Nur Omarov, Ph.D. (Political Science), doctoral student at the Kyrgyz-Russian Slavic University (Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan)
Today the developments in Kyrgyzstan are giving rise to frightening premonitions, while comments about the present state of affairs are highly varied. Society is becoming more and more convinced that the fruits of the so-called popular revolution were reaped by a very narrow circle of the new ruling bureaucracy. The huge credit of confidence Akaev’s opponents received from the nation on the eve of the March events is rapidly evaporating: the former allies are too busy trying to divvy up power to engage in any coordinated action. In fact, this could have been predicted as early as late 2004 and early 2005. The opposition was too diverse, too ambitious, and too scandal-prone to permit optimistic forecasts about the country’s future. It closed ranks only to bring down Akaev’s regime. Today, various groups inside the political establishment are fighting among themselves for their own different interests, while the people have become hostages of these manipulations. The unsatisfactory results of the “year of change” are the best proof of the above.
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By early 2005, there were three opposition blocs1 in the country which united the most prominent of Akaev’s opponents. Early in the spring of 2004, the first efforts to unite the opposition failed due to the personal ambitions of those who wanted to remain in the limelight, rather than because of different reform strategies. The absence of a clear reform strategy gave rise to the highly unsatisfactory situation in the post-Akaev period. Much earlier, in the fall of 2004, some of the top bureaucrats left the presidential camp to join the opposition. Those who lost their top posts under Akaev were invigorated by the president’s intention not to run for another term, and liked to think of his “political heritage” being torn apart by power-greedy politicians. The genuinely democratic, and very small, segment of the opposition was resolutely pushed aside and eclipsed by better-organized regional clan groups. This determined the political dynamics of 2005.
Unprecedented manipulation of the election results (the two rounds took place on 27 February and 13 March) triggered the March events. Under these circumstances, the leaders who badly needed a parliamentary majority to fortify their shaky position did more harm than good. There is a widely shared opinion that by nominating its loyal supporters or even the relatives of the top people as parliamentary candidates (Akaev’s older children and his wife’s relatives), the ruling regime revealed its utter moral degradation.
Time has shown that the country’s rulers sealed their fate by being indifferent to or even disdainful of the interests of the most influential among the regional and clan groups. In the context of the increasing stagnation of the political and state institutions, this factor proved to be pivotal. In January and February, the ruling circles, already hysterical about the rumors of the imminent Tulip Revolution and the victory the opposition had scored in Ukraine, stuck to the seemingly winning tactics of removing opponents by abusing the election laws, using mass bribes, and putting administrative pressure on the voters.2
The so-called Western democratic community with interests of its own in Kyrgyzstan took certain steps to relieve the pressure on the opposition. American money paid for the law on finger-marking; funds designed to raise the voters’ legal awareness were set up, while the election itself was attended by about 2,000 observers, an unprecedentedly large number. Later events showed that these efforts ensured but short-lived success of the democratically minded public.
The first round of the election (27 February) produced 31 deputies out of the required 75.3 In some of the constituencies, where the local candidates were replaced with candidates loyal to power, the people preferred to ignore the election. An analysis of the voters’ high social activity in the protest constituencies revealed that they were guided by regional and clan loyalties, rather than by political considerations. The people, who at all times treated central power with a great deal of suspicion, were absolutely convinced that this time the leaders had decided to ultimately deprive them of their rights.4 Unreasonably, Akaev and his cronies neither relieved the pressure, nor sought compromises. The presidential team went even further: it insisted that the election was the epitome of democracy and power of the people.
It was no wonder that on 28 February mass demonstrations swept several regions. People even blocked highways to support those who either lost the election or had been removed from the race. On 4 March, the crowd occupied the building of the regional Dzhalal-Abad administration. This drew no response from the authorities and ignited similar processes elsewhere; alternative power structures were set up. By 13 March, the date of the second round of the parliamentary election, some regions were no longer controlled by the center. Violations of the voting and vote counting procedure were even more obvious: the government failed to learn its lesson. On 15 March, the People’s Kurultai convened on the initiative of the regional elite leaders set up the Coordinating Council of People’s Unity with K. Bakiev and B. Erkinbaev as its informal leaders. Taking several incidents (in some places criminals were set free, while 23 million soms were stolen from the Dzhalal-Abad Branch of the National Bank) as a pretext, official Bishkek described the development of events as criminal. On 19 March, the riot police tried unsuccessfully to recapture the administration building in Dzhalal-Abad. Events spiraled out of control.
The opposition was as shocked as those who still headed the country. On 24 March, a crowd took the Government House in Bishkek by storm; the opposition had to admit that this was something it never expected. President Akaev left the country of his own free will, while the opposition, carried away by the opportunity to divide the spoils, failed to prevent massive plundering of the capital.
The events of 24 March can be described as a coup which assumed the form of a popular revolution for two reasons. First, the regional leaders provoked popular discontent by means of the election results. Second, Western sponsors actively interfered, allegedly to change the regime in a democratic way. This was why the opposition won on 24 March.
The average Kyrgyz “revolutionary” of March 2005 was very different from the average revolutionary in Serbia, Georgia, and Ukraine, where the youth played first fiddle. In Kyrgyzstan, it was much older people of the titular nation who were involved. The Bishkek population showed no enthusiasm: there were too many nationalities living in the capital who had nothing in common with the regional and clan groups of the titular nation. This explains why the “revolution” began in the regions and was advanced by rural people, strange as this may seem. The outburst in the south was undoubtedly prepared, among other factors, by foreign (mainly American) interference. For some time, foreign funds and the NGOs which operated on their money had been manipulating public opinion in the crisis regions to bring the people’s indignation to boiling point. The violations of the election procedure were the last straw for the leaders of the south already irritated about the “power usurpers” from the north of the country. The resulting unrest which swept across the republic brought the nearly 15 years of Akaev’s rule to an end.
After several days of chaos, a semblance of law and order was restored. Kurmanbek Bakiev, who obviously stood out among the variegated opposition crowd, was appointed premier and acting president. Felix Kulov, who was released from prison on 24 March, spent several days in power and returned to his vague status. By early April, the country found itself in a strange situation in which the government was represented by a “pro-Akaev” parliament, the product of the latest election, and a provisional government staffed with opposition members. The former allies would not agree to disband the newly elected legislature as some people suggested. The parliament, in turn, gained a new lease on life by recognizing the new government. The situation remained even more complicated until 4 April when the fugitive president finally abdicated. After receiving his resignation, the parliament passed a decision on an off-year presidential election and set the date for 10 July.
For want of a real program of reform, the new leaders had to resort to populist statements. It was suggested that the wealth of the Akaev family should be returned to the people, which meant that power authorization and the business spheres related to it were to be redistributed. The opportunity was too good to be missed: the criminal ochlocracy lost no time—property5 and plots of land in the capital for private housing were grabbed. Several prominent businessmen and deputies, the first victims of the uncivilized divvying up of the spoils, were murdered one after another. Economic stability remained beyond reach, while the country slipped into stagnation.6
Immediately after 24 March, some of the prominent public and political figures started talking about constitutional reform to bring the Constitution into harmony with democratic norms. The initiative hailed by all the major political forces produced the Constitutional Assembly, which met for its first sitting on 29 April. Its 105 members represented the executive and judicial powers and the civil sector. It was generally expected that by mid-June a draft would be ready for nationwide discussion. From the very beginning, the Assembly concentrated on two versions: under one of them the nation was expected to endorse the new Constitution before electing a new president. Under the second, discussion of the Constitution and the presidential campaign were two parallel processes. The second version won out, but not without pressure from Kurmanbek Bakiev’s closest associates.
The Assembly members did not agree on too many issues, therefore by mid-November they were still deliberating. In October, the composition of the Assembly changed significantly. Bakiev, who in the meantime had been elected president, brought the number of members of the Constitutional Assembly up to 275, its chairman being appointed by the head of state. It came as an unpleasant surprise to Bakiev’s closest supporters to discover they had been thrown out, while the newly appointed members were mainly selected at random. Civil society justly interpreted this as an attempt to restore the totalitarian past by drafting a constitution which would suit the new leaders. Under public pressure, the president had to invite the “new old opposition” to join the Assembly, thus enlarging its membership to 287. After long, yet fruitless, discussions until mid-November, the new Assembly finally agreed on a draft Constitution; the process was to be completed by 25 December. The final version looked suspiciously like the Constitution adopted in February 2003 when Askar Akaev was still president.7 Under the new constitution, Kyrgyzstan was to become a presidential-parliamentary republic in which the president and the executive structures would retain their broad powers. It was for this reason that in the latter half of November and early December, the “new opposition” (prominent politicians and businessmen displeased with the “power of the people”) made an attempt to achieve closer unity.8 It insisted on the parliamentary form of government as an anti-authoritarian measure.
The civil sector quite correctly strove to limit the executive power’s monopoly, yet the country was not ready for the parliamentary form of government. Its weak civil society and undeveloped national political parties and other democratic institutions made a shift to the parliamentary form during the transition period a hazard fraught with protracted political crises and the possible triumph of regional ochlocratic groups. The country, which had slipped back into the mid-19th century as far as its political development level was concerned, must first return to the path of democratic reforms and real power of the people. World experience has taught us that if reform is imposed, no country will be able to avoid serious upheavals fatal to its multinational population.
The off-year presidential election held on 10 July played an important role in shaping the current political situation. It was during the election campaign that the K. Bakiev-F. Kulov bloc was formed: the Andijan events forced all influential politicians to close ranks in the face of a common threat. Under the agreement, presidential nominee Kurmanbek Bakiev promised Felix Kulov the post of prime minister. This defused the tension which had been mounting between them and their camps since early May. The result, however, posed several questions. First, did the agreement justify the nation’s expectations and what could people expect from the alliance? Most of those who approved of the Bakiev-Kulov tandem later voiced their doubts about its future, and with good reason.
In the absence of a national leader able to unify the different interests of the local people by force of his moral authority, the political clans offered their own tactics, according to which the titular nation in the south and the north split its sympathies between Bakiev and Kulov. Weaker, but no less ambitious candidates (A. Atambaev, A. Madumarov, etc.) were squeezed out of the race by being included in the central figures’ teams. Some of the other most serious contesters (Tursunbay Bakir uulu, Urmatbek Baryktabasov, and Zhypar Zheksheev) preferred different tactics.
The events of 17 June, which the new rulers called an aborted “counterrevolutionary coup” allegedly initiated by Askar Akaev, should be paid special attention. Early on 17 June, supporters of U. Baryktabasov, who the Central Election Commission refused to register, gathered a large rally in the center of Bishkek and seized the Government House once more. After a short while, they were driven from the building, while their leader was put on the wanted list. So far, details and causes remain unknown. Independent observers believe, however, that the new government planted its agents in the ranks of the candidate’s supporters. It was they who staged the coup to fortify the position of the new leaders in society.
The “strange” election of 10 July brought the Bakiev-Kulov tandem its expected victory. However, those who crowded around the new leaders could not abandon their old habits and relied heavily on the notorious administrative resource, which invited numerous negative comments from independent observers; foreign observers, meanwhile, described the election as “the purest and fairest.”
Immediately after the election, the potential premier was consistently deprived of much of his power by removing his supporters from important posts.9 The agreement between the president and the premier stipulated that the power structures would be controlled by the new president, therefore the replacements raised no questions. What puzzled the public was the desire of the new president to control all more or less profitable economic branches with the alleged aim of achieving more rational use of the country’s strategic resources. This did not satisfy the majority: the new administration was suspected of building up a regime of personal power. Suspicions intensified when the nation learned that Prosecutor General A. Beknazarov had been removed from his post on 19 September; and tension increased even more when deputy B. Erkinbaev was murdered the next day.
This was not all: on 20 October deputy T. Akmatbaev and his retinue were murdered in Correctional Labor Colony No. 31. The tension reached its peak when relatives accused Premier Felix Kulov of plotting against the deputy. The sides barely avoided direct clashes. For several days, two mass rallies were held in the capital at a distance of 100 meters from each other. The echo resounded louder and louder across the country. Certain experts were convinced that a clash could have triggered events similar to the Tajik scenario of 1992. The silent president was reproached from all sides; he was even accused of close ties with the dead deputy’s brother, R. Akmatbaev, who is well known in criminal circles. President Bakiev’s meeting with the relatives of the dead, as well as his obviously delayed address to the nation stabilized the situation, yet those who suspected the president of wanting to get rid of Kulov became even more convinced. Foreign investors and foreign missions were extremely concerned about everything going on, including the mounting crime wave.
The country was growing more and more unstable, mainly because certain politicians sought to upturn the political balance. People were very much troubled by T. Turgunaliev and his supporters who, in order to dissolve the parliament, had already collected the 300,000 signatures required for a national referendum. This would undoubtedly cause large-scale destabilization and push the country toward civil war. T. Turgunaliev himself insisted that he wanted to restore justice and to complete the fair cause of the “popular revolution.” He is suspected, however, of getting rid of the deputies bold enough to oppose Bakiev and to weaken Kulov’s position.10 Whatever the case, this is building up tension in a country living through a very difficult period; the civil conflict born in 2004 will inevitably come out into the open, leaving devastation and loss of life in its wake.
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The regime change carried out by illegitimate means and which should partly be blamed on the former president and his closest circle revealed the problems and contradictions of the country’s domestic development. Today, society is suffering most from the new leaders’ failure to establish civilized relations with the new opposition and from their attempt to assume total control over all the social spheres.11 The new government, which in the recent past suffered from the real and imagined persecutions of the Akaev regime now actively vilified, is making the same mistakes and alienating its real and potential allies in promoting democracy not only in Kyrgyzstan, but also in other countries of Central Asia.
Politics in the Kyrgyz Republic is growing increasingly unpredictable. It failed to accommodate itself to the rationally organized field of civilized relationships and may provoke a clash between the rivaling groups. There are external threats as well; coupled with the weakly developed democratic institutions, they are breeding numerous threats for the country’s development. Domestic factors, which have already divided society and given a boost to the traditionalist trends, cannot but cause alarm. Typically enough, the populace vacillates between passivity and expectations of the worst and criminal ochlocratic pressure on the authorities. Combined with the egotistic, rapacious, and power-hungry clans, this may prove fatal for the country.
For this reason the new leadership, one of the most influential sides of the political process which needs stability and higher authority among law-abiding citizens and foreign partners, should work toward civil peace and harmony to be able to address the most urgent strategic tasks. They are: harmonization of the domestic situation; social consolidation as a tool of struggle against corruption and bureaucratic arbitrariness; and prevention of shady cartel agreements which contradict the nation’s interests. Mistakes should be prevented, not corrected after the fact. This alone will give the new government a chance to earn the nation’s respect and acceptance.
1 The Popular Movement of Kyrgyzstan headed by K. Bakiev; the Zhany-Bagyt headed by M. Imanaliev and I. Abdrazakov and Ata-Zhurt headed by R. Otunbaeva and O. Tekebaev. There was also a youth group called Kel-Kel patterned on the Georgian Kmara and Ukrainian Pora. Back to text
2 It should be said that in some cases the candidates who stood opposed to Akaev used similar methods—money and the voters’ clan affiliation. Back to text
3 Under the 2003 Constitution these were the elections to the one-chamber parliament by 75 majority constituencies. Back to text
4 The events of February-March 2005 brought to mind the local elections of the late 19th century also accompanied by massive fights between clans. Back to text
5 The most graphic example of this was supplied by N. Motuev from the Naryn Region who on 10 June appropriated the largest coal stripping Kara-Keche. He is rumored to say to the new leaders: “You seized power, I grabbed wealth.” Back to text
6 The small and medium businesses destroyed by the riots and plundering of 24 March did not receive promised compensations. Back to text
7 The statement that K. Bakiev made at a press conference of 8 December was sensational yet completely expected. He said that he did not rule out a possibility of postponing the constitutional reform till 2009. He argued, very much in line with the tradition, that society needed political and social stability. Back to text
8 On 25 November, for example, the constituent congress of the Union of Democratic Forces was held in Bishkek on an initiative of K. Baybolov. Back to text
9 The way Head of the Administration of the Interior of Bishkek O. Suvanaliev was replaced with M. Kongantiev from Dzhalal-Abad is one of the most graphic examples. Back to text
10 This is indirectly confirmed by T. Turgunaliev’s frequent statements that the country did not need a premier whose functions could be entrusted to the president. His own reputation as a “tribune of the people” was greatly damaged by his zealous speeches in defense of criminal leader R. Akmatbaev. Back to text
11 This is confirmed by the seizure in October-December of the leading media, the central TV channels in the first place, by the groups close to the new leaders. In some cases force was used. Back to text