On Monday, March 24, Kyrgyzstan officially celebrated the third anniversary of the Tulip Revolution. While the day is officially commemorated as a national holiday, for the majority of the public it merely marks the change of political regimes, from one corrupt leader – former president Askar Akayev – to another – President Kurmanbek Bakiyev. Celebrations in the capital city, Bishkek, were mostly government efforts to demonstrate progress and encourage optimism regarding the political changes that took place in 2005.
Most opposition leaders associate the day with dashed hopes for the positive changes expected with the ouster of Akayev. Instead, President Bakiyev has become infamous for even greater levels of corruption, authoritarianism, and ineffective economic policies. In some parts of the country people protested against the government’s official celebrations. Youth movements in Bishkek tried to stage a counter demonstration on March 24, but their efforts were banned by law-enforcement agencies.
Among the most scandalous developments surrounding the third anniversary is Bakiyev’s prolonged stay in Germany. Bakiyev and a few other government officials secretly left Kyrgyzstan in February and have yet to return. As Bakiyev’s absence became known in early March, rumors spread across Bishkek about a potential health crisis. Several representatives from the presidential administration office rushed to reassure the public that Bakiyev’s health was not in danger and that he is planning to return to Kyrgyzstan on March 28. Speaker of Parliament Adakhan Madumarov told journalists that the president is just taking a well-deserved vacation. But the gossip and conspiracy theories surrounding Bakiyev’s absence at the celebrations for the Tulip Revolution – the day when he, together with opposition forces and citizens from across the country, ousted Akayev – has led to speculation about whether the president is in fact escaping problems at home.
During his three-year leadership Bakiyev has repeated many of Akayev’s mistakes. By surrounding himself with loyal politicians, Bakiyev has ensured the quick and easy achievement of his desired results in public administration. He was able to promulgate a new constitution in October 2007 that granted him virtually unlimited power. The constitutional reform allowed Bakiyev to elect a loyal parliament and bar opposition forces from political representation. Bakiyev’s family members have similarly and ruthlessly taken informal control of the country’s major resources. In particular, the rivalry between Bakiyev’s son, Maxim, and his brothers is fierce. This intra-family competition regarding corrupt deals resembles a similar rivalry within Akayev’s family, which contributed to the rapid collapse of his government.
There are other signs of simmering problems. Besides the worsening record of democratic governance, the country’s economy has been deteriorating and the hydropower sector continues to be mismanaged. This winter was marked by frequent rotating blackouts, while double-digit inflation is likely to peak at the end of summer.
Given the size and location of the country, Kyrgyzstan often finds itself influenced by regional economic and security trends. Kyrgyzstan is a transit route for Chinese goods to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, as well as part of the northern trafficking route for Afghan heroin. Its largest neighbor, Kazakhstan, has had record economic growth in recent years, which has affected Kyrgyzstan’s domestic climate as well. On the one hand Kazakh businessmen and tourists invest in Kyrgyzstan, especially its banking and service sectors. Hundreds of thousands of Kyrgyz labor migrants, both professional and blue collar, have been able to earn their living in Kazakhstan and send remittances home. But, on the other hand, Kazakhstan has also been able to dictate cooperation policies to Kyrgyzstan, at times shutting its borders to Kyrgyz shuttle traders and migrants.
The U.S. ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, Marie Yovanovitch, recently commented on the strict nature of the recent ban of public demonstrations in Bishkek. The mayor of Bishkek recently restricted the ability to hold pubic demonstration without gaining prior approval, and mayors of several other cities have begun to implement similar rules. Several civil society leaders publicly complained about the government’s “selective punishment” of NGO representatives and their unfair trials.
The opposition in Kyrgyzstan is slowly regrouping to challenge the government. Kyrgyzstan still has a chance to become a regional example in democratic development. But it will take another round of constitutional reform and parliamentary and presidential elections to make Kyrgyzstan’s hopes for democracy a reality.
(24.kg, Akipress.kg, Parus.kg, March 20-26)