The sudden ouster of President Askar Akayev's administration in Kyrgyzstan appeared to catch the Kremlin completely off-guard. Recovering from the initial shock, Russian officials are now striving to establish a solid working relationship with the provisional government in Bishkek.
Although Kyrgyzstan's provisional government has hinted that it wishes to steer the country in a more democratic direction, the new leadership does not appear to harbor hard feelings for Russia. Indeed, interim Kyrgyzstani President Kurmanbek Bakiyev voiced a desire to work with Moscow during a March 26 telephone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Putin seized on the political opening and ordered that foreign aid be made available to Kyrgyzstan. He also expressed Russia's readiness to assist the provisional government in promoting political stabilization measures in Kyrgyzstan. At the same time, Putin refrained from commenting on the Kyrgyzstani revolution. "Political developments are very dynamic there, and they are yet to finish. We will not comment on these developments yet. But bearing in mind our special relations with Kyrgyzstani people and humanitarian reasons, we will provide assistance as necessary," Putin said at a meeting with top cabinet ministers on March 28. It was reportedly agreed that Russia would provide fuel, seeds, and low-interest loans to Kyrgyz agricultural sector.
As it seeks to assist Kyrgyzstan's new leaders, Russia is playing host to the ousted Akayev, who is living in an undisclosed location outside Moscow. It remains to be seen whether this dichotomy develops into a source of tension in Russia's budding relationship with the Kyrgyzstani provisional government.
Akayev has shown that he is not willing to fade quietly into history. On March 29, in a live interview broadcast by Ekho Moskvy radio, he reiterated that he had not resigned, while leaving open the possibility of returning to Kyrgyzstan. Akayev went on to assail the provisional government as illegitimate, and said he would conduct political negotiations only with the speaker of the unicameral parliament Omurbek Tekebayev. In the wide-ranging interview, Akayev additionally warned that Islamic radicals were stirring up political turmoil, seeking to take advantage of the uncertain conditions to expand their support base.
Meanwhile, Russian leaders have begun to engage in spin control, seeking to recast Russia as a supporter, rather than a critic of change in Kyrgyzstan. "We are not surprised," Mikhail Margelov, head of the Russian Federation Council's International Affairs Committee, told reporters on March 29, referring to the sudden turn of events in Bishkek.
The Russian government "welcomes revolutions of any color in Kyrgyzstan, except a green [Islamic radical] one," Margelov said, adding that Russia intended to remain closely engaged with Kyrgyzstan and other Central Asian states.
In the days leading up to Akayev's downfall, Russian officials were bitterly critical of Kyrgyzstan's then-opposition leaders, characterizing the protest movement that took hold of southern Kyrgyzstan after the February 27 parliamentary election as a lawless rabble. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Many Russian officials believed the United States and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe helped incite the protesters to radical action through their criticism of the election. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Likewise, on the day of Akayev's ouster, March 24, Russian officials appeared far from pleased by the turn of events. For example, Armed Forces Chief of Staff Gen. Yuri Baluyevski portrayed the protesters in Bishkek as a "doped-up, riotous mob."
In general, Russian officials and analysts tend to have a drastically different opinion of the forces of work in Kyrgyzstan than their American counterparts. Whereas many experts in the United States view the revolution as an expression of the Kyrgyz people's desire for democracy, the Russian consensus is that events were driven by a nefarious "third force" comprised of mainly criminals and other parties interested in instability.
While the events in Kyrgyzstan have been dubbed by some in the United States the "Tulip Revolution" -- drawing a direct comparison to Georgia's Rose Revolution in 2003 and Ukraine's Orange Revolution in 2004 -- one Russian political observer, Gleb Pavlovsky, labeled Akayev's ouster the "cannabis" revolution, suggesting that drug traffickers were the instigators of the upheaval.
Most Russian pundits, prior to the March 24 events in Bishkek, said Kyrgyzstan's protest movement bore only a superficial resemblance to the revolutionary developments in both Georgia and Ukraine. In its substance, they added, Kyrgyzstan differed significantly from Georgia and Ukraine.
In the case of both Georgia and Ukraine, the opposition leaders who eventually rose to power Mikheil Saakashvili in Tbilisi and Viktor Yushchenko in Kyiv espoused political programs firmly rooted in liberal-democratic beliefs with the clear aim of integrating their countries into Western security and economic structures, Russian analysts say. Both the Rose and Orange revolutions also contained a "national-liberation element," which was "anti-Putin" in essence in that it sought to diminish, if not eliminate Russian influence over Georgia and Ukraine respectively, some analysts add. Leaders of the Kyrgyz provisional government, in contrast to Georgian and Ukrainian leaders, have been vague in discussion their guiding political philosophy. The revolution, at least to date, has also lacked an anti-Kremlin motivation.
As late as the morning of March 24, many Russian experts and officials seemed to think that the protester movement would have a difficult time ousting Akayev. They based this belief on the fact that the Tian Shan mountains literally cut the Kyrgyzstan in two. This bifurcated nature could allow the protest movement to hold sway in southern Kyrgyzstan, while leaving Akayev in control of the North. No Russian pundit or official anticipated that southerners could flood into the capital in sufficient numbers to topple Akayev's administration.
As events unfolded on March 24, Dmitri Rogozin, an arch-conservative Russian MP, lamented in an interview with Ekho Moskvy: "Right now, we are observers and our highest authorities, like any ordinary inhabitant of Russia, are watching everything that is happening in Bishkek on television, not having even the slightest possibility of influencing this."
Sergei Blagov is a Moscow-based specialist in CIS political affairs. Igor Torbakov is a freelance journalist and researcher who specializes in CIS political affairs. He holds an MA in History from Moscow State University and a PhD from the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. He was Research Scholar at the Institute of Russian History, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow; a Visiting Scholar at the Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington DC; a Fulbright Scholar at Columbia University, New York; and a Visiting Fellow at Harvard University. He is now based in Istanbul, Turkey.