Almost exactly five years after the Tulip Revolution saw the overthrow of Askar Akaev in Kyrgyzstan and his replacement by Kurmanbek Bakiyev, in the last two days an almost identical set of protests seems to have toppled the Bakiyev government. I say seems to, because rather than fleeing for the border after protesters stormed various government buildings in the capital city, like Akaev did in 2005, Bakiyev headed to the southern city of Osh, not far from his home turf in Jalalabad. His departure is the final nail in the coffin of the Tulip Revolution, which at first seemed to provide some hope for improved governance in Kyrgyzstan. This hope quickly wilted, as the new leadership proved to be even more corrupt and repressive than its predecessor. Its removal may lead to an improvement, or may just be another turn in the cycle of relatively weak and corrupt leadership that has plagued Kyrgyzstan for most of its independent history.
Depending on how things play out from here, the outcome of the current uprising could mean some serious problems ahead for Kyrgyzstan. Both revolutions can be viewed as conflicts between competing sets of regional elites. The Akaev government was seen as being dominated by northerners, so most of the protests occurred in the southern parts of country and many of the people who stormed government offices came to Bishkek from the south. This time around, as protests gathered steam over the last couple of weeks, the south was largely quiescent and the largest protests occurred in the northern cities — first in Talas and then in Naryn and Tokmok as well as the capital Bishkek.
The geography of the protest is not surprising, given that one of the main complaints against Bakiyev, as against Akaev before him, was rampant cronyism. Critics were especially angered by the appointment of Bakiyev’s son as the director of the newly established Central Agency for Development, Investment, and Innovation, amid reports that he was being groomed as the president’s heir. Furthermore, Bakiyev had recently clamped down on public dissent and further limited political rights and press freedom in the country.
At the same time, the immediate trigger for the protests had to do with economic factors, especially a recent increase in utility rates. As Josh Tucker points out, if successful, this will be the “first replacement of a government in the former Soviet Union triggered by protests that did not follow fraudulent elections since the colored revolutions began a decade ago.”
If Bakiyev refuses to go quietly to Kazakhstan or some other foreign country, Kyrgyzstan could be in for an extended period of political instability. For now, reports indicate that the four northern provinces are under the firm control of the opposition. The southern provinces have stayed quiet for now. Bishkek is still being contested, though it appears that the tide has swung quite far toward the opposition.
If Bakiyev refuses to step down or flee and the south comes to his support, an extended period of dual power is possible, as there are relatively few links between the north and south and it would be difficult to move troops from one region to the other. If the opposition is able to take control of a few key power centers, such as the Osh airport, they may be able to avert such a scenario through a quick show of strength. But if Osh remains under Bakiyev’s control, then the situation may take a long time to resolve.
Of course, these events are being viewed in the United States through the prism of the war in Afghanistan, given the importance of the Manas Transit Center as a logistics base and transit point for US military personnel. Although the Kyrgyz opposition has declared its desire to close the base, it seems to me that if they do gain control of the country, they will not want to alienate the United States, though another contract renegotiation (i.e. rent increase) may well be in the cards. Both the US and Russia (as well as other neighboring states and regional powers) are for the moment treating the uprising as a Kyrgyz domestic issue, without turning it into the kind of geopolitical contest that we saw during the heyday of the colored revolutions 5-8 years ago.
Finally, I should say a couple of words about the political prospects for the country if the opposition does come to power. I have hope in Roza Otunbayeva, the current leader of the opposition government, as she seems less mired in corruption than most of the other Kyrgyz politicians. On the other hand, she may be a temporary figure, to be replaced by someone else once power is consolidated (much as Nino Burdjanadze served as acting head of government in Georgia immediately after the Rose Revolution until the election of Mikheil Saakashvili as president). If so, we may see yet another round of gradual erosion of civil and political rights, combined with cronyism and political corruption — as the new leaders attempt to reap the fruits of their victory by lining the pockets of their family members. If so, it will only be a matter of time until the cycle repeats and we see another uprising to displace the next set of Kyrgyzstani leaders.
Reports now indicate that Bakiyev, together with various relatives, has holed up in his home village in Jalalabad province. They may be preparing to lead resistance to the new government from there. This could get very bad quite quickly.