A mass uprising that chased the authoritarian president of Kyrgyzstan out of his country March 24 went beyond Washington’s scripted “people power revolutions” in the republics of the former USSR. But newly empowered opposition leaders quickly closed ranks against the protesters.
The new government–based on a rigged parliamentary election that sparked the protests to begin with–has dispersed protesters who demanded an election rerun, promising only to move forward presidential elections previously scheduled for October. The new parliament–dominated by supporters of ousted President Askar Akayev, including his daughter and son–will hold power.
Demonstrations began after the March 13 vote to protest the exclusion of opposition candidates from the ballot. Then, 30,000 protesters stormed the presidential building known as the White House, in the capital city of Bishkek. Akayev fled.
Kyrgyzstan, a mountainous country of just 5 million people, lacks the oil and gas of its Central Asian neighbors. However, its border with China and proximity to Afghanistan give it an outsized strategic importance. Both the U.S. and Russia maintain air bases there and contend for influence.
As in Georgia’s “Rose Revolution” in late 2003 and Ukraine’s “Orange Revolution” last winter, U.S. nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) lavishly funded the opposition, printing its newspapers and training its candidates. Washington apparently had aimed for a smoother transition later this year by holding Akayev to his word about not seeking a third presidential term–and backing a pro-U.S. candidate.
Thus, both the divided opposition and U.S. officials appeared to be as stunned as Akayev by the uprising. “The U.S. has not endorsed this change,” Pakistani journalist and Central Asia expert Ahmed Rashid told Socialist Worker. “This has been a big shock. They said, ‘We want calm.'”
Boris Kagarlitsky, the Russian author and activist, agreed. “On the one hand, the U.S. State Department is definitely involved,” he said in an interview from Moscow. “On the other, I’m sure they didn’t want to get rid of Akayev. They wanted to prepare the ground to replace him [following presidential elections] one year from now, but it got out of control.”
The post-election protests were fueled not only by political frustration, but by the poverty that grips at least half the population. Looting across Bishkek targeted the big retail establishments owned by Akayev’s son, highlighting the resentment against the tiny circle of family members and cronies who dominate the economy.
The opposition, however, are former ruling-class insiders cast aside by Akayev. They promptly split upon seizing power, with both the outgoing and newly elected parliaments claiming power.
Felix Kulov, former mayor of Bishkek and head of the ex-KGB security forces, quickly emerged as a major player. Freed from prison by the protesters, he took control of the security services–and immediately threatened to arrest members of the outgoing parliament if they organized further demonstrations.
With tensions mounting, a deal was cut in which the old parliament was dismissed. Kulov, whose base is in Bishkek and the country’s North, kept his powerful security ministry. The post of prime minister and acting president went to Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who comes from the impoverished South. Another key player–and Washington’s favorite–is Roza Otunbayeva, a former foreign minister and ambassador to the U.S. and Britain who has taken control of the foreign ministry.
The infighting reflects the clan and regional character of politics in the country, where the population is 60 percent Kyrgyz, a Turkic people, with large minorities of Russians, Uzbeks and Uighurs comprising most of the rest.
Ironically, Kyrgyzstan was Washington’s earliest and closest ally in Central Asia following the collapse of the USSR in 1991. As head of the country at independence and subsequently elected, Akayev followed every neoliberal prescription of the International Monetary Fund and welcomed the establishment of Western NGOs. After the September 11 attacks, Akayev immediately granted the U.S. an air base, funds for which reportedly account for 5 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s Gross Domestic Product.
Yet U.S. support for “democracy” in Central Asia, as in the Middle East, is highly selective. Washington had little to say when the dictatorial regime of Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan held sham parliamentary elections last year. “The ‘war on terror’ has strengthened repression [in Central Asia], and the alliance with the U.S. has strengthened the regimes,” said Rashid.
But as Akayev became increasingly authoritarian, Washington began hedging its bets, using NGOs to funnel money to the opposition. In response, Akayev edged closer to Moscow. He allowed the Russians to establish an air base just 70 miles from the U.S. one and refused to allow Washington to base AWACS surveillance aircraft in Kyrgyzstan. “Akayev understood one thing,” said Kagarlitsky, “that the Americans are very clearly looking for new friends, especially since their old friends in power are getting shaky.”
The U.S. and Russia will continue to maneuver to suit their aims–and ignore the demands of those who took to the streets. “They have stolen the peoples’ victory,” Alla Shabayeva, a protest organizer, told the Christian Science Monitor. “This new government is turning out just like the old one. If they don’t do what the people want, we will stage a second revolution.”