Kyrgyzstan: fractured, but not broken

Kyrgyzstan’s government has fallen, its provisional rulers are untested, and there is as yet no sign of a lasting political settlement. Yet that does not mean it will automatically follow the example of neighbour Tajikistan and descend into civil war, writes John Heathershaw
John Heathershaw
12 April 2010

Five years on from the so-called “Tulip Revolution” of March 2005, the small Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan faces yet more political turmoil.  On 7 April, the government of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was ousted by a coup led by a number of opponents, including the former Foreign Minister Roza Otunbaeva. Bakiyev himself is no stranger to coups, having taken over after the violent removal of the country’s first President Askar Akayev (1991-2005).

Many aspects remain uncertain at the time of writing.  These include the coherence of the interim government, the extent and nature of the external support they received to gain power, how spontaneous or orchestrated the ousting was and whether Bakiyev will continue to fight for power from his home region of Jalal-Abad in the south of Kyrgyzstan. 

These permutations notwithstanding, there are clear questions over the viability of the Kyrgyz state amidst such unrest.  Unfortunate comparisons are made with the neighbouring republic of Tajikistan, which suffered a brutal civil war in the 1990s following unrest and riots in its capital Dushanbe.  In the West, meanwhile, Kyrgyzstan is invariably viewed in terms of its position as a hub for NATO supply routes and an object of geopolitical competition between the US, Russia and China. 

However, in order to understand Kyrgyzstan’s troubles we need to look at the particularities of its factional politics rather than seeing it as a mere object of the so-called “new great game”.  To do this we must take a longer view of the country’s post-Soviet political history and distinct trajectory towards popular outrage and inter-elite conflict.

Unlike Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan experienced little in the way of popular protest at the end of the Soviet Union.  Unlike Uzbekistan, its leadership did not establish a tightly controlled dictatorship with highly sedimented boundaries of inclusion and exclusion from the regime.  Kyrgyzstan suffered tremendous poverty in its early years of independence but the reformist Akayev, who came to power peacefully not long before the new state’s birth, remained unchallenged and pursued liberalization of the economy, society and - to a lesser extent - polity, which made it an apparent “island of democracy” in Central Asia.  

Throughout the 1990s, Kyrgyzstan enjoyed a burgeoning civil society and much more freedom of the press and association than in neighbouring states. More progress was made in this direction during the relative openness of the first eighteen months after the 2005 “Tulip Revolution”. There was a proliferation of political parties: by late 2006 there were well over 60 registered. 

However, this democratic reform was never more than partial.  Even the strongest of these parties were little more than networks of regional elites. Moreover, as time went on, Akaev began to exclude and imprison more business and political rivals and promote the business interests of his family.  The Akaev regime’s targeting of Azimbek Beknazarov, an outspoken MP from the South of the country, and the subsequent killing of five his supporters by the police in 2002, sparked the beginning of a period of political instability that continues to this day.

The same combination that characterised Akayev’s fall – a relatively open political environment and shift towards narrow family interests – played a central role in the events leading to Bakiyev’s ousting.  In late 2006, he had moved to face off the challenge of the a opposition against him, seizing more power from the parliament and for the presidential administration.  However, he did so in a political environment that since 2002 had become familiar with the power of protest and open conflict between elite factions.  His efforts to co-opt and control the conflicting factions were limited and ultimately unsuccessful.        

It is important to view these factions in terms of regime fracture rather via the ever-shifting categories of Government and Opposition.  All the leaders involved in the recent uprising were involved in March 2005.  All have been in government before and/or after the “Tulip Revolution”.  In other words, while the factionalism is undoubtedly significant, there are still extant - albeit diminishing - possibilities for compromise.  Encouragingly, it also suggests what we have is a case of governmental rather than state breakdown.

Indeed, Kyrgyz problems hardly mirror the diverse dynamics present during Tajikistan’s civil war of 1992-1995.  Tajikistan’s crisis of statehood took place as a crisis of decolonization itself, following its sudden and unexpected independence from the Soviet Union.  It involved extensive foreign military intervention from Russia and Uzbekistan. It was not focused in the capital, but also included an inter-regional conflict taking place within and between collective farms. And, for a while, there were real questions of the viability of the state in its current borders. 

Today, in Tajikistan, from where I make this dispatch, there are still loud warnings that Kyrgyzstan risks going down the same path to civil war. These are, however, largely self-referential warnings that overlook key differences in the respective conflicts. 

The comparison which should be made is not with regard to the prospects for war but to the opportunities for conflict resolution.  Such opportunities were lost in Tajikistan in the tumult of events over 1990-1992, but can still be seized by cool heads in Kyrgyzstan today.  Kyrgyzstan is not yet at the point of state breakdown. 

John Heathershaw is a lecturer in International Relations at the University of Exeter

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