted that Kyrgyzstan was the next post-Soviet “domino” to fall peacefully to democracy, after Georgia and Ukraine. And we had been well prepared for just such an eventuality. I received emails from opposition activists anticipating not just the rigging of the elections, but “rose-” and “orange-” style protests well before the elections were even held.

There are four questions that need answers:

  • were the Bishkek protests spontaneous or orchestrated; if the latter, by whom and on what advice? You may have noticed, as I did, the “uniform” pastel T-shirts and bandannas that were being distributed to the Bishkek protestors
  • were the protests primarily about the elections or about Kyrgyzstan’s economic malaise and a sense that the country had stagnated compared to its neighbours?
  • was the looting, as widely reported, directed only against commercial establishments thought to be somehow connected to the Akayev family (it seemed to be much more widespread – and uncontrolled)?
  • was this a mass, or “people’s” uprising, or was it fomented by individual opposition leaders for the single purpose of ousting Akayev and seizing power?

To these questions, four more general observations can be added:

First, until Akayev’s removal all the central Asian republics still had the same leaders they had in the last years of Soviet power. None was by any standards a democrat; but Akayev – a Russian-educated nuclear physicist who had travelled in the west – was probably the least repressive of them all. This may have made his regime more vulnerable and help to explain why it was the first to fall.

I interviewed Akayev in 1991, quite soon after he came to power. Then, he was ambitious for Kyrgyzstan, intent on modernising what was, and is, a backward state, keen on education but well aware of how long it could take Kyrgyzstan to join the developed world. He did not come across as a power-hungry autocrat and he had some conception of how democracies worked. An unconfirmed report last week said that he had been offered the support of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) - effectively Russia – to stay in power, and had declined.

Second, much has happened since the central Asian leaders came to power more than fifteen years ago. The changes include the spread of communications and the decline of Russian influence. Two contradictory trends are apparent. On the one hand, very many people, even in quite remote areas, watch television and see other worlds: foreign soap operas that display the fabulous living standards elsewhere and news broadcasts showing events in Georgia and Ukraine. Mobile phones are widely used.

On the other hand, my strong impression is that these states are being reabsorbed, culturally, into central Asia in a way that is often not appreciated in the west. Russian is still the lingua franca, but Russians and Russian education are far less in evidence. This has implications, among other things, for the position of women. How many female protestors were to be seen on the streets of Bishkek?

Third, I was among the few spoilsports to voice misgivings about the “revolutions” in Georgia and Ukraine, but especially in Georgia. The ecstatic western consensus at the time was that the enforced change of power in Georgia in November-December 2003 was an unalloyed good thing. But it was not, as many seemed to believe, the rejection of Soviet power. That had happened, amid some violence, back in 1991-2. It was the removal, by force of numbers, of the elected president.

A better answer to rigged parliamentary elections would have been to press for them to be re-run under international supervision. Presidential elections were due shortly afterwards and could then have led to an orderly change of power. The truth is that Mikhail Saakashvili seized power on the streets and subsequently legitimised his position by elections. But would this route to office have been quite so acceptable had he not spoken good English and held pro-western views?

Ukrainians managed their “orange revolution” in November-December 2004 more convincingly. The protests remained impressively peaceful and disciplined. There was an appeal to the Supreme Court and a re-run of the second round of the election. What has happened in Kyrgyzstan to date is almost a parody of this: there are the same elements: courts, parliaments, opposition, but all in the wrong order.

Fourth, President Putin learns from his mistakes. Russia, like the United States, was clearly taken aback by the speed of Akayev’s fall, and this is one explanation for Putin’s comparative reticence. Another, however, is that Putin now understands not only the limits on Russia’s power, but the wisdom of holding back on the rhetoric and working behind the scenes. Whether Russia and the United States will behave with similar cooperative restraint if Kyrgyzstan really runs out of control is another matter.

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