As Askar Akayev’s regime collapsed across Kyrgyzstan, Russian policymakers and analysts considered whether the upheaval in the Central Asian republic falls into the same category as the Rose Revolution in Georgia and Orange Revolution in Ukraine.
Most Russian commentators note some important parallels between events in Kyrgyzstan and the revolutions in Georgia in 2003 and in Ukraine in 2004. First, the popular actions in Kyrgyzstan were triggered by flawed elections. Second, the local opposition appealed to the West for political support. Third, Russia seemed likely be drawn in the brewing conflict on the side of the authorities. But the regional analysts also point to several distinct features of the Kyrgyz political crisis.
There is a general consensus among Russian political scientists that there have been three principal driving forces behind the recent “velvet revolutions” in the post-Soviet space. These are the easily mobilized youth, a relatively well-developed middle class unhappy about the corrupt and authoritarian ways of the central authorities, and a business elite unhappy about the dominance of local “oligarchs” connected with the ruling “family.” Of these three key agents of change, the experts contend, Kyrgyzstan possesses only the disenchanted and impoverished young people who are being agitated by leaders of rival clans eager to snatch power from Akayev and his entourage.
The majority of Russia’s Central Asia specialists are skeptical as to whether the “velvet” scenarios apply in the ethnically complex and politically explosive region. In Central Asia, they say, the opposition’s ultimate political objective is not building a regular bourgeois society based on the rule of law. In addition, some of the disparate opposition forces may be guided by Islamist ideology.
Thus, some observers believe the developments in Kyrgyzstan are not a mere imitation of the upheavals in Georgia and Ukraine. According to Igor Bunin, head of the Center for Political Technologies, “The actions of Akayev’s opposition are not fraught with a threat of the next velvet revolution.” Rather, it is an attempt to “exploit the young people’s discontent for the political needs of one of the local clans” (Trud, February 5).
Another popular argument is that the classic velvet revolution scenario cannot take place without some sort of European incentive. The most powerful slogans in the streets of Tbilisi and Kyiv called for a “future in Europe.” Protestors understood that an opposition victory would eventually open a path toward European integration. Clearly, Kyrgyzstan cannot count on any association with NATO or the EU.
Furthermore, one should not overlook the “national liberation” motive in Georgia and Ukraine. As the analyst Oleg Panfilov recently pointed out, “anti-Kremlin or, more precisely, anti-Putin” sentiments were crucial in Ukraine and Georgia. But nationalist ideology is extremely weak in Kyrgyzstan. There is also a sizeable Slavic minority in Kyrgyzstan whose representatives claim to want to protect their kin, which only adds to Russia’s popularity in the country (Novoye vremya, March 13).
There are also geographical and historical aspects that make the Kyrgyz situation even more complicated. Geographically, formidable mountain ranges divide the country into two parts – north and south – that traditionally oppose one another. President Akayev originates from the north, while his opponents’ political base is in the south. The south also has a large ethnic Uzbek population that often resents what they see as the north’s political dominance and greater prosperity. It is not accidental, the analysts note, that it is primarily in the south – in the cities of Osh and Jalalabad – that the opposition forces were the most active and aggressive.
Until the last moment, Kyrgyz authorities controlled the situation in the country’s capital. Whereas Tbilisi revolted against Eduard Shevardnadze and half a million Ukrainians flooded into Kyiv’s streets to demand the resignation of Leonid Kuchma, Bishkek stood loyal to Akayev. In a January 28 interview with Nezavisimaya gazeta, Akayev noted this very aspect. “To be sure, I enjoy widespread support in the capital,” he asserted. “Just remember, both in Georgia and Ukraine, the capital cities were in the hands of the opposition.”
Akayev strategists anticipated some of the opposition’s moves. Speaking with Izvestiya before the first round of elections, Valentin Bogatyrev, Akayev’s aide and director of the International Institute of Strategic Studies, warned that the opposition would try to “organize a kind of joint southern resistance.” They would seek to “turn Osh into their Kyiv,” Bogatyrev predicted. “The rallies in the south will likely last for a long time” (Izvestiya, February 21).
Russian analysts predicted that support from law enforcement and security bodies would be pivotal. If the Kyrgyz siloviki could localize the “mutiny” and quickly restore order in the key southern cities, the revolutionary wave might have subsided at least until the presidential poll scheduled for October. But if the clashes continued, if some police units joined the protesters, and if “people’s governors” established themselves as alternative centers of power, then the country might find itself on the verge of splitting up. “Kyrgyzstan is facing the prospect of dual power, which eventually may lead to the collapse of the state,” political analyst Maxim Yusin wrote in the March 21 issue of Izvestiya.