Breaking point: why the Kyrgyz lost their patience

Kyrgyzstan is suffering from a crisis of governance, reports Madeleine Reeves. But an analysis of the problems that limits itself to “state failure” is missing the point. What brought the Kyrgyz on to the streets was inequality and economic misery, muffled for years by the New Great Game.
Madeleine Reeves
19 April 2010

Kyrgyzstan is still reeling from the bloodiest week since independence.  On Wednesday, 84 people were killed and hundreds injured when troops opened fire on an opposition rally in front of the government building, or White House, in the capital, Bishkek.  This was the violence of a government in fear of its people; of a state that was, despite the brutal display of force, chronically weak, and of a president who no longer knew or cared whether live rounds got mixed in with rubber bullets.  The violence in Bishkek was chaotic and indiscriminate.  It was also profoundly miscalculated.  Rather than containing a crowd whose leaders had been arrested the previous night and whose actions had turned violent, it provoked and dispersed it, leading to attacks on government buildings and ministries throughout the city centre and to the arming of a previously unarmed crowd. 

Makeshift memorials appeared outside the Bishkek White House, the site of the April 7th violence. Photo Madeleine Reeves

Makeshift memorial outside the Bishkek White House, scene of April 7th shootings. Photo Madeleine Reeves

In a bloody re-run of the “Tulip Revolution” from five years earlier, state power imploded with remarkable speed.    Not only were international media outlets caught by surprise – the footage that made it onto news bulletins from Tuesday’s seizure of the regional administration building in Talas and Wednesday’s carnage in Bishkek came overwhelmingly from mobile phones and amateur reportage – so were Bishkek dwellers, many of whom had little time for either President Kurmanbek Bakiev or the opposition and their “dirty politics”.  On Wednesday morning, city folk had gone to work, school and university aware of a political crisis in far-away Talas, on the border with Kazakhstan.  Few had thought that by lunch-time they would be joining the streams of people heading away from the centre to the city’s residential districts, fleeing an afternoon of political violence and a night of looting which stripped many of the city’s shops and markets to the light-bulbs.

The speed with which events escalated is telling, certainly: of the fragility of the state in Kyrgyzstan – a state which New York Times Op Ed pieces and Russian political commentators alike have both been quick to describe as “failed” – and of the depth of grievances which brought people out to demonstrate despite ominous warnings the night before that “all available force” would be used to disrupt unsanctioned gatherings.  Yet the speed with which  government fractured at a moment of crisis; the lack of symbols, banners and flags in contrast to the “tulip revolution” of 2005; and the fact that there is still disagreement over how this bloody uprising should be named should not lead us to assume that the events of last week came from nowhere.   Nor should the images of angry young men and marauding gangs that have dominated television accounts of events lead us to assume that there was not, also, a considerable degree of quiet coordination prior to Wednesday’s events.   

The limits of patience

The roots of Kyrgyzstan’s 2010 “revolution” go back to 2005, when Kurmanbek Bakiev came to power promising to end the “clan politics” that had characterized the last years of rule of Askar Akaev.  I remember at the time, shortly after a hasty presidential election legitimized the March seizure of power, sharing a ride across the mountain range that separates the north and south of the country with a middle-aged man who quipped that he feared only more of the same form Bakiev.  “At least Akaev could be satisfied when his wife and children were full.  Bakiev has six brothers, after all, and you think they’ll stay quiet if they don’t get a nice position?”  My interlocutor, sadly, was right.   Bakiev’s brothers and two sons are well known in the country, and within a year of the “tulip revolution” the country’s opposition parties were campaigning against the excesses of the Bakiev “family rule”.  By April 2010, the president’s brother, Janysh, headed the National Security Service and elder son, Marat, was the head of one of its internal departments.   The president’s second son, Maxim, reputedly the richest man in Kyrgyzstan, was responsible for a lucrative state committee overseeing foreign investment.  Another brother, Marat, was Kyrgyzstan’s Ambassador to Norway and Germany, and yet another Bakiev brother was Trade Representative to China, the country with which Kyrgyzstan has the most lucrative and sizeable deals.

This kind of “family rule” is not unique to Kyrgyzstan of course.  The size of the population, however, together with the dense social ties that link city and village, and the speed with which word spreads makes such nepotism harder to conceal than in the region’s geographically larger and more populous neighbours.  As one Bishkek resident put it after last week’s events, contrasting Kyrgyzstan’s form of family rule to those of other Central Asian states: “they can crush the mass media all they like here, but here everything is written on the palm of the hand.  Everyone knows where [the elite] build their houses; everyone knows that they’ve been looting the country”. On Wednesday night and into Thursday, as Maxim Bakiev’s home in central Bishkek was looted and burned to a blackened shell, the sense of “rough justice” was palpable.  Men carrying away booty told awaiting news reporters that this was the just deserts for years of stealing from the people.  The angry graffiti that emerged on Wednesday night across central Bishkek told the same story, in often violent and graphic language. So, in more measured tones, did the public figures who appeared in an improvised live broadcast on national television on Wednesday evening, and the bards whose poetry accompanied the public funeral for the uprising’s dead three days later.

The anger that brought people to the streets was borne of inequality.  The gulf that has emerged between the small group of politically-connected “haves” in Bishkek and the masses of “have nots”, many of whom are recent arrivals to the city’s sprawling migrant districts (novostroiki) has reached colossal proportions in recent years, and it greets the urban dweller at every turn.  But it is poverty, in an absolute sense, as much as inequality that brought people out to demonstrate.  In the last few months, inflation in the cost of basic goods and services; a steep rise in the price of telecommunications, and an overnight doubling in the rate of electricity earlier this year (the latter widely rumoured as facilitating the quick-and-fast privatization of the electricity sector which followed suspiciously soon after) has pushed many families who were struggling to stay above the poverty line back down below it.  For many households the choice this winter has been a simple and stark one of cutting down on heating or cutting down on food.  At the same time, the single primary source of income for many rural and peri-urban families – the remittances sent by family members working in the Russian construction sector – has declined dramatically this year.  Many of those who travelled to Russia in search of work in 2008 or 2009 are “working on empty”. My research in the south of the country earlier this year suggests that many families who would ordinarily expect to receive money from family members in Russia once every one or two months have been waiting, without transfers, for a year or more as the financial crisis stopped Russia’s mid-2000s building boom in its tracks.


Ak-Jar, at the northern end of Bishkek, is typical of the many migrant districts around Bishkek.  Created on land seized after the 2005 "Tulip Revolution", the settlement still lacks many basic services, including electricity and water (which is brought in by taxi). Photo Madeleine Reeves

Sinking freedoms

This economic squeeze has been coupled with a shocking – and shockingly fast – decline in the state of basic civic freedoms.  In December last year, Freedom House reduced its assessment of Kyrgyzstan in its annual world rankings from “partly free” to “unfree”.  This category shift passed with little attention in the international media (and, unsurprisingly given the pressure present on the Kyrgyzstani press, with barely a mention at home).  But it is a shift which is at once symbolically important and a mark of the extent to which basic freedoms had declined over the preceding few years.  For one thing it puts this one-time “island of democracy” into the same category as its spectacularly authoritarian neighbours, reminding conclusively that the “island” had long since been washed away. 

For another, the shift seemed to barely ruffle an international community whose “strategic partnerships” – military in the case of the US and Russia; economic in the case of China and Canada –meant that human rights often received lip-service at best.  It is a decline of freedom reflected in the jailing and silencing of opposition figures; in the mysterious deaths of several key politicians who left the Bakiev government, and in the fleeing of many others to refuge abroad.  It is reflected in new pressures on civil society organizations and in the actions of an increasingly intrusive and well-funded security service, the successor to the KGB.  Perhaps most starkly, for ordinary people, it is reflected in the transformation of parliament into the plaything of the president; in constitutional amendments that limit the representation of minority voices in parliament, and in the undermining of meaningful electoral democracy through ballot-stuffing and the monopolization of airwaves.

These changes have made a mockery of “free and fair” elections. In 2005, Bakiev took 88.9% of the vote in a hastily conducted post-revolutionary vote.  Four years later, in an election condemned by the OSCE for “failing to meet key OSCE commitments”, he was reelected as President with over three-quarters of the ballots. His key opponent, former Prime Minister Almaz Atambaev, had earlier pulled out of the race, declaring it flawed.  Bakiev’s election posters, which dominated billboards in the run-up to this election, featured a variety of smiling Kyrgyzstanis, young and old, Kyrgyz and Russian, next to slogan “Bakiev - of course”.   The rhetorical “of course” that was meant to rally support and confidence more accurately captured the pervasive mood of inevitability about the outcome of the election.  Few people in 2009 anticipated any kind of meaningful electoral contest.  Fewer still thought that anyone other than Bakiev might win.   This was a vote in the grand tradition of Central Asian elections: performative, undemocratic, predictable, and concealing a great deal of structural instability behind a surface of national “consensus”. 

Flawed elections alone would not be enough to send a critical mass of people onto the street.  They are hardly a novelty to Kyrgyzstan, after all.  But the squeezing of electoral freedoms has been coupled with a dramatic decline in opportunities for the sanctioned expression of disagreement or discontent.  For a population much more used to speaking its mind and accessing alternative viewpoints than in other countries of Central Asia, this shift has been felt acutely, in rural areas as much as the city. It has also stifled a once-vibrant independent press.  In the years since the tulip revolution, the number of attacks on journalists has increased dramatically.   Many have abandoned addressing “political” themes.  One close journalist friend turned to making a living from Kyrgyz-Russian translation over the last year because honest reporting became too risky.   Self-censorship, in selection of themes and style of reporting, became the norm and newspapers once characterized for their investigative journalism became filled with celebrity-portraits and puzzle-pages. 


Skeleton of the home of Maxim Bakiev, looted and burned on the night of April 7th. Photo Madeleine Reeves

The steady decline in press freedoms since 2006 reached a glaring crescendo in the last year.   In December 2009, shortly before he was due to open an internet portal in support of the Kygyzstani opposition, the respected Bishkek journalist Gennady Pavliuk was thrown from the sixth-floor window of an apartment block in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s business and cultural capital.  The pressure also extended to political commentators and academic researchers, most prominent of whom was Alexander Kniazev. A political analyst who had written critically of the 2005 “revolution”, Kniazev was brutally attacked days before he was due to meet ousted president Akaev in Moscow.   In the two weeks prior to the April uprising, Kyrgyzstani citizens found internet sites blocked, independent radio stations taken off the air, and the parliament debating a law that would allow the security services more easily to tap mobile telephones.  On April 1st, one of the most respected internet-based broadcasters, Stan.TV was subject to a raid on its offices, ostensibly for using unlicensed software. Although, as the TV station’s director noted, the financial police themselves used the same pirated software on their office computers, the station was off the air and officially closed down by the following Tuesday.  The following morning the station’s reporters found that their mobile phones had been blocked and that they were unable to make or receive calls. 

“Harmonious” gatherings and the sapping of politics 

It is in this context of dramatically deteriorating rights and declining patience that two significant events occurred in the run-up to the April events.  The first was the holding of a national “Congress of Harmony” (Yntymak kurultai) on the anniversary of the 2005 revolution, intended to “consolidate” a fractious population angry at crushing utility increases.  In his keynote speech, Bakiev critiqued “imported” concepts of human rights and advocated the need for what he called “consultative democracy” (kengeshme demokratiia in Kyrgyz; soveshchatel’naia demokratiia in Russian) as better suited to Kyrgyz nomadic traditions.  “Today across the world”, he declared to the carefully selected hall of delegates, “the failures of accepted models of democracy, based primarily on elections and human rights, are being actively debated.  It is far from clear that such models are appropriate for all countries and all people”.   Bakiev was, indeed, by this stage extremely scared of anything smacking of real, democratic contention, and the Congress was “harmonious” in the most problematic sense of the term. The selection of delegates, the average age of whom was far from representative of Kyrgyzstan’s young population, the stream of presentations and appeals which left little room for debate, and the stress upon the dangers of “division” served to stifle any substantive discussion over the country’s political course. 

The “Congress of Harmony” served to reproduce in miniature the very problems of political exclusion that could be found at national level.  By condemning the opposition as unconstructive, preoccupied, as he put it, with “one-sided criticism and sweeping attacks”, Bakiev effectively placed his opponents outside legitimate politics.  This not only served to consolidate the opposition – leading to an alternative “people’s” Kurultai days before its state-sponsored alter; it also served to provide a focus for critique, shifting the opposition’s language from one of appeals to one of ultimatums.  More fundamentally, the Congress served to undermine “politics” in any meaningful sense of the word: politics as a zone of contention and debate; as a field of agonism between government and opposition.  

Bakiev’s national Kurultai passed off harmoniously enough.  But it also served to demonstrate, quite publically, and at a time of considerable economic pressure and political grievance, just how much real debate had been sapped in favour of appeals to thriftiness, harmony and hard work.   The congress was, in this sense, a coup for the opposition.  Coinciding as it did with price hikes, public holidays and the jailing of a popular and much-respected former Defense Minister, the March congress served to mobilise and crystallise grievances whilst also crucially, providing a form (the kurultai as an indigenous institution) and a language (“consulting with the people”) that the opposition could productively appropriate for its own ends.   It is indicative that when the opposition put forward its list of 7 demands to the government, with a deadline of April 7th, it also stressed that it would work to “mobilise the people” precisely by holding local-level kurultais in district and oblast’ centres. 

“Black PR"

The second crucial event – which coincided with the very period that the opposition had given for its ultimatum – concerned the behaviour of the Russian mass media (and thus, one can assume, of a decisive shift in mood of the Russian government).   In the second half of March there began a quite concerted period of negative reporting on Kyrgyzstan in the Russian mass media, both on television and in print.  Since much of Kyrgyzstan (including in areas well beyond predominantly Russophone Bishkek) tune in to Russian state TV stations for their news, the “Vesti affair” as the wave of negative reporting came to be known, was at once a source of shock and of curiosity, not least because much of the most vociferous critique concerned none other than the President’s son, Maxim, and his shady financial dealings.  As one local media report noted at the time, the affair was all the more curious because the normally un-doctored Vesti bulletin, retransmitted from Russian national television through Kyrgyz channels for domestic consumption, suddenly seemed to “get cut off as soon as conversation turned to our republic”, fostering rumours that behind this “black PR” lay a worsening political conflict.   When, on April 1st, and in the midst of the spring planting season, Russia suddenly announced a 100% customs duty on the import of fuel products to Kyrgyzstan, rumours began to give way to a real sense of fear about the consequences of a souring of relations with the country on which so many Kyrgyzstanis rely for their livelihood.

Social networks and mobilisation

None of these events should be read as “causing” the April uprising in any direct sense.  But they provided a context in which everyday material concerns – with finding employment, buying fuel, working the land, getting to Russia, making phone calls, feeding one’s children – translated into political issues and came to be read as indicative of a more fundamental crisis of state.    For these demands to turn into political action, however, we need to turn to the role of social networks, which mobilised at a speed that caught government and opposition alike by surprise.   In the 2005 coup, the crowds of young men who took to the streets and stormed the White House were predominantly from the country’s south.  Many had been bussed to the capital by prominent local politicians and patrons.  There was a significant degree of top-down “management” of the crowd, and from the start of the demonstration, opposition politicians were present and visible – with megaphones, banners, flags and the yellow tulips that came to symbolise hopes for progressive change. 

On April 7th this year, by contrast, the morning rally at the Eastern end of town in front of the opposition Social Democratic Party headquarters swelled in large part due to word of mouth and informal social networks.   Many  of the young men who came out onto the square were from Bishkek’s migrant distracts and near-lying villages, arriving by public transport, responding to the phone calls of friends already making their way to the centre of town.   If in 2005 mobile phones were the privilege of Kyrgyzstan’s emergent middle class and network coverage extended little beyond the country’s cities and resort district, by 2010, a mobile phone could be found in pretty much every household, rural and urban alike.  Throughout Wednesday morning, the crowd grew exponentially thanks to exchange of information and individual appeals, as young men urged their friends, school-mates, brothers and cousins to come and join them on the square.  

Crucially, moreover, phone communication meant that a last-ditched attempt to control the airwaves and limit access to information backfired.  As Bishkek burned in the early afternoon of Wednesday, Kyrgyz National Television showed a replay of the previous night’s press conference and an emergency parliamentary session held several hours earlier, before switching to children’s cartoons and bucolic shots of apricot orchards in blossom.  This tried-and-tested strategy might have worked in the past to keep the majority of the population in the dark about events in the capital, but this time, it served, if anything, to fire rumours that something serious was afoot.  As the national television building was seized early in the afternoon, and the orchard scenes cut dramatically to a hastily assembled live broadcast from opposition supporters, viewers nationwide witnessed the take-over of the state played out live on national television.   


"Kyrgyzstan has no place for dirty Jews and the likes of Maxim [Bakiev]".  The banner, which appeared in front of the White House early on April 8th, was quickly removed after complaints from Israel. Photo Madeleine Reeves

Breaking points and the risks of “business as usual”

What, then, are the lessons of these events for our understanding of Kyrgyzstan’s crisis? The first is perhaps that we should be wary of over-stating the similarities between last week’s seizure of power and the “tulip revolution” of 2005.   Many of the popular grievances that drove people onto the street are similar.  But the social dynamics and the preceding political crisis were also instructively difficult – and so, crucially, was the role of violence on both sides of the barricades.  What has remained consistent, despite the considerable concentration of resources into the so-called “force structures” (silovye struktury) is a governmental structure in Kyrgyzstan that is chronically weak and which, by 2010, had become catastrophically ill-equipped to hear and address popular grievances.  The result was a veneer of “harmony”, played out in elections and stage-managed kurultais, which concealed a deepening political and economic crisis.

This brings us, then, to the second lesson to be taken from events, concerning the failures of an approach based on “business as usual” in the face of mounting political discontent.  Too many western powers have allowed business interests to trump concern with declining human rights and to muffle critique of the Bakiev regime, most egregiously so in the case of the US.  The grey US military planes lined up on the tarmac in Bishkek’s international airport, Manas, which play a key role in supplying the Afghan campaign, have come, for many ordinary Kyrgyzstanis, to symbolise great power heavy-handedness when it comes to relations with Kyrgyzstan and a colossal missed opportunity for real infrastructural investment.   Few citizens have seen any benefits from the rental agreements paid for hosting the US base (tripled last year to $60 million), or from the lucrative sales of jet fuel, which have been shrouded in secrecy.  When I asked one man from a village 3 kilometres from the base what benefits, if any, he had seen from its presence, he thought for a while, before replying that he had managed to acquire an exercise bike that had been dumped, for want of a few missing screws, in one of the base’s refuse bins.  “Rich pickings from the refuse” effectively captures, for many Bishkek residents, the limits of the base’s benefits for those living in its shadow.

This in turn has implications for how we theorise the crisis and its origins. In 2010, as five years earlier, commentators have been quick to talk of “state failure” as the reason why things unravel so quickly in Kyrgyzstan in times of crisis: Kyrgyzstan as a state that “dazzles by its absence” as one commentator put it after the 2005 overthrow of Akaev.  There has been a crisis of governance in Kyrgyzstan, certainly.  But an analysis focused on state failure conceals the extent to which what has occurred is also the product of a glaring social and economic crisis – part of the “long-range” fall-out from the global financial crisis that has pushed many families to the brink.  Moreover, a focus on internal state “failure” ignores the degree to which Kyrgyzstan, like other small, poor countries that suddenly find themselves hailed as strategic partners in a dubious “war on terror”, has also been consistently failed byrealpolitik as much as a failure of state.  As politicians and diplomats hurry to negotiate new partnerships with Kyrgyzstan’s interim government, they would do well to heed the lessons of this failure, and to enquire how their “strategic partnerships” either exacerbate or address the inequalities that brought people onto the street in their thousands last week.  the international community.  The Obama administration, like its predecessor, has been too willing to take surface quiescence in Kyrgyzstan as an index of “stability”, whilst failing to ask how its base deals have propped up a deeply authoritarian government.  In this sense, last week’s crisis should be read as a failure of realpolitik  as much as a failure of state.  As politicians and diplomats hurry to negotiate new partnerships with Kyrgyzstan’s interim government, they would do well to heed the lessons of this failure, and to enquire how their “strategic partnerships” either exacerbate or address the inequalities that brought people onto the street in their thousands last week.  

Madeleine Reeves is a fellow of the ESRC Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change at the University of Manchester

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