Some observers are drawing strong parallels with the current instability in Kyrgyzstan and the "Tulip Revolution" of March 2005. While there are definitely some similarities, there are also some substantial differences. Similar to the Tulip Revolution, the current round of protests stems from the increased authoritarianism of the incumbent regime and regional exclusion. As was the case with the regime of former President Askar Akaev, the rule of his successor, Kurmanbek Bakiev, has sidelined important elites and their constituents. Growing corruption, nepotism, and consolidation of economic and political power in the hands of a small circle of people alienated not only powerful elites but also broader segments of Kyrgyz society. Similar to the Tulip Revolution, what we see now is the pervasive weakness of the state's security apparatus to restore order and restrain protesters. We see reports of police officers being beaten or changing sides. We also see reports that suggest that dual-power scenarios are emerging in some parts of the country, where crowds of protesters are appointing governors and regional administrators. One difference between the 7 April protests and the Tulip Revolution is the level of violence. This week's events were the bloodiest in Kyrgyz history. In confronting protesters, the police relied on live bullets while protesters used stones and Molotov cocktails. Official reports put the number of people killed at more than 60 and those wounded at more than 500.
Another difference was of regional character. While the Tulip Revolution was sparked by protests and government building seizures in the southern regions (Jalal-Abad, Osh), this time the protests erupted mainly in the poor and remote northern regions such as Talas and Naryn, where residents have long complained of exclusion.
There are other remarkable differences between the current protests and those of five years ago.
Triggers for the protests differed. Unlike the Tulip Revolution, when the spark for mass mobilization was the Akaev regime's efforts to block a number of wealthy opposition elites from gaining seats in parliament, the current protests were triggered by simmering anger at the grassroots level.
In particular, three factors served to turn mass dissatisfaction into protests. They were the arrest of several opposition leaders by the Bakiev regime in relation to mass disorder in the town of Talas, where protesters occupied a government building; a steep hike in utility prices, which hit the population in the remote northern regions the hardest; the exclusion of a number of important northern elites in the Kurultai, or informal gathering of all Kyrgyz, by the Bakiev administration in March; and economic sanctions by Moscow such as the introduction of higher prices for gasoline. That move was seen as Moscow's way of punishing the government for reneging on a 2009 agreement under which Kyrgyzstan would receive close to $2 billion in loans and aid in exchange for evicting U.S. forces from the air base in Manas. Bakiev got some of the Russian money, but then extended the lease for the base under a different status. The Russians were livid. As a result, the Russian media offered negative coverage of the Bakiev regime, a contributing factor to his sagging reputation.
Yet another notable difference between April 2010 and March 2005 were the "engines" behind the change. During the March 2005 protests, demonstrations were organized by wealthy elites who felt that their bids to gain seats in the parliament were threatened by the incumbent Akaev regime. Such elites then mobilized their supporters in their towns and villages, relying on local networks and offers of cash. The protests we saw on 7 April were sporadic and chaotic. In many ways, they appeared to be more an uncoordinated grass-roots revolt by a disenchanted population than an elite-driven and planned campaign. As a result, the speed with which the protests erupted and spread was surprising, not only to international observers, but also to many locals. The administration and some opposition leaders seem to have not appreciated the extent of popular anger and were themselves taken aback. In other words, because there was no credible information about the distribution of power before the protests, there was little room for opposition factions and the incumbent regime to come to a negotiated settlement. Neither the government nor opposition factions are in full control of the crowds. Already, there are reports of destruction of property and marauding in Bishkek and the regions that have seen protests. This is a bad sign for opposition factions because it discredits them. What are the likely scenarios of events?The most dramatic is that the Bakiev government will fall in the next several hours or days, as it appears to be doing. Because opposition leaders are not in full control of protesters, the country could plunge into anarchy and chaos that would last for a few days if not weeks.
Because Bakiev still retains a large political following in the southern regions, especially in Jalal-Abad, his birthplace, counter-protests may erupt in the south calling for his reinstatement. That would increase the risk of regional confrontation and possibility of civil war. Bakiev, now in the south, has not aired his intentions and this is contributing to tension.A less dramatic scenario is that the Bakiev administration, while seriously weakened by the protests, could come to a negotiated settlement with opposition factions, and both groups would work to calm protesters. Russia and some neighbors such as Kazakhstan may provide good offices and assistance (not military, largely diplomatic) in this regard. Russia has already recognized the provisional government set up by opposition factions in Bishkek. Bakiev could resign as part of the negotiated deal. This would provide the provisional government some legitimacy as it faces a number of daunting challenges such as restoring order and state institutions and responding to economic and social problems that Bakiev left unaddressed.
Whatever the outcome of the protests, it is clear that Kyrgyzstan has plunged into deep chaos. It will take months, if not years to recover from this. The concern is that instability in Kyrgyzstan is already spilling over to its neighbors. Kazakhstan has closed borders as scores of Kyrgyz are trying to cross the border and find refuge in Kazakhstan. Uzbekistan is most likely to follow suit.
Alisher Khamidov is a consultant and analyst in Washington, D.C., specializing in Central Asian affairs. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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