A year has passed since March 24, 2005, Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan, when crowds seized the main government building in Bishkek and President Askar Akayev fled the country. The popular euphoria over the ouster of the corrupt regime quickly changed to anxiety as tensions rose in the country. Virtually every week has been marked with showdowns between state officials, civil unrest, and political assassinations. The new government, led by President Kurmanbek Bakiyev and Prime Minister Felix Kulov, has been criticized for its chaotic cadre reshuffles and its inability to curb corruption or generate economic development.
The events of March 24, 2005, have multiple interpretations. They can be considered a victory for democracy, a mere rotation of political elites, a mass riot, or even a coup d’etat. The final judgment depends on the answers to four questions.
What has changed?
Today southern elites occupy the key positions in the government, breaking the northern hold on power established during the Soviet era. This long northern dominance was the main source of regional tensions. Popular unrest was triggered by the defeat of Bakiyev and Adakhan Modumarov, two famous political leaders from the south, in the parliamentary runoff on March 13, 2005. Together with former foreign minister Roza Otunbayeva, the opposition leaders began to organize demonstrations in southern cities, producing the deepest political crisis that Akayev had faced during his presidency.
The revolution shifted the balance between state and non-state actors and uncovered the tremendous power of the criminal world in Kyrgyzstan. Some two-dozen organized-crime groups are currently active throughout Kyrgyzstan. Whereas during the Akayev regime the state was able to exercise strong control over various criminal elements, after the revolution the underground world formed a parallel authority structure. Criminal groups and mafia chiefs openly challenged the government and often escaped persecution.
The revolution also confirmed that deep inter-ethnic cleavages still persist in Kyrgyz society. Much of the Russian population fled after the revolution, indicating minority groups’ feelings of insecurity. The new government has paid little attention to the importance of civic rights in Kyrgyzstan, and violent conflicts erupted between Kyrgyz, Dungans, and Uzbeks.
Finally, in the wake of March 24 Kyrgyz civil society has developed into a significant political force that the government is no longer able to ignore, let alone curb. NGOs now regularly voice concerns about episodes in the criminal world. The NGOs also played a key role in resolving the Uzbek refugee crisis following the violent protests in Andijan, Uzbekistan, on March 13-14. They called on the Kyrgyz government to comply with UN standards and deport 439 Uzbek refugees to third countries.
What did not change?
Corruption still plagues all state structures. Bakiyev quickly gained public support by promising to eradicate corruption in the government. But the president and his team clearly failed to meet the people’s expectations. By sacking Prosecutor-General Azimbek Beknazarov, an active participant in the Tulip Revolution and the person responsible for investigating corruption by Akayev, the president showed how personality conflicts can affect the government’s performance.
Bakiyev’s government has yet to introduce more efficient economic programs. To date, the government has not taken action to decrease unemployment or prevent the out-migration of the working-age population.
While almost 90% of population voted for Bakiyev in the July 2005 presidential election, today his popularity has dramatically fallen. Many overestimated Bakiyev’s ability to become a visionary leader who would solve pressing problems left by the previous regime. At the same time, Prime Minister Felix Kulov turned out to be overrated as a potential counterweight to Bakiyev.
The new government could have done more to encourage an independent mass media. The Kyrgyz Ambassador to the United States, former journalist Zamira Sydykova, suggests that the government should lower taxes for mass media outlets and paper imports. Encouraging small and medium businesses would also generate advertising and thus help the media to gain economic independence.
What will change?
By firing his former allies, Bakiyev is producing strong opposition leaders. Beknazarov and Otunbayeva are determined to create stronger political parties to act as a counterweight the current government. Sydykova predicts, “Those who had ambitions to win the presidency in 2005 will likely compete in presidential and parliamentary elections in 2010 and represent a powerful force against Bakiyev.”
Popular dissatisfaction with the government is likely to increase in the coming years. Bakiyev’s response will be pivotal. Akayev showed that when the government’s public approval rating drops, the president may turn to authoritarian means in order to remain in power. Akayev, like other Central Asian presidents, used national referendums to amend the constitution to extend his political power.
The Tulip Revolution changed the rules of politics in Kyrgyzstan. There is a new commitment for future Kyrgyz presidents to confine themselves to two five-year terms. And although today the Kyrgyz public regards any possibility of future revolutions with great anxiety, mass mobilization is now a potential tool to protest against undemocratic government.
What must change?
Bakiyev and his government must stop replicating Akayev’s mistakes. They must tackle poverty through viable economic policies. Kyrgyz experts believe that decreasing the poverty level would curtail the activities of organized criminal groups, strengthen civil society, and alleviate inter-ethnic tensions in the long run.
On the international front, Bakiyev should continue to maintain a careful balance of cooperative relations with the United States, Russia, and China. In summer 2005 the new government made several undiplomatic statements regarding the U.S. military base in Bishkek to serve the interests of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, where Russia and China are members. At the same time, Kyrgyzstan cannot allow relations with Russia to deteriorate because some 500,000 labor migrants are currently working in Russian cities. China is an important trade partner.
March 24 is now a national holiday in Kyrgyzstan. A military parade is scheduled in Bishkek and concerts are planned in all of Kyrgyzstan’s major cities. But as NGO activist Edil Baisalov asked, “What’s the need for the military? Why engage in saber rattling? Who is being threatened by missiles? The people who won?” (baisalov.livejournal.com, March 18).
Some see the celebrations as the last vestige of the looting that engulfed Bishkek in the days immediately following the revolution. “This is the day of lost hopes,” one student from Bishkek complained. Similarly, a shuttle trader from Issyk Kul oblast noted, “It is a holiday for the president, not for the people.”
The events on March 24, 2005, constituted a revolution for Kyrgyzstan, a country where democratic traditions are only beginning to take shape. The political changes were abrupt, yet inevitable in the long run. Bishkek’s Central Asian neighbors are carefully watching as the Tulip Revolution unfolds, because Kyrgyzstan’s past year could well be their future.