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The Kyrgyz catastrophe

Bishkek’s bloody regime-change reflects the aborted hopes of the brief political flowering in 2005. But a key question of external agency remains, says Sureyya Yigit.
Sureyya Yigit
15 April 2010

The last time the Kyrgyz people experienced a peaceful, election-based change of power, Bishkek was called Frunze and the country was part of the Soviet Union. Post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan has never experienced a non-violent political transition, but it has now witnessed two public uprisings within five years. The target in March 2005 was Askar Akayev, and in April 2010 it is the man who emerged victor from that earlier turbulent moment, Kurmanbek Bakiyev.

Why has history repeated itself? Why has Bakiyev lost power - and his flight to Kazakhstan on 15 April 2010 suggests that it is permanent - in the same manner as he obtained it?

The first draft of an answer was provided on 7 April 2010 itself, when protests that had erupted in the northern city of Talas the day before spread to Bishkek and led to mass confrontations in which seventy-six people were killed. The source was the OSCE chairperson-in-office, Kazakhstan's state secretary and foreign minister Kanat Saudabayev, who said: "The OSCE recognises that there are political, economic and social issues underlying the unrest."

The political issue

Kyrgyzstan’s constitution remained a key reference-point in the political struggle after the 2005 revolution. Bakiyev finally resolved the issue in October 2007 when the electorate approved his amendments and rewarded his political party two months later with seventy-one of the ninety seats in parliament. Now both president and leader of a party which had an overwhelming majority, he began preparing to entrench his rule in the next presidential election in July 2009; his abuse of the power of head of state - and a healthy $150-million grant from Russia - was enough to guarantee victory.

Soon after his re-election, Bakiyev made wide-ranging changes to his administration: Daniyar Usenov was appointed prime minister in October 2009, and Bakiyev’s son Maxim became head of the Kyrgyz agency in charge of privatisation and economic programmes. The state secretary, vice-premier, culture minister and security-council secretary were all sacked; so too were presidential advisers, one of whom - Muratbek Imanaliyev - had the consolation in December 2009 of becoming secretary-general of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).

The president remained cocooned by his family and regional power-base in southern Kyrgyzstan: his brother Janysh was the effective voice concerning domestic politics as head of the presidential-protection service, while the defence and interior ministers each came from the southern city of Jalal-Abad (from where Bakiyev departed for Kazakhstan on 15 April).

The opposition had been effectively marginalised since the 2007 parliamentary election and had no chance of competing in a fair presidential election two years later. The power of the regime seemed secure; in this sense the uprising of 7 April 2010 was politically unexpected. But the painful five years since the brief moment of hope in 2005 had sharpened people’s pain and bitterness. 

The social-economic issue

Kyrgyzstan was a poor country in 2005 and remained so in 2010. It owed its sustenance largely to remittances, primarily sent from Russia, which amounted to 20% of national GDP.

What has been distinctive in 2010 is that the year began with a series of unpleasant surprises in the form a fourfold increase in heating-bills; electricity going up by 170%; and the price of hot water doubling. The same day a 60 tyiyn (1.3 US cent) surcharge was introduced on all mobile-phone calls, which in three months generated $200 million(reportedly pocketed by Maxim Bakiyev).

Then in February 2010, the Russian embassy in Kyrgyzstan revealed that a tranche of aid previously promised would not be released due to corruption at the very highest levels. A Kurultai (congress) was held on 23-24 March 2010 in Bishkek which gave support to the president. The Kurultai’s announcements and the proclamation of a healthy national picture left the Kyrgyz indifferent, but what was noticeable was the high level of criticism voiced in the Russian press - which for example targeted Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s son Maxim, referring to him as the “heir-apparent”. Kyrgyzstan’s information dependency on the Russian media made this a conspicuous development in Bishkek. The Russian government followed up with a very serious April-fool’s joke: levying higher customs duties on petrol, which meant price rises of up to by 30%.

Kyrgyzstan has no natural resources to speak of, apart from potential hydroelectricity exports. It depends on Russian aid. When this aid was halted and further costs imposed, it meant that the economy could not sustain itself. The increased utility-bills were already creating huge discontent and could not be raised again. Together with the incessant frustration of bribery, this increased the electorate’s deep disenchantment with the president; especially so with his son Maxim now being closely involved in all economic decisions.

The military issue

Kurmanbek Bakiyev followed his re-election in July 2009 by forging an agreement with his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev over the establishment of a new Russian military base in the south of the country, which would operate under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO).

In March 2010, consistent with the invented (and lucrative) Kyrgyz tradition of balancing the foreign patronage of military bases on its territory, it was announced that the United States was to build an anti-terror training-centre in the southern Kyrgyz province of Batken. This development was not at all welcomed in Moscow; the sound of the the knives being sharpened reached all the way to Bishkek.

The descending fog

The implication of this brief portrait is that the events of 7 April 2010 - “bloody Wednesday” - took place as the result of a combination of factors. Perhaps the most important and visible was corruption: in varying forms of bribery, nepotism, and giveaway privatisations which sickened the populace. The discontent was widespread, especially in the north of the country which viewed the south as benefiting from the president’s favouritism and personalised rule.

The urban poor were hit especially hard by the exorbitantly high utility-bills; and the orchestrated displays of national support for the president intensified their anger as well as making a mockery of genuine national sentiment. Although many Kyrgyz citizens are opposed to the lease to the United States of the Manas military transit-centre (formerly air-base), this did not play a major part in the domestic discontent.

It is a truism that just as fog descends in times of war, so too does it in the immediate aftermath of revolutions. This makes definitive explanations all the more difficult to reach. But two events - the hasty visit to Moscow of the deputy leader of the interim government, Almazbek Atambayev, and the Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin’s speech in Smolensk which compared President Bakiyev’s familial corruption to Askar Akayev’s - encourage many to think that Russia may have played a part in Bakiyev’s downfall.

In time, when Bakiyev settles down in exile (whether in Kazakhstan or not), more light will certainly be shed on this point. At present it remains conjecture, which in extreme versions can verge on paranoia. Though it is well known that even a paranoiac is sometimes actually pursued.

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