Volume XVII Number 2 (March-April 2007)

The Tulip Fades:
"Revolution" and repercussions in Kyrgyzstan

By John Heathershaw

Western governments, media outlets and not a small number of academians seized upon the idea of “democratic revolution” to explain the March 2005 ousting of the government in Kyrgyzstan.  More detailed analyses illustrate the oversights of this account, particularly the role of patronage relations, in providing the means of mobilization. (1)  However, this in itself should not lead analysts to deny the role played by the manner in which the revolution has been portrayed.  Rather, one must investigate how the Tulip Revolution has been variously interpreted - locally and internationally, radically and conservatively. Together, these multiple explanations challenge the notion of a singular cause of the uprising and the prescience of those who claim to have predicted it.  Moreover, as portrayals of events, they are not merely retrospectives, but actually reconstruct the wider political scene.  Kyrgyzstan after the revolution departs from ideal-type models not just in its concrete factional patterns of politics and exchange, but in elite and popular political imaginations of what the future might hold.  Its political development continues on a post-Soviet—at times neo-Soviet—trajectory, albeit one that offers hope for openness and reconstruction in some limited areas.  This essay charts three representations of the Tulip Revolution and their attending repercussions: revolution as a threat to Central Asia and the wider region; a revolution of elites; and revolution as disorder.      

A Very Unrevolutionary Revolution
Parliamentary elections in 2005 constituted the catalyst that ultimately brought down the regime of President Akaev. Although of a similar representational standard as previous elections, this vote was the first in Kyrgyzstan’s history that triggered significant mobilization against the regime. The elections were characterized by considerable, systematic interference by state authorities to support their allies; the prevalence of business owners with links to organized crime; widespread corruption and vote-buying; and the intimidation and marshalling of particular categories of voters, such as students and employees of state enterprises. (2)  Elite fear of “democratic revolution” produced a government response that relied heavily on propaganda (even in Akaev’s own speeches), involved blackmailing of opposition candidates, used the courts to block candidatures, and interfered in various other ways. Demonstrators raised other grievances - of poverty and inequality, corruption and nepotism, arbitrary and unjust courts, the persecution of opposition leaders, and the “family rule” of President Akaev.  Protests initially enjoyed the support of specific patrons, but later these factions merged into a national movement, albeit one that was highly contingent upon the common goal of challenging or unseating the government.  This goal was realized after Akaev fled on 24 March 2005.  The opposition was led by several well-known individuals, most of whom had been part of the outgoing regime, including Kurmanbek Bakiev, who was Prime Minister before being forced to resign in 2003 and went on to become President in July 2005, and Felix Kulov, who was Akaev’s Vice-President before being jailed by him in 1999.
This summary, on the surface, gives considerable grounds for linking the “Tulip Revolution” to  other cases of “democratic revolution.”  Indeed, certain international organizations have sought to take credit for the revolution by attributing a major role to “civil society” organizations, in which they have played  a part. (3)  Such accounts, to a greater or lesser extent, produce an international discourse of “democratic revolution” that has emerged to explain the “orange” and “rose” revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia, where the “revolutionary” leaderships had some financial and political links to the West.  The repetition of this emphasis on the democratic basis of revolutionary change in the post-Soviet arena has been used to advocate US support for democracy promotion via regime change through popular protest. (4)  Civil society organizations reciprocate this rhetoric and seem to confirm the presuppositions of international donors that there is a powerful civil society movement in Kyrgyzstan. Groups such as Edil Baisalov’s Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society and youth movements such as Birge and Kelkel became symbols of the revolution in Western accounts.  Yet while charismatic individuals, in particular Baisalov, have grown in stature since March 2005, the wider organizations that they represent remain on the margins of the new opposition movement, “For Reforms!” (Za Reformy!), which is dominated by wealthy businessmen and their allies.  A discourse of “democratic revolution” masks and sustains a largely marginalized NGO sector and raises the profile of certain individuals, but has had little or no structural impact on Kyrgyz politics.   
“Revolution” as a foreign threat: Kyrgyzstan’s difficult relations with the West
Post-Soviet discussions of “revolution” contrast with the positive “international” or Western representation.  Russian language conversations among members of the post-Soviet elite regarding democratic or “multi-colored” revolution (raznotsvetnaya revolutsiya) across the former Soviet Union present the events in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan as part of a foreign-backed coup: an outside and illegitimate threat to the established “authority” (avtoritet) and “stability” (stabil’nost’). (5)  This emphasis on stability and authority is clear in Central Asian elite responses to the revolution.  For example, Kazakhstan’s Kazakhstanskaya Pravda noted, “instead of ‘velvet’ and the aroma of roses and citrus in the air, there is the smell of smoke, blood and chaos.” (6)  Such understandings were echoed in the remarks of Serik Primbetov, Deputy General Secretary of the Eurasian Economic Community, to a conference in Bishkek several months after the revolution. “Revolutions like in Kyrgyzstan challenge our ability to act together [in the Central Asian region] and create instability,” he noted.  “If such poor kids are sitting in the President’s chair what must that do for the economy.” (7)  It is easy to dismiss these accounts as self-serving justifications, but it must be acknowledged that they also illustrate the limits of the political elite in those parts of the former Soviet Union where the primary source of “international community” is found.  Popular opinion tends to mirror this elite understanding of international community.  A November 2006 opinion poll by the International Republican Institute in Bishkek found that 91% of Kyrgyz citizens believe that Kyrgyzstan should prioritize Russia in its foreign relations compared to 2% who favor the US. (8)
This post-Soviet vision of international community also has led to increasing hostility to “the West” by the new government. It is hardly surprising that both the Bakiev-Kulov regime and the majority of the “For Reforms” movement favor increased ties with Moscow and a visible movement away from partnership with the United States. Since the revolution, Kyrgyz policy towards the US military base has been rent-seeking and inconsistent, especially since the 5 July 2005 declaration by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization that the Kyrgyz position should be reviewed. (9)  Bakiev voiced his support for the SCO declaration on 11 July. After parliamentary and presidential elections had taken place in Afghanistan, the new President stated, “Now we can begin reviewing the issue of the advisability of the US military presence [in Kyrgyzstan].” (10)  It required an urgent visit by Donald Rumsfeld and an October 2005 visit by Condoleeza Rice to keep the pressure up on Kyrgyzstan, which eventually allowed the continuance of the base.  By 2006, extended negotiations had allowed for a significant increase in US aid provided to Kyrgyzstan under the agreement (although not the extortionate cash transfer of 207 million dollars per year for the base that Bakiev had requested).  However, pressure on the American base and mission in Kyrgyzstan remains, as illustrated by the expulsion of two US diplomats from Kyrgyzstan in July 2006. (11)  The Bakiev government continues to reassure Russia and neighboring Central Asian states of its hostility to “outside” powers, the impermanence of the US base and its commitment to the region. (12) 

“Revolution” of elites: bargaining the new constitutions
The emphasis on “stability” and “authority” found in Akaev regime statements and anti-revolution propaganda, (13) common across the region, (14) has been maintained and perhaps even strengthened under Bakiev and continues to suggest that politics is a domain where elites should control society.   Widespread protests in 2005 and 2006 were understood popularly and in government as having been organized and paid for by local patrons.  This partially accurate caricature denies the genuine and potentially universal grievances that may have served as the primary source of popular hostility to the regime, and ignores the few radical movements being trumpeted by Western donors.  Thus, such an account denies even the nascence of a broad-based political movement. Amongst the majority of elites who hold to such a political view, mass participation is perceived as a threat and negotiation is considered to be something that properly should take place behind closed doors, before a fait accompli is presented for public consumption.
Throughout 2006 the opposition “For Reforms!” movement used popular protests to pressure the Bakiev-Kulov regime into compromises that would disseminate power more widely and allow the regime’s opponents greater access to state resources.  Whilst these protests illustrated popular grievances against the new elite, the “For Reforms!” leaders worked behind closed doors to fight for their particular interests. (15)  This culminated in the adoption by parliament of two new constitutions in as many months (November and December 2006).  A 9 November version of amendments stripped the President of some of his powers and potentially allowed for a much stronger role for parties in parliament.  On 30 December, following the resignation of the government, a new set of amendments returned some of these presidential powers, including the right to appoint a cabinet without parliamentary approval. (16)  A number of opposition leaders voted for the second constitution, as well as for the first. (17)  These reversals of position are inexplicable unless one acknowledges that the majority of deputies in parliament, both “pro-government” and “opposition,” represent personal and familial interests and that it is difficult for them to imagine a different way of doing politics.    
“Revolution” as disorder: popular apathy towards politics
Western donors to Kyrgyzstan tried to create popular debate on the new constitution throughout 2006 with the promise of a referendum on the constitutional commission’s proposals by the end of the year.  This vote failed to materialize, with the amendments being negotiated solely between government and opposition, as mentioned above.  Not only do elite discourses work within their own group to limit political thinking, they also serve to discourage alternative liberal or radical thinking among the population.  Among the urban, especially ethnic minority populations in Bishkek, (18) “multicolored revolution” came to mean chaos, looting, and marauding during the revolution itself and the months following it.  This popular perception openly shuns the political and focuses on the revolution’s impact on personal and family livelihoods.  This viewpoint was expressed to me by numerous colleagues and friends in Bishkek following the Tulip Revolution.  For example, one lower-middle class Russian friend expressed his insecurity in these terms in a personal conversation of 9 April 2005:   “Only God knows what’s going to happen tomorrow,” he exclaimed.  “When Akaev was President we all knew that the level of the dollar would be 42, 43 [Kyrgyz soms] but now, no one knows what will be tomorrow.”  Such testimonies are consistent with recent social surveys, which show the continued dominance of a post-communist perspective on politics, coupled with considerable skepticism towards elites. (19)

The power of representation, the narrative used within society to explain and understand events such as the revolution, also helps explain the confused and inconsistent patterns emerging in contemporary Kyrgyz politics.  It highlights how post-revolutionary actions are not just materially motivated, but socially constructed. Post-revolutionary Kyrgyzstan has been marked by elite attempts to close off political openings and assure regional governments and Russia of the priority of “stability;” marginal radical protests against the new government; and popular discontent towards politics alongside a willingness to operate outside the law in order to claim land or protect oneself.   Such developments indicate that the repercussions of Kyrgyzstan’s Tulip Revolution are complex and still emerging.  Moreover, the story is not all bad.  In particular, despite the sectional interests driving negotiations, the practice of truck and barter between factions, which are more evenly balanced than during the Akaev era, might be considered a positive development and consistent with the pact-driven early stages identified by some democratization theorists.  This provides a glimmer of hope in a country where the ruling elite’s power is limited by a burgeoning opposition. In this sense, Kyrgyzstan remains an exception in Central Asia. 

Source Notes:
(1) Scott Radnitz, “What really happened in Kyrgyzstan?”, Journal of Democracy, 17:2, April 2006; Said Yakhoyev, “Kyrgyzstan’s ‘Revolution’,” a Masters Thesis submitted to the OSCE academy, (June 2005).
(2) OSCE, “Final Report: Presidential Elections of the Kyrgyz Republic,” OSCE-ODIHR Election Observation Mission, accessible via; see also, International Crisis Group, Kyrgyzstan: After the Revolution, Asia Report No. 97, 4 May 2005, pp.2-6.
(3) For example, “Freedom House, Nations in Transit 2006: Kyrgyzstan,” p. 3.
(4) Flemming Spildsboel Hansen, “A Grand Strategy for Central Asia,” Problems of Post-Communism, 52, 2 March/April 2005, pp.45-54.
(5) For more on how “authority” and “stability” are essential to elite, neo-Soviet discourses in Central Asia see John Heathershaw, “New Great Game or Same Old Ideas? Neo-sovietism and the International Politics of Imagining ‘Central Asia’,” in David Dusseault (ed.), The CIS: Form or Substance?, (Helsinki: Kikimora, 2006, forthcoming).
(6) BBC News Online, “Region’s press gripped by Kyrgyz uncertainty,” Saturday, 26 March, 2005 via, accessed: Monday 28 March 2005.
(7) Serik Primbetov, Deputy General Secretary of Eurasian Economic Community, presentation to UNESCO Conference, “Human Security in Central Asia,” OSCE Academy Bishkek, 8 September 2005.
(8) Roger N. McDermott, “President Bakiyev Reassessing Bishkek’s Foreign Security Relations,”  Eurasia Daily Monitor, 12/04/06, vol.3, issue 223.
(9) Sergei Blagov, Eurasia Insight, “The Geopolitical balance in Central Asia tilts toward Russia,” 06/07/05 via, accessed: 24 July 05.
(10) Daniel Kimmage, “Central Asia: Is Regional Turbulence Return Of The Great Game?” RadioFreeEurope/ RadioLiberty, Tuesday, July 19, 2005 via
(11) Joldosh Osmonov, “U.S.-Kyrgyz Military Base Negotiations,” Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 09/06/08.
(12) Yasar Sari & Sureyya Yigit, “Foreign Policy Re-Orientation & Political Symbolism in Kyrgyzstan,” Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 06/14/06.
(13) Anara Karagulova & Nick Megoran, “Gothic Kyrgyzstan and the ‘war on terror:’ discourses of danger and the collapse of the Akayev regime,” a paper presented to the annual conference of the Central Eurasian Studies Society, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 10/01/06.
(14) Heathershaw, op.cit. (fn. 6)
(15) Kumar Bekbolotov, “Protesting Kyrgyzstan: ‘devalutation’ of meaning, or increasing ineffectiveness?” Institute of Public Policy – Bishkek, 23 May 2006 via, accessed: 29 August 2006.
(16) RFE/RL Newsline, 01/03/07.
(17) Communication with Kyrgyz political analyst, January 2007
(18) Abdujalil Abdurasulov, “Titular Group and Ethnic Minorities after the Kyrgyz Revolution: The changed interaction,” presentation at the LSE Workshop: The Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan One Year On, London, 28 February 2006; Elina Karakulova, “Multiethnicity in Kyrgyzstan’s Multicoloured Revolution,” Masters thesis, Central European University, Budapest, 2006.
(19) Vanessa Ruget and Burul Usmanilieva, “Political beliefs in Kyrgyzstan: A survey of citizen’s opinions a year and a half after the uprising,” a paper presented to the annual conference of the Central Eurasian Studies Society, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 10/01/06.


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