Kyrgyzstan is in much worse shape today compared to five years ago, when the then little known Kurmanbek Bakiyev came to power. Since the change of leadership occurred as a result of mass demonstrations, and the largely unpopular President, Askar Akayev, chose to flee the country, expectations rose in Kyrgyzstan regarding the country’s political future. Many believed that Bakiyev would combat corruption and political nepotism that marred the Akayev regime.
Unfortunately, however, only a few months into his leadership, Bakiyev showed that he was willing to centralize political control and allow corruption to prosper to an even greater extent than his predecessor. Since March 2005, over a dozen political opponents and journalists were assassinated. All media outlets have been placed under the regime’s control, while access to foreign online media has been eroded. Bakiyev changed the constitution and created a special committee responsible for voting on an interim president in the event that he leaves his post prematurely, as well as a special elite security force entitled to protect him and other top political officials. Both institutions demonstrate the president’s aim to minimize the possibility of any repetition of the events that took place five years ago.
The fifth anniversary highlights the overall weakness of Kyrgyzstan’s political system. The ruling regime increasingly relies on military and security structures to suppress political dissent, while the opposition has been unable to seriously challenge the regime. Unsurprisingly, this year Kyrgyzstan’s Freedom House rating declined from “partially free” to “not free.” while the US State Department’s annual report on human rights describes Kyrgyzstan as the only Central Asian country where cases of arbitrary killings are evident.
“By the end of 2005, Bakiyev began expanding the control of his family over the country’s economy,” explained Ravshan Jeenbekov, the former Kyrgyz Ambassador to Malaysia, and a current opposition member. According to Jeenbekov’s account, by spring 2007, when Bakiyev forcefully dispersed opposition demonstrations, it became obvious that the president was willing to continue holding on to power by resorting to the use of force.
Bakiyev’s forum on March 23 that featured political leaders, NGO activists, and ordinary citizens, was a good illustration of his leadership style (www.akipress.kg, March 23). Several government critics were able to speak out and demand a presidential review of the recent increases in electricity tariffs, and the release of General Ismail Isakov, imprisoned on reportedly false charges of corruption (EDM, March 22). On the same day, however, 20 activists were arrested, including the political opposition leader, Temir Sariyev, and the NGO activist, Toktaim Umitalieva.
Bakiyev’s forum was criticized by Roza Otunbayeva, a Member of Parliament (MP) from the opposition Social Democratic Party. “If the regime so values people’s opinion, why does it not allow real freedom of speech and association?” Otunbayeva wrote on her Twitter account.
In 2005, Roza Otunbayeva was among the leading opposition members to head the mass demonstrations against Akayev’s regime. The former president once characterized her as a “locomotive” of the opposition movement. Today, Otunbayeva is yet again playing an important role in unifying popular protests across the country. On March 17, she served as the main organizer to 3,000 demonstrators in Bishkek, who demanded Bakiyev’s resignation.
By assuming such a leadership role, Otunbayeva today is able to once again invigorate an opposition movement not only inside Kyrgyzstan, but also Kyrgyz diaspora in Russia, Europe, and the US. She is also taking a tremendous risk of being physically intimidated by the regime. Indeed, Otunbayeva’s fellow party members had to flee Kyrgyzstan to escape unfair trials, and to protect their own lives. Among them are the former MP, Bakyt Beshimov, and the NGO activist, Edil Basialov.
Meanwhile, the former president Askar Akayev has accused the US of sponsoring the regime change in 2005, as well as the Bakiyev rule (www.echo.msk.ru, March 23). Akayev argues that on this day five years ago he decided to leave Kyrgyzstan because opposition forces were preparing a coup d’état. He doubts that the “Tulip Revolution” will ever be repeated, since Bakiyev closely cooperates with the US.
Although Akayev shows that he is largely disconnected from reality in Kyrgyzstan, he might be correct in pointing out that his successor has been distancing the country from Russia. Reports about the embezzlement of the $300 million Russian loan permeate its national media (www.vesti.ru, March 23). More Russian analysts openly talk about Bakiyev’s nepotism and corruption. Five years after the “Tulip Revolution” Bakiyev might be facing pressure not only from domestic opposition, but also from his larger neighbors. Moscow might potentially fuel a future regime change in Kyrgyzstan.