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Kyrgyzstan’s Revolution: Be Careful What You Wish For

The instant analysis by many political observers, as well as the Bush administration, is to classify Kyrgyzstan as part of the global domino effect of democracy. In the former Soviet Union, popular revolutions over the past 18 months have swept away the old order first in Georgia, then in Ukraine and now in Kyrgyzstan. But the forces at work in Kyrgyzstan are markedly different than those that produced change in both Georgia and Ukraine. Indeed, Kyrgyzstan is a classic case of the maxim: Be careful what you wish for.

From a civil society perspective, a happy ending to Kyrgyzstan's revolution is far from assured. While democracy certainly has an opportunity now to take root in a region that has so far proven inhospitable and resistant to pluralistic impulses, it could also turn out that Islamic radicalism emerges as the ultimate winner of the Kyrgyz revolution.

Georgia had the Rose Revolution, and Ukraine had the Orange Revolution. Both featured well-managed anti-government protests, in which highly organized student groups functioned as shock troops, acting under the direction of cohesive opposition political leadership. Those two revolutionary efforts also benefited by having clearly defined and charismatic leaders -- Mikheil Saakashvili in Georgia and Viktor Yushchenko in Ukraine -- espousing relatively clear political programs. All these factors helped ensured a relatively smooth transition of power.

In sharp contrast, change in Kyrgyzstan is being led by a far less disciplined force, with no widely recognized leader and no clearly defined program. It should thus not be viewed as another in a string of "velvet" revolutions. Events in Bishkek are shaping up to be revolutionary in a more classic sense, meaning that it could take months or even years for the country to regain a sense of political equilibrium. The unleashed fury of the Kyrgyz mob may prove not easily contained.

The anarchy that engulfed Bishkek immediately upon the collapse of President Askar Akayev's administration is symptomatic of the broad and volatile problems that confront Kyrgyzstan's new leadership team, which is a tenuous alliance of former opposition politicians who have little track record of cooperating with each other.

The anti-government protests that morphed into a frenzy of looting and vandalism could give way to civil conflict. Inter-ethnic tensions, as well as North-South sectional differences, have long been features of Kyrgyzstan's social and political life. Those tensions and differences are coming under strain as the revolution plays out.

Allegations of vote-rigging served as the catalyst for the Kyrgyz revolution. But it was pent-up frustration among the population over persistent poverty and pervasive government corruption that packed the revolution with its explosive power. Many supporters of the revolution aren't necessarily interested in democracy; they are preoccupied simply with providing for themselves and their families.

Since the start of the end-game for the Akayev administration – when protesters seized government buildings in Jalal-Abad and Osh in the wake of the second round of parliamentary voting on March 13 – the president's political opponents never demonstrated that they had firm control over the crowds of demonstrators. Political leaders, including the new interim president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, have admitted that when anti-government protesters gathered on March 24, they had no idea that the day would end with the collapse of Akayev's administration.

The new leadership team, which includes long-time Akayev political opponents, sought to boost its legitimacy on March 25 after officially forming a provisional government. Bakiyev was named prime minister, which automatically made him interim president. Meanwhile, another prominent opposition politician, Feliks Kulov, was handed the interior ministry portfolio.

As the provisional government tried to get on its feet, Bishkek remained paralyzed. Banks, shops and offices were shuttered. In the absence of any government and law-enforcement presence, some citizens were taking matters into their own hands by organizing neighborhood watch committees. With a climate of fear still prevailing, most residents remained indoors. Reports of people continuing to stream into the capital from other regions, looking for opportunities to loot, fueled anxiety in the capital.

Re-establishing a sense of order in Bishkek poses an immediate test for the provisional government. When in opposition, the political leaders did not demonstrate an inclination towards unity – a fact that Akayev often exploited to his political advantage. The opposition leaders came together, setting aside personal rivalries, only during the political dispute over the recent rounds of parliamentary voting on February 27 and March 13. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Their political bonds still are not firmly cemented.

Now, suddenly finding themselves thrust into power, these same political leaders could again start pulling in different directions. On the one hand, they need to cooperate in order to foster a sense of order. At the same time, they will doubtless experience competitive pressure in the coming days and months, as many of them – Bakiyev and Kulov in particular – jockey to position themselves for the presidency. Preliminary discussions in Bishkek have raised the possibility of a presidential election being held in late spring, with a new parliamentary vote to follow in the fall.

As the leadership team tries to keep personal rivalries in check, it will have to struggle with questions concerning its legitimacy. Such questions will likely grow the longer the situation in Bishkek remains disorderly. The most contentious issue surrounds the Kyrgyz legislature. The new unicameral Kyrgyz parliament -- whose deputies were elected during the recent and supposedly fraudulent election -- held one session on March 22. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The Supreme Court annulled the voting results on March 24, effectively disbanding the unicameral legislature. At the same time, it remains unclear if the mandate of the old bicameral parliament remains valid. It was a rump session of that bicameral parliament, hastily convened on March 24, that appointed the members of the provisional government.

Akayev further clouded the situation by not formally resigning. In a statement, distributed by the Kabar news agency, he characterized events of March 24 as a "coup," adding that "rumors about my resignation from the presidential post are deceitful and malevolent." At a March 25 news conference, Interim Foreign Minister Roza Otunbayeva reflected the evident frustration felt by many in the provisional government when she said former officials still loyal to the president provoked "the marauding of shops and trade centers."

Already, the economic devastation caused by the looting rampage has severely eroded support for the provisional government among the Bishkek business sector. Small entrepreneurs had grown frustrated with the corruption prevalent under Akayev's administration, and thus many were amenable to the idea of political change. But the reality of the revolution has rendered many entrepreneurs penniless -- literally overnight. Thus, a natural and key constituency for democratic change has evaporated. Considerable effort will be required for the provisional government to regain the trust of Bishkek entrepreneurs.

If the provisional government does not manage to quickly restore order, there exists the potential for the Kyrgyz revolution to become a contagion that spreads to other parts of the country, and even beyond Kyrgyzstan's borders. The immediate danger is that the riotous instinct that now grips Bishkek could transform into more organized violence that pits Kyrgyz against Kyrgyz.

Many in Bishkek are blaming the March 24 looting frenzy on people from outside the capital, specifically on southerners who arrived to participate in the anti-government protest. This assumption, regardless of whether it has a basis in fact or not, is greatly exacerbating pre-existing North-South tension. A continuation of disorder would raise the odds that newly formed Bishkek self-defense groups could take justice into their own hands, venting their anger on anyone in the capital identified as a southerner.

Meanwhile, southern Kyrgyzstan, the greenhouse of the revolution, is especially vulnerable to inter-ethnic strife. The region is home to a large Uzbek minority. Kyrgyz and Uzbeks engaged in bloody clashes in and around Osh in the early 1990s. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Any outbreak of widespread looting in the region could easily spark renewed hostility between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz. In addition, most Uzbeks are reportedly lukewarm at best in their support for the revolution. Many Uzbeks viewed Akayev's administration as a barrier against Kyrgyz nationalist sentiment, which runs strong in the South.

The actions of neighboring Central Asian state demonstrate that their authoritarian-minded leaders are profoundly worried by the spontaneous combustion of popular discontent in Bishkek. As in Kyrgyzstan, widespread poverty and corruption, along with unresponsive government, are prevalent in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. All of Kyrgyzstan's direct neighbors – Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – have sealed their borders. In perhaps the clearest sign that regional leaders consider the Kyrgyz revolution to be highly contagious, state-controlled media outlets in neighboring Central Asian states remained virtually silent about the events in Bishkek.

Unity will be needed for Kyrgyzstan to move forward -- for genuinely democratic tendencies to take root, and for a sense of hope about the country's economic future to spread beyond a relatively narrow segment of Kyrgyz society. Unfortunately, the Kyrgyz revolution seems to be stoking divisions in society. The provisional government -- given its current shape, in particular its reliance on elements of the old regime to provide security -- will be hard-pressed to repair the damage already done, let alone put the country on a path forward.

It is not too early to start worrying about the nightmare scenario of the Kyrgyz revolution -- one in which early hopes for a democratic transformation mutate into anxiety about the spread of Islamic radicalism. The experience of Afghanistan underscores that Islamic radicalism thrives in uncertain political environments. Islamic radical groups have long been present in Kyrgyzstan, mainly in southern areas, but also in the North. In 1999 and 2000, the country faced incursions by armed bands belongs to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In recent years, an extremist group that espouses non-violence tactics, Hizb-ut-Tahrir, has intensified its agit-prop activities aimed at overthrowing all the existing regimes in Central Asia and establishing an Islamic caliphate. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

The next few weeks are critical. If the provisional government can harness the revolutionary forces and keep political infighting to a minimum until new presidential and parliamentary elections are held, Kyrgyzstan will stand a chance of establishing Central Asia's first genuinely pluralistic political system. However, there is no guarantee at this time that the provisional government can accomplish these basic tasks. If it falters, and if Kyrgyzstan is saddled with a weak central government, Islamic radical groups may find themselves a new safe haven for international terrorist operations.

Justin Burke is EurasiaNet’s editor.

Kyrgyzstan’s Revolution: Be Careful What You Wish For

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