Is Kyrgyzstan Destined to “Color Revolutions”?

By Erica Marat

Unrest continues in Kyrgyzstan, this time in southern cities Osh, Batken, and Jalalabad. Tens of people took over local government headquarters, demonstrating their disapproval of the provisional government. Most in Bishkek believe these are supporters of ousted president Kurmanbek Bakiyev who were likely paid to protest. Kyrgyz National Security Service reports that Bakiyev’s family spent over $1 million to challenge the provisional government. Tashkent and Astana’s reluctance to reopen the border with Kyrgyzstan is contributing to social tensions in the south.

For the first time since the April 7 regime change, the head of the provisional government Roza Otunbayeva traveled to Osh. There she spoke about the nation’s unity, asserting that any calls for the nation’s split come from people struggling for power. Otunbayeva sounds convincing, yet she can’t afford to openly criticize Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan’s close door policies.

Kyrgyz NGO leaders claim that most members of the provisional government, including those who are originally from the south, prefer to avoid visiting southern parts of Kyrgyzstan fearing for personal safety. But they are not afraid of regular people who might disagree with the new leadership in Bishkek. Rather, they are worried about being challenged by local criminal leaders disinterested in sharing their power because of the regime change. Syndicates of the previous regime remain the only viable force that Bakiyev and his family members can rely on when it comes to challenging the new government. They control drug trade and local economy. They are probably also the reason why Bakiyev’s brother Zhanysh and son Marat, both of whom enjoy wide support among criminal leaders, have been able to hide in various parts of Kyrgyzstan.

Unlike the Bakiyev government that enjoyed instant support after coming to power in late March 2005, public trust in the provisional government remains low. Local NGOs are mobilized to oversee the new government’s work closely. The government is under extreme pressure from NGOs and the international community to avoid using forceful methods in response to anti-governmental unrests.

To date the government has been trying to use civil methods in dealing with outbreaks of violence. But because the borders with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are shut and the criminal groups are widely spread, Kyrgyzstan will continue to be an unstable place. Many farmers have been hit hard because of shortage of fuel, numerous small and medium businesses in urban areas are in despair. Indeed, several members of the provisional government are impatient to deploy force to reassert own power against angry crowds despite NGOs and international pressures.

Tensions are expected to renew on May 17th, when the 40-day commemoration period after the April 7 tragedy is over. To resist crowds susceptible to criminal leaders’ influence, Otunbayeva’s government will be bound to use force. Several voluntary guards made up of government supporters are likely to forcefully defend the new regime as well. The clashes might turn ugly and lead to more bloodshed. Perhaps this is precisely what Kyrgyzstan’s neighbors are wishing for by failing to open up the borders; to prove that “color revolutions” lead to uncertainty and continuous violence. As Kyrgyzstan is forced deeper into greater isolation, their point gains more substance.