The ISCIP Analyst
Behind the Breaking News
By Monika Shepherd
Institute for the Study of Conflict, Ideology and Policy
Just over five years after the “Tulip Revolution” produced what, at the time, was portrayed as a significant change in Kyrgyzstan’s governing model, another series of popular uprisings has resulted in a new regime change. Ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiev, once touted as the hero who would deliver his country from corruption and a fraud-riddled government that had become deaf to the needs of its citizens, was removed from his position by many of the same individuals who helped remove Askar Akaev from power. Such figures as Roza Otunbaeva, Omurbek Tekebaev, Azimbek Beknazarov, Ismail Isakov, Almazbek Atambaev and Edil Baisalov, all of whom initially supported Bakiev and most of whom even served in his administration eventually turned against him as his regime grew more authoritarian. Now, Otunbaeva now leads the interim government, Isakov has been re-appointed Defense Minister, Beknazarov and Tekebaev have been given positions as deputy prime ministers, (1) Atambaev is deputy head of the interim government and Baisalov has returned from exile to assume to act as Otunbaeva’s chief of staff. (2)
Most of these opposition leaders had been waging a campaign against Bakiev and his administration, calling repeatedly for his resignation and for constitutional amendments to weaken presidential authority and remodel Kyrgyzstan as a parliamentary democracy. Within a year of Bakiev’s election as president, the opposition had begun organizing protests in order to force him to implement significant reforms in the country’s political system. Bakiev and his supporters had campaigned on a platform of reform, promising to enact changes to the constitution and state structures that would prevent future presidents from following in Akaev’s footsteps. However, once having assumed the full reins of power, Bakiev increasingly seemed reluctant to cede any of his authority to the legislative branch and alternatively stalled and ignored both his supporters’ and the opposition’s demands. Public support for continuing the demonstrations also appeared to be waning, as fewer people turned out for the rallies.
Little by little, Bakiev began targeting opposition leaders, human rights activists, journalists, and independent media outlets which criticized his government. Even Feliks Kulov, Bakiev’s first prime minister, eventually became sufficiently disenchanted with Bakiev’s intransigence on reform issues to leave his administration and join the opposition, along with a number of other high-profile anti-Akaev politicians (including the ones mentioned above). During the run-up to last summer’s presidential election, the president apparently began to perceive these opposition leaders as enough of a threat either to prevent them from participating in the election altogether (e.g. Ismail Isakov, who was unable to run against Bakiev because there were criminal charges pending against him) (3) or to hobble their campaigns through use of the usual measures (not permitting them to hold public rallies, blocking their access to the news media, harassing their supporters, etc.). The death of former presidential administration chief Medet Sadyrkulov in an early March 2009 car accident was also viewed with suspicion by many opposition politicians, who believed that the accident was orchestrated if not by Bakiev himself, then by a member of his inner circle.
However, Bakiev’s coup de grace against his opponents seemed to occur last October, when he successfully manipulated the Jogorku Kenesh (Kyrgyzstan’s parliament) into accepting, carte blanche, a restructuring of the government which essentially placed authority over all policy decisions into his own hands. His brother, Janysh, was reappointed to serve in the security services, this time as head of the Public Protection Services, rather than deputy head, (4) and his son, Maksim, was put in charge of a new economic development agency, the Central Agency for Development, Investment and Innovations (CADII). CADII was granted control not only over investment policy, but over the investment funds themselves. (5)
Once this blatantly unconstitutional reorganization was complete, Bakiev seems to have considered himself to have become impervious to any further actions against him by the opposition. Otherwise, how can one explain his utter disregard for growing popular dissatisfaction not only with the corrupt and nepotistic nature of his regime, but with the continuing decline in Kyrgyzstan’s standard of living coupled with the rising cost of living? The quadrupling of prices for electricity and natural gas supplies is widely considered to have provided the spark that prompted the public demonstrations, which brought Bakiev’s rule to an end last week. Opposition leaders had been organizing demonstrations and public assemblies (kurultais) in Bishkek, Talas, Naryn, and other cities throughout the country starting in March, to protest various measures taken by the president and his administration, including the utility rate hikes. Many of these demonstrations were banned by city authorities, but took place anyway.
The March 17 “People’s Kurultai” held by the opposition in Bishkek resulted in a list of concrete demands for the president, as well as the formation of a central executive committee, headed by Roza Otunbaeva, which was tasked with implementing the decisions of the kurultai and coordinating the organization of regional kurultais. The list of demands included the closure of CADII, the reversal of the electricity and gas price increases, the nullification of the criminal convictions of such regime opponents as Ismail Isakov, Alikbek Jekshenkulov and others, and the restoration of media freedom and freedom of expression. (6) If these demands sound familiar, it’s because nearly all of them already have been carried out by Otunbaeva’s interim government.
Bakiev’s response undoubtedly added fuel to the flames of the public’s discontent – during his speech at a government-sponsored kurultai held on March 23 in Bishkek, he told his audience that working toward a Western style democracy might no longer be an appropriate goal for his country. Instead, he advocated pursuit of a “consultative democracy,” based on government interaction and dialogue with prominent social groups as a better model for Kyrgyzstan. He also stated that the notion of individual human rights should be reconsidered: “In Kyrgyz society, which [is] based on community life and responsibility, it seems that it is not easy to become accustomed to a Western system of human rights.” In his eyes, this “Western system of human rights” only served to promote a decline in social ethics. (7) The decline in Kyrgyzstan’s socioeconomic standards apparently did not merit any mention in the president’s speech.
Thus, the stage was set for the overthrow of Bakiev’s regime on April 7-8. The opposition responded to Bakiev’s scorning of their demands by continuing to schedule public gatherings. In fact, April 7 was the date set for kurultais and protests to take place in a number of different cities, including Talas. When authorities denied permission for the Talas meeting to be held and detained the opposition representatives who had come to request the permit, anti-Bakiev forces were ready and waiting to act.
The swiftness with which Bakiev’s regime was ousted raises a few questions. Regional and national government offices in Talas, Bishkek, Naryn and other cities were taken over with remarkable speed and efficiency, indicating the possibility that there may have been a certain level of planning to the whole process. To be sure, there was also looting, vandalism and general chaos, but many of the most important facilities were secured immediately by opposition leaders, including the headquarters of the security services. Video footage of the anti-government demonstrators also suggests that some of them were organized in advance – footage posted on RFE/RL’s website of events in Bishkek shows a protester clad entirely in black with a white mask covering his face firing what appears to be an automatic assault weapon with a mounted sight at the security forces near the White House. In addition, the video contains footage of demonstrators in possession of military vehicles and news reports have stated that opposition supporters were able to seize at least one armored personnel carrier from the security forces, which they used to ram the gates of the White House. (8)
There has been a great deal of speculation in the press that perhaps Kyrgyzstan’s opposition leaders received a helping hand in ridding themselves of Bakiev’s regime. Many have pointed fingers at the Russian government. While it is true that Putin currently seems to have a very cordial relationship with Otunbaeva and her interim government, even promising millions in aid and the delivery of tax-free fuel shipments to deputy leader Almazbek Atambaev, during his very recent trip to Moscow, (9) Otunbaeva has been cautious in her foreign policy pronouncements so far. She has promised to honor the previous government’s contract regarding the presence of the US airbase, which is purported to constitute a very large thorn in the Russian bear’s side.
On the other hand, Kyrgyzstan desperately needs foreign investment, especially in its energy infrastructure. The completion of the Kambar-ata dam and hydropower project was one of Bakiev’s fondest wishes. The lure of Russian financing for the project caused him to request the closure of the US airbase, although he later renewed the lease, an action which may have cost him the second tranche of Russian investment funds.
For now, Otunbaeva’s government has a clean slate, which opposition leaders hopefully will use to write a brighter chapter in their country’s history.
(1) “Interim Kyrgyz gov't to deprive ousted president of immunity,” 10 Apr 10, Xinhua via People’s Daily Online <http://english.peopledaily.com.cn/90001/90777/90851/6946155.html>, last accessed 14 Apr 10.
(2) “Ousted Kyrgyz leader's brother says 'conscience clear',” 11 Apr 10, Agence France Presse via Lexis-Nexis Academic.
(3) “Backgound Of Events In Kyrgyzstan,” 7 Apr 10, Human Rights Watch; States News Service via Lexis-Nexis Academic.
(4) Bakyt Beshimov, “Kyrgyzstan: Who sponsors the murder of dissidents?,” 2 Feb 10, Ferghana.Ru Information Agency via <http://enews.ferghana.ru/article.php?id=2607>, last accessed 15 Apr 10.
(5) “Head of Central Agency for Development, Investments and Innovations names 4 top priority projects,” 2 Nov 09, AKIpress; Al Bawaba via Lexis-Nexis Academic.
(6) “Kyrgyz opposition congress issues demands,” 17 Mar 10, AKIpress; BBC Worldwide Monitoring via Lexis-Nexis Academic.
(7) Leila Saralayeva, “Kyrgyz leader says Western democracy unsuitable,” 23 Mar 10, The Associated Press via Lexis-Nexis Academic.
(8) Peter Leonard, “Opposition says it leads Kyrgyzstan after uprising,” 7 Apt 10, Associated Press via <http://hosted2.ap.org/APDEFAULT/2092783/Article_2010-04-07-AS-Kyrgyzstan-Protest/id-p0fe2c4a74e0e486fad52f8d77d228f05>, last accessed 15 Apr 10.
(9) “Russia will help Kyrgyzstan - deputy head of provisional Cabinet,” 12 Apr 10, Central Asia Newswire; Interfax via Lexis-Nexis Academic.
By Monika Shepherd (email@example.com)