Whatever just went down in Kyrgyzstan, one thing in clear: this isn't how it was supposed to happen.
- By Joshua Keating
Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy
View a slideshow of today’s events in Kyrgyzstan
Protests have been growing against Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s government for weeks, but the speed with which the situation in Kyrgyzstan descended into violence and chaos Wednesday surprised even dedicated Central Asia watchers. Events are still unfolding, and it’s far from clear who will emerge the winner in the power struggle in Bishkek. But it’s not too soon to ask whether warning signs of today’s events should have been seen in advance, whether Western countries could have done anything to prevent today’s bloodshed, and how to prevent another repressive government from taking place, as after 2005’s “Tulip Revolution.”
What is clear is that even Bakiyev’s staunchest opponents aren’t happy with the way his regime ended. I spoke with Edil Baisalov, a former Kyrgyz opposition leader and participant in the events of 2005 who has been living in exile in Sweden since 2007. He’s preparing to return home tomorrow.
“The events of today don’t look very nice on TV,” he told me. “We don’t have the flavor of the Orange Revolution. We don’t see peaceful European protesters standing in the square holding candles. Despite our efforts to organize a national movement around civil resistance, this was a bloody uprising. It was clearly provoked by the regime and arrest of opposition leaders this week.”
Casualty numbers are still unreliable, but at least 40 people were thought to have been killed on Wednesday as police used live ammunition, tear gas, and stun grenades on the protesters who had gathered outside the presidential palace in Bishkek. The protesters, some carrying automatic weapons themselves, stormed government offices and state broadcasters. Bakiyev fled the capital in his presidential plane and his location is still unknown.
Bishkek-based International Crisis Group analyst Paul Quinn-Judge — reached by phone in Tajikistan — said international observers should avoid viewing today’s events through “Color Revolution”-tinted glasses.
“We’re not dealing with a revolution, and if anyone starts calling it a revolution in the next couple of days, we’re going to have to slap that down,” he said. “The unrest is spontaneous, and largely disorganized, which is very bad news.”
Outside observers have fallen into this trap before, Quinn-Judge, who was Time magazine’s Moscow bureau chief from 1996-2006, noted. “The ‘Tulip Revolution’ wasn’t a revolution. It was we journalists who called it that, or at least allowed our editors to call it that, who are to blame for that distortion of history.”
“It was a fairly well-crafted, concerted extra-constitutional reshuffle of the government whereby some key former members of the government pushed out the government.”
Quinn-Judge says the discontent with Bakiyev’s government that led to today’s events has been building for weeks, and was driven less by political repression than by bread and butter issues.
“A few weeks ago, the government sudden raised the prices on gas, water and electricity,” he said. “This turned out to be quite literally the final straw for a population that is generally very apolitical and willing to take whatever is thrown at them by the regime.”
“This sort of crystallized the anger people have had over the years over suspicions that the government was fixing the election and looting the country. These little boring things like utility increases that no foreign correspondent is interested in brought everything home to people.”
As the discontent grew, Bakiyev’s government became increasingly repressive, tightening its control over the media and political opposition. Baisalov is infuriated that the United States never spoke out about the situation.
“How can the Obama administration and the State Department explain how they kept silent over the last three months?” he said. “We’ve seen television and radio shut down. We’ve seen newspapers shut down. We’ve seen public rallies being dispersed. We didn’t hear a single American voice, even at an embassy level. The United States cannot claim that they didn’t know. Their own Radio Liberty was being shut down! There are many people who used to be loyal friends of the United States who now feel let down. They feel the United States was on the side of Bakiyev.”
Erica Marat, a Washington-based analyst of Kyrgyz politics, thinks the U.S. airbase in Manas, a major transit point for the war effort in Afghanistan, may be one reason for the administration’s silence. “On an unofficial level it may have been felt that the U.S. base in Kyrgyzstan was more important than democracy in Kyrgyzstan,” she said. “At this point, whoever comes to power, the U.S. has to be more vocal. When the U.S. doesn’t say anything it looks like the U.S. is protecting the regime.”
When asked about support for Kyrgyzstan at a press briefing today, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley acknowledged that “we are allied with that government in terms of its support for international operations in Afghanistan” but also stressed that “we identify with the concerns that the people of Kyrgyzstan have about their future.” Crowley also expressed concern over the violence in Bishkek, urging “all parties to show respect for the rule of law and resolve differences in a peaceful, orderly, and legal manner.”
Some International observers have noted the deteriorating human rights situation in Kyrgyzstan. In a speech before the country’s parliament earlier this month, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that “recent events have been troubling” and stressed that “all human rights must be protected, including free speech and freedom of the media.” But Ban declined to mention any specific incidents — including the forced dispersal of protesters outside his speech.
So what happens now? Opposition leaders claim to have seized control of the government, but no one seems to be officially in charge of the country right now and the prospect of another destabilizing power struggle looms.
“At this point the Kyrgyz opposition doesn’t really have a clear leader,” Marat said. “There are some prominent figures but I’m afraid that at four or five of them see themselves as president. Kyrgyzstan’s modest history shows that whoever suffered most will try to fight for power.”
As he heads back to Bishkek, Baisalov reflects on the lessons of 2005, agreeing that a return to authoritarian rule remains a serious possibility. “Out of this uprising, will we have a revolution that will change the country for the better, or will it turn into another coup d’etat? We assumed that by throwing out Askar Akayev’s family, we taught society a lesson. But it didn’t turn out that way.
“All those people who helped Akayev before, they helped another dictator. ” We must not fall into this trap again.”