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Kyrgyzstan: between democratisation and authoritarianism

Kyrgyzstan: between democratisation and authoritarianism

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Map of Kirghizstan (© 2010 / Réseau Asie - Imasie

After a long political crisis, on the 7th of April 2010, the official government was once again overthrown in Kyrgyzstan – the second change of power in twenty years.  The first, known as the Tulip Revolution, put an end to Askar Akayev's authoritarian regime on the 23rd of March 2005 and was replaced by Kurmanbek Bakiev's government, which was no less authoritarian.  Is this small Central Asian country (with a population of 5.5 million and an area of 198,500 km2) heading towards a permanent state of instability?  Some local researchers have attempted to interpret this chronic instability using culturalist models. Because the Kyrgyz are traditionally nomads, they were supposedly unable to adopt “artificial” structures following independence in 1991, which allegedly led to the repeated rejection of the State. This explanation, however, does not clarify why each coup d'état is followed by attempts to democratise, which would suggest Kyrgyz approval of the notion of a fair State. Furthermore, we suspect that external players may have orchestrated this change in power. It would therefore have been in the interest of the United States and Russia to oust the despotic Bakiev and replace him with a more “docile” candidate. Thus, is this situation the result of domestic social upheaval or an event organised with the help of the superpowers?

Three months later, it has become rather clear that this change of power is the result of a social uprising. The population had indeed grown quickly disillusioned with President Bakiev's potential to reform. The “Revolutionary's” promises to reform the state, eradicate corruption, build a Kyrgyz miracle and save the country from economic stagnation only led to disappointment.  Instead, in 2006, Bakiev removed his colleagues from the opposition from power, thus rejecting the state reforms jointly put forward by all the political parties and civil society. In autumn 2007, he dissolved the parliament and, after the new elections, formed a loyal government, which adopted constitutional changes allowing him to benefit from unlimited power. During this period, protests from the opposition increased and, in 2006, they were already calling for the resignation of Kurmanbek Bakiev.

The province of Talas where the coup d'état took place on the 6th of April 2010 (© 2010 / A.Doolotkeldieva)
The province of Talas where the coup d'état took place on the 6th of April 2010
(© 2010 / A.Doolotkeldieva)

In order to maintain an even tighter rein on the opposition, the president appointed several members of his family to important position; his brother, Janysh, was promoted to director of the department of defense to manage the secret services in their mission to repress “internal enemies”. The physical elimination of political rivals became commonplace; three deputies (influential business men), politicians and five journalists were assassinated between 2007 and 2009. Two more of Bakiev's brothers controlled the southern provinces where major drug trafficking from Afghanistan prevails. Discontent mounted further when Bakiev appointed his young son, Maxime, to the head of the Economic Agency, newly created by the presidential administration to control all foreign investment and national economic programmes, which sparked serious criticism within the country. Even former President Akayev never dared to appoint his children to such high positions. This decision was a blatant clash between State and personal interests. Shortly after Maxime's nomination, a huge financial scandal within the agency erupted.  Evgeny Gurevich, the president of the international company, MNG, which was commissioned to promote the agency's projects was is wanted by Interpol for his connections to la Cosa Nostra, the Italian mafia.

In February 2010, in addition to links between the government and criminal networks, the Kyrgyz society discovered from Russian television stations that the Russian credit of $300 million intended for the construction of a hydro-electric station in Kambarata in order to ensure the security of the country's energy supply was embezzled by the Bakiev family.  In relation to this, the leaders of the opposition claimed that without Russian funds, Bakiev would have been deported much sooner and would not have managed to get himself reelected in August 2009 since his popularity was at its lowest at the time.  For the Kyrgyz, who had lived with electricity and gas cuts for years, this news came as a shock.  Corruption and greed continued to shake the country.  Major state companies such as Severelectro and KirghizTelecom were privatised for pathetic sums of money for the benefit of the President's family.

Finally, a spectacular rise in heating, electricity and communication prices from autumn 2009 led to a social upheaval like never before. For the entire month of February 2010, civil servants from the province of Naryn protested against the hike in prices.  The Kyrgyz, neglected from the long years of political and economic crisis, and disinherited by their own government, were disillusioned by these illegal measures.

Memorial at the central square in front of the White House to commemorate the victims of the 7th of April, national heroes who died for democracy (© 2010 / A.Doolotkeldieva)
Memorial at the central square in front of the White House
to commemorate the victims of the 7th of April,
national heroes who died for democracy (© 2010 / A.Doolotkeldieva)

On the 7th of April 2010, the opposition party, the United Front, with Temir Sariev, Almaz Atambaev, Azimbek Beknazarov and Rosa Otunbaeva at its head, planned to hold a major rally in Bichkek, the capital, but they were arrested and imprisoned on the eve of the rally.  For some of the citizens who participated in the coup d'état on the 6th, 7th and 8th of April, this act was “the last straw” and a form of catalyst for the events to come.  While the first riots were breaking out in the province of Talas, the rumours of the coup d'état spread to the capital.  Bakiev then decided to open fire on the peaceful and unarmed protesters in front of the White House (the Head of State's residence), causing 86 deaths and over 1,000 casualties, before leaving the capital.  He then took refuge in his hometown, Teit, in the province of Jalal-Abad, where his presence provoked more bloody clashes, this time between his own men and supporters of the opposition. Following an agreement passed between Kazakhstan, Russia and the new Kyrgyz government, it was decided that for the integrity and national security of Kyrgyzstan, Bakiev should take refuge in Belorussia where he is still living today.

In analysing this protest movement, many aspects attract our attention: causes of the social upheaval, the spontaneous or organised nature of the events and the type of external support that the provisional government received. Although the leaders of this movement claim not to have planned such a revolt, their rapid and efficient organisation to form a provisional government with a woman at its head and the coherence of their actions lead us to believe that these steps were thought out in advance, given the former divided nature of the opposition.  Appointing Rosa Otunbaeva as head is another interesting aspect.  Unlike her colleagues from the opposition (Atambaev Almaz, Tekebaev Omurbek and Sariev Temir), she had never before shown any presidential ambition. This choice, however, could have been down to the fact that Otunbaeva possesses considerable experience in diplomacy and international relations – valuable assets which helped the government gain legitimacy and support from the international community.

Protest against the President Bakiev, 14th April 2010, when he was ousted from the capital Bichkek to Och. The slogan says: "Bakiev, if you have any respect for the dead, leave the government (© 2010 / Dalton Bennett)
Protest against the President Bakiev, 14th April 2010,
when he was ousted from the capital Bichkek to Och.
The slogan says: "Bakiev, if you have any respect for the dead, leave the government
(© 2010 / Dalton Bennett)

Although the leaders from the opposition claim not to have planned the coup d'état on the 7th of April, their decisive actions nevertheless seem to be supported by an apparent change in Russian policy towards Kyrgyzstan in the last months.  Indeed, in February and March 2010, Russian television channels aired a series of reports strongly criticising corruption among Bakiev's entourage, which sent out a rather strong message to the opposition of Bakiev's potential fall from grace and encouraged their actions.

At the same time, it is not about settling the score between the elite divided by the Tulip Revolution, restoring power and winning back economic resources.  The spontaneous nature of the rallies of individuals who assembled in various areas of the capital to protest is also an important aspect for analysis.  Although during the Tulip Revolution in March 2005, the protesters were brought to the capital by bus by the leaders of the opposition and were paid and even encouraged with alcohol, on the 7th of April 2010, no such things could have urged these individuals to stay on the main square in the direct line of the snipers' fire and risk their lives. According to the survivors' accounts, the personal space of these citizens was threatened; nobody could escape the abuse of power.  People came from all corners of the capital, having been contacted by telephone or text message or even because they were passing by.  The storming of the White House, the symbol of power, was also viewed by the protesters as a means of expressing their own grievances and demands.

All these aspects constitute the sociopolitical context in which it has become easy to seize power in Kyrgyzstan, although difficult to maintain. What we witnessed in April 2010 in Kyrgyzstan was the weakening of the State; the corruption and criminalisation of its institutions, the pauperization and idleness of the population, the absence of independent justice, the primacy of force on the law, the desertification of human potential and the fall of the economy are all indicators of the breakdown of the Kyrgyz state. The population rallied against the authoritarian regimes of Akayev and Bakiev with the aim of saving the State and at the referendum on the 27th of June, they voted for the new parliamentary constitution despite the continuous instability.

Storming of the White House, police retreating from protesters, central square Ala-Too, Bichkek, 7th April 2010 (© 2010 / Dalton Bennett)
Storming of the White House, police retreating from protesters,
central square Ala-Too, Bichkek, 7th April 2010 (© 2010 / Dalton Bennett)

These efforts to democratise, perhaps the last in the region, are in jeopardy today. The new constitution not only provides the political system with the chance to democratise the decision-making mechanisms, but also allows for a greater power-sharing system. However, regional players such as Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are against this so-called parliamentary model because it is inconceivable to form a parliamentary republic in Central Asia and in the post-soviet space.  Such a political evolution would undermine these authoritarian regimes, creating a precedent and increasing feelings of disgruntlement, which are already difficult to contain.  On the other hand, the ethnic conflict, which broke out in the south of Kyrgyzstan on the 10th of June and plunged the country into chaos, reinforced the positions of politicians who were against a multi-party regime.  In a bankrupt state where official power cannot guarantee the physical security of its citizens, the public is increasingly calling out for a helping hand. Nationalist parties like Ata-jurt, Butun Kyrghzstan, El-Armany and others take advantage of these events to score political points. Legislative elections are planned for the 10th of October if the country is not shaken by further socio-political earthquakes.  The outcome of these elections is of utmost importance for Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia because if the nationalist political parties come into power, they undertake to change the constitution in favour of a strong presidential regime and perhaps a return to authoritarianism.

Biography

Asel Doolotkeldieva is a PhD student at Sciences Po, Paris (CERI: Centre for Studies on International Relations). She is interested in issues relating to social and political evolution in Central Asian societies following the fall of the Soviet Union.  Her doctoral thesis deals with the political regime in Kyrgyzstan.

The Ministry of Home Affairs in Talad, which was sieged and burnt on the 6th of April 2010 (© 2010 / A.Doolotkeldieva)
The Ministry of Home Affairs in Talad, which was sieged
and burnt on the 6th of April 2010 (© 2010 – A.Doolotkeldieva)