What’s Behind the Kyrgyzstan Revolution

By Karl Horberg

Protest season has begun again in Kyrgyzstan. Unfortunately, the sight of crowds storming Ala-Too Square and blood in front of the White House are familiar images. It was only five years ago last month a spontaneous demonstration morphed into the Tulip Revolution that sent President Askar Akayev and his family fleeing to Russia.

The Tulip Revolution was largely a result of the discontent surrounding the February 2005 parliamentary elections which were criticized by observers and widely seen as fraudulent (it did not help that Akayev’s son and daughter both won seats in the Supreme Council). Bolstered by successful color revolutions in Lebanon and Ukraine just months earlier, Kyrgyz people took to the streets, first in the southern city of Jalal-Abad, and then in the capital, Bishkek.

The term “revolution”, however, should be used loosely. Once the dust settled the results of the March run-off elections were validated and the politicians who were called frauds only days before were sworn in. To make matters even more confusing two former Akayev administration officials, Felix Kulov and Kurmanbek Bakiyev, became Prime Minister and President, respectively.

The word “authoritarian” will be used frequently in the coming days, but the unrest that began earlier this week in the city of Talas did not have to do with fraudulent elections or nepotism. This is not to stay Bakiyev is not authoritarian. He has stacked parliament with his supporters, has been systematically eliminating dissidents, and recently questioned whether democracy requires elections or respect for human rights. These protests, however, are fueled by rage over basic services. Utility prices were raised last month, sparking peaceful protests in the capital. Now a few pennies extra for heat may not seem like something that justifies the overthrowing of your government. However, consider the fact that Kyrgyzstan has faced some harsh winters in the past few years, food prices are rising quickly and utilities are less than reliable. Meanwhile the president seems more concerned with anointing his son as his successor. This has made for a deadly combination that spilled out into the streets of Bishkek.

Will we see the collapse of government again? I sincerely doubt it. (Although I may be completely wrong. The New York Times is reporting Bakiyev has fled Bishkek and Twitter traffic seems to suggest that he has resigned.) For one thing, Bakiyev is a much more skilled politician than Akayev. Not only was he able to weather the storm of protests in 2006, but he managed to completely shut out the opposition from Parliament, restructure the government and deftly manipulated both the US and Russia over the threatened closure of Manas Air Base.

Putting aside Bakiyev’s political skills, the opposition is weak and fragmented. A coalition of opposition parties united behind Almazbek Atambayev in the 2009 presidential elections but only received 8% of the vote. Atambayev is nowhere to be seen during the recent unrest. Roza Otunbayeva, the leader of the Social Democratic Party and key member of the Tulip Revolution, has been the face of the protestors. Sadly, like the last time around Otunbayeva and company seem caught off guard and genuinely surprised at the ability of a popular uprising to unseat the government.

In order to maintain any semblance of credibility the opposition will have to act quickly to stop looters (another unfortunate case of Tulip Revolution déjà vu), distance themselves from the Bakiyev regime, and pass reforms that will improve the living conditions of the average Kyrgyz citizen. This is will not be an easy task considering Bakiyev supporters make up the majority of the parliament and the election commission.

The writer was a peace corps volunteer in Kyrgyzstan from 2004-2006. You can follow him on Twitter.