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The Asian side of the world

Jean-François Sabouret

Part two. National challenges and their strategies to overcome them

Kyrgyzstan: between democratisation and authoritarianism

Asel Doolotkeldieva

Texte intégral

1August 2010

2After a long political crisis, on 7th of April 2010, the government was once again overthrown in Kyrgyzstan, the second change of power in twenty years. The first, known as the “Tulip Revolution”, put an end to Askar Akayev’s authoritarian regime on 23rd of March 2005 and was replaced by Kurmanbek Bakiev’s government, which was no less authoritarian. Is this small central Asian country (with a population of 5.5 million and an area of 198,500 km2) heading towards a permanent state of instability? Certain local researchers have attempted to interpret this chronic instability using culturalist models. The fact that the Kyrgyz people are traditionally nomads means that they were supposedly unable to adopt “artificial” structures following independence in 1991, which would result to the rejection of the state. This explanation, however, does not clarify why each coup d’état is followed by attempts of democratisation, which would suggest the Kyrgyz approval of a fair state concept. Furthermore, it is suspected that external players may have orchestrated this change in power. It would therefore have been in the interest of the United States and Russia to oust the despotic Bakiev and replace him with a more “docile” candidate. Is this situation the result of domestic social upheaval or an event organised with the help of the great powers?

3Three months later, it is clear that this change of power was the result of a social uprising. The population had grown quickly disillusioned with President Bakiev’s potential to reform. The “revolutionarist’s” promise to reform the state, eradicate corruption, conjure a Kyrgyz miracle and save the country from economic decline only led to disappointment. Instead, in 2006, Bakiev removed his colleagues of the Opposition from power, thus rejecting the state reforms jointly put forward by all political parties and civil society. In autumn 2007, he dissolved the parliament and after the new elections, formed a loyal government, which adopted constitutional changes allowing him to benefit from unlimited power. During this period, protests from the Opposition increased and, in 2006, they were already calling for Kurmanbek Bakiev to resign.

4In order to maintain an even tighter rein on the Opposition, the president appointed several members of his family to important positions; his brother, Janysh, was promoted to director of the Security Service to manage the work and intelligence, so as to repress “internal enemies”. Removing political rivals from their positions became something of a norm; three members of parliament, influential businessmen, politicians and five journalists were assassinated between 2007 and 2009. Another two of Bakiev’s brothers controlled the southern provinces where major drug trafficking was coming in from Afghanistan. Discontent grew further when Bakiev appointed his young son, Maxime, to head the Economic Agency, newly created by the President’s administration to control all foreign investment and national economic programmes, which sparked serious criticism within the country. Even former President, Askar Akayev never dared to appoint his children to such high positions. This decision was a blatant clash betweens state and personal interests. Shortly after Maxime’s nomination, a huge financial scandal within the Agency erupted. Evgeny Gurevich, the president of the international company, MNG, which was commissioned to promote the agency’s projects is still wanted by Interpol for his connections with la Cosa Nostra, the Italian mafia.

5In February 2010, in addition to the connections between the government and criminal networks, the Kyrgyz society discovered from Russian television stations that the Russian credit of 300 million dollars intended for the construction of a hydro-electric station in Kambarata in order to ensure the security of the country’s energy supply was embezzled by the Bakiev family. In relation to this, leaders of the Opposition claimed that without Russian funds, Bakiev would have been deported much sooner and would not have managed to have been re-elected in August 2009 as his popularity reached its lowest at the time. For the Kyrgyz, who had lived with electricity and gas cuts for years, this news came as a shock. Corruption and greed continued to shake the country. Major state companies such as Severelectro and KirghizTelecom were privatised for a pitiful amount for the benefit of the President’s family.

6Finally, a dramatic rise in heating, electricity and communication prices from autumn 2009 led to a social upheaval like never before. For the entire month of February 2010, civil servants from the province of Naryn protested against the hike in prices. The Kyrgyz, who were neglected during the many years of political and economic crisis, and disinherited by their own government, were dismayed by these illegal measures.

7On 7th of April 2010, the Opposition, the United Front, with Temir Sariev, Almaz Atambaev, Azimbek Beknazarov and Rosa Otunbaeva leading the party, planned to hold a major rally in Bishkek, the capital, but they were arrested and imprisoned on the eve of the rally. For some of the citizens who participated in the coup d’état on 6th, 7th and 8th of April, this act was “the final straw” and a type of catalyst for the events to come. While the first riots were breaking out in the province of Talas, rumours of the coup d’état spread to the capital. Bakiev then decided to open fire on the peaceful and unarmed protesters in front of the White House (the residence of Head of State), causing 86 deaths and over 1,000 casualties, before leaving the capital. He then took refuge in his hometown, Teit, in the province of Jalal-Abad, where his presence provoked more bloody clashes, this time between his own men and supporters of the Opposition. Following an agreement between Kazakhstan, Russia and the new Kyrgyz government, it was decided that for the integrity and national security of Kyrgyzstan, Bakiev should take refuge in Belarus where he is currently living today.

8In analysing this protest movement, many aspects attract our attention including the causes of the social upheaval, the spontaneous or organised nature of the events and the type of external support that the provisional government received. Although the leaders of this movement claim not to have planned such a revolt, their rapid and efficient organisation to form a provisional government with a woman leading it and the coherence of their actions lead us to believe that these steps were thought out in advance, given the previous divided opinions of the Opposition. Appointing Rosa Otunbaeva as head is another interesting aspect. Unlike her colleagues from the Opposition (Atambaev Almaz, Tekebaev Omurbek and Sariev Temir), she had never shown any presidential ambition before. This choice, however, could have been put down to the fact that Otunbaeva possesses considerable experience in diplomacy and international relations, which are valuable assets that helped the government gain legitimacy and support from the international community.

9Although leaders from the Opposition claim not to have planned the coup d’état on 7th of April, their decisive actions nevertheless seem to be supported by an apparent change in Russian policy towards Kyrgyzstan in the last months. Russian television channels aired a series of reports in February and March 2010, strongly criticising corruption among Bakiev’s staff, which sent out a rather strong message of Bakiev’s potential fall from grace to the Opposition and encouraged their actions.

10At the same time, this was not about settling the score between the elite divided by the Tulip Revolution, restoring power or winning back economic resources. The spontaneity of the rallies of individuals who assembled in various areas of the capital to protest is also an important aspect for analysis. Although during the Tulip Revolution in March 2005, protesters were brought to the capital by bus by the leaders of the Opposition and were paid and even encouraged with alcohol; on 7th of April 2010, no such things could have urged these individuals to stay in the main square in the direct line of the snipers’fire and risk their lives. According to the accounts of the survivors, the privacy of these citizens was threatened; nobody could escape the misuse of power. People came from all corners of the capital, having been contacted by telephone or text message or even because they were passing by. The protesters also viewed the storming into the White House, the symbol of power, as a means of expressing their own grievances and demands.

11All these aspects define the socio-political context in which it has become easy to seize power in Kyrgyzstan, although difficult to maintain. What was witnessed in April 2010 in Kyrgyzstan was the weakening of the state, the corruption and criminalisation of its institutions, the poverty and idleness of the population, the lack of independent justice, the power of might over right, the deserting of human potential and the fall of the economy indicative of the Kyrgyz state breaking down. Society rallied against the authoritarian regimes of Akayev and Bakiev with the intention of saving the state and in a referendum on 27th of June, they voted for a new parliamentary Constitution despite the continuous instability.

12These efforts to democratise, perhaps the last in the region, are in jeopardy today. The new Constitution not only provides the political system with the chance to democratise the decision-making mechanisms, but also allows for a greater power-sharing system. However, regional players such as Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are against this so-called parliamentary model because it is unthought-of to form a parliamentary republic in Central Asia and in the post-Soviet region. Such a political evolution would undermine these authoritarian regimes, creating precedent and increasing feelings of discontent, which are already difficult to contain. On the other hand, the ethnic conflict, which broke out in the south of Kyrgyzstan on 10th of June and plunged the country into chaos, strengthened the positions of politicians who were against a multi-party regime. In a bankrupt state where official power cannot guarantee the (physical) security of its citizens, the public is increasingly calling out for a helping hand. Nationalist parties such as Ata-jurt, Butun Kyrghzstan, El-Armany and others are taking advantage of these events to score political points. Parliamentary elections are planned for 10th of October if the country is not shaken by further socio-political earthquakes. The outcome of these elections is of utmost importance for Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia because if the nationalist political parties come into power, they will change the Constitution in favour of a strong presidential regime and perhaps a return to authoritarianism.

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