Uprising in Kyrgyzstan

Lee Sustar looks at the background to the rebellion that swept out a Central Asian autocrat with close ties to the U.S. government.

Opposition demonstrators during a confrontation with riot police in the capital of Bishkek (Vyacheslav Oseledko | AFP)Opposition demonstrators during a confrontation with riot police in the capital of Bishkek (Vyacheslav Oseledko | AFP)

THE MASS revolt that toppled the autocratic president of Kyrgyzstan had its roots in the impoverishment of the mass of the population and growing discontent over repression and human rights violations.

Predictably, many commentators in the U.S. press focused on the implications for the U.S. airbase in the town of Manas, a critical part of the supply chain for the U.S. war in Afghanistan.

Some pundits have pointed the finger at Russia, which was upset over the pro-U.S. tilt of the ousted Kyrgyzstan President Kurmanbek Bakiyev. But Russian President Dimitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin couldn't have been pleased by the sight of demonstrators who defied the police, seized their weapons, and stormed the parliament and the presidential palace.

Anxieties will be greater still in the presidential palaces of the neighboring Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, where despots fear a similar mass rebellion.

Thus, a popular revolt in a country of just 5 million people has sent shock waves through the region. As Russian author and activist Boris Kagarlitsky said in an interview from Moscow:

This was more of a social uprising then a revolution. There is a lot of unrest. But while people are rebelling against the current regime, they have no trust in the opposition, either. It is a social uprising with very little political perspective. Sooner or later, one or another group of elites will take over, because there is no other political force capable of doing so.

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THE UPRISING comes almost exactly five years after Kyrgyzstan's 2005 Tulip Revolution ousted Askar Akayev, who had ruled the country since its declaration of independence amid the breakup of the former USSR in 1991.

The Tulip Revolution followed a split in the ruling class. Where previous "color" revolutions in the ex-USSR states of Ukraine and Georgia had been largely peaceful--and heavily influenced by non-governmental organizations with ties to the U.S.--the Tulip Revolution involved more violent social clashes.

Bakiyev, a former stalwart of the Akayev regime turned oppositionist, took office promising a new era of democracy and social justice.

Once in power, however, Bakiyev soon followed the pattern of other Central Asian strongmen. He ousted opponents within the elite--including the head of the new provisional government, Roza Otunbayeva--and used his political connections to amass personal wealth. Bakiyev's reelection in 2009 was widely denounced as fraudulent, and anger mounted over his effort to groom his son to succeed him in office.

The uprising forced Bakiyev to flee the capital city of Bishkek by airplane. While he hasn't officially conceded power--he's reportedly holed up somewhere in the country, plotting a comeback--he has been effectively ousted by a rebellion with much deeper social roots than the Tulip Revolution.

Eyewitness accounts of the uprising make that clear. Kyrgyz journalist Kumar Bekbolotov described how the rebellion unfolded:

A crowd began to gather around an old bus stop in an industrial area near downtown Bishkek. Several speakers stepped up, rousing the group of 500 with impromptu remarks about the events unfolding in Talas, a northern region of Kyrgyzstan, where protesters had stormed a local government building and declared popular rule.

As the crowd grew excited, the riot police circled the buses--wielding batons, shields and, in some cases, angry dogs. Without warning, they moved on the crowd in a neat rectangular-shaped formation, rounding them up and pushing them toward the buses.

It seemed like a routine police operation. But this was no ordinary day. Suddenly, a large group of young protesters, screaming and shouting, tore through the police ranks, raced across the street, grabbed rocks and attacked. Several policemen lost their batons and helmets in the ensuing melee. By day's end, the fracas had drawn crowds of 10,000 to 15,000, claimed the lives of scores of protesters, toppled a president--and altered a country's destiny.

Braving police gunfire that killed at least 75 people and wounded hundreds more, the crowds stormed the presidential palace and parliament on April 7. Shops were targeted, too, as poor and hungry people seized the food and goods they couldn't afford.

Luke Harding, a reporter for Britain's Guardian newspaper, wrote that while the opposition claimed to be in charge of a provisional government, the real power was with the people:

Out on the streets...there were few signs that the new regime was in control of anything. The police and security forces appeared to be hiding. Large crowds milled around the Soviet-era, fir-tree-lined boulevards, forming and reforming revolutionary huddles. Dozens of shops had been looted. Burned out cars littered the pavements.

The main government building was on fire, with thick, black smoke pouring out of its upper floors. Hundreds of looters gathered near the White House presidential building. The shells of trucks and a tractor lay next to destroyed railings. Youths perched on an armored personnel carrier, seized yesterday from government troops.

By late afternoon, the general prosecutor's office was gutted, with gangs roaming around inside, smashing windows with broken-off table legs. Sheets of paper--followed by a fig plant--fell from a balcony. At the parliament building, opposition workers were tossing posters of Bakiyev into the street...

Much of the frustration directed at the ousted government has stemmed from Bakiyev's appointment of many of his family members to key government positions. In particular, his younger son, Maxim, was widely detested.

Inside Maxim Bakiyev's wrecked and burned mansion, a stream of looters and the merely curious trampled over beds of broken glass. On the wall, someone had written: "Fuck you." Nearby, they had added: "Death to Maxim!" A couple of fir trees were still left in the beds. But the others had all gone, transplanted--like the rest of Kyrgyzstan--to a new and uncertain future.

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ONE SPARK for the revolt was a big increase in electricity and water prices that would hammer a population already reeling from the economic crisis. The Kyrgyzstan economy contracted by 1 percent last year, forcing an increasing number to emigrate to Russia in the hope of finding jobs that pay just $300 per month. Remittances from emigrants account for 20 percent of Kyrgyzstan's Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

The other mainstays of the economy are exports of gold and agricultural products, principally tobacco. Child labor is widespread, especially on farms.

But the miserable economy is only part of the story. Political life in Kyrgyzstan had grown intolerable, not just for the elite opposition, but also for journalists, pro-democracy activists and anyone who happened to cross the Bakiyev clan and its hangers-on. The summary of the U.S. State Department's report on Kyrgyzstan in its annual survey of human rights makes that clear:

The following human rights problems were reported: restrictions on citizens' right to change their government; arbitrary killing, torture and abuse by law enforcement officials; impunity; poor prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; lack of judicial independence; pressure on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and opposition leaders, including government harassment; pressure on independent media; government detention of assembly organizers; authorities' failure to protect refugees adequately; pervasive corruption; discrimination against women, persons with disabilities, ethnic and religious minorities, and other persons based on sexual orientation or gender identity; child abuse; trafficking in persons; and child labor.

But the actions of the U.S. government speak louder than its words.

In early 2009, when Bakiyev lined up $2.8 billion in loans and aid from Russia and announced the closure of the U.S. airbase in Manas, Washington responded with more money and political support. Bakiyev not only extended the U.S. lease on the airbase, but recently agreed to allow the U.S. military to establish an "anti-terrorism" training center in southern Kyrgyzstan.

Less than three weeks before Bakiyev's overthrow, the head of U.S. Central Command, David Petraeus, was in Kyrgyzstan to show U.S. support for the government. Having already tripled its annual rent for the Manas airbase to $60 million per year--a big sum for a small, poor country--Petraeus was now prepared to pay $5.5 million to the government for the training center, which would formally belong to the Kyrgyzstan military.

Having played off the U.S. against Russia, Bakiyev was confident that it was time to tighten his grip on power.

Less than two weeks before he was overthrown, he stated at a national political gathering, "The world is actively discussing the shortcomings of a model of democracy based on elections and human rights. There is no certainty that such a model is suitable for all countries and peoples."

Bakiyev's tilt back toward the U.S. didn't save him, of course. And Vladimir Putin's rush to telephone interim government leader Roza Otunbayeva might suggest that the opposition running Kyrgyzstan's new government is aligned with Moscow in the "Great Game" of imperial rivalry in Central Asia.

The reality, however, is more complicated. Certainly Russia--which has an airbase of its own in Kyrgyzstan, about 20 miles away from Manas--will be keen to influence the new government. But while Otunbayeva was educated in Moscow and was a diplomat for the old USSR, she also has longstanding ties to the U.S., having been Kyrgyzstan's ambassador in Washington.

Thus, one of her first statements as head of the new government was to assure the U.S. that the Manas base would function as usual. Otunbayeva and her faction of the elite are likely to continue to try and balance between Russia and the U.S.

Boris Kagarlitsky said that the U.S. and Russia would both have to take a wait-and-see approach in Kyrgyzstan, since neither has much leverage. "Both Moscow and Washington are really interested in Kyrgyzstan, but lack any tools of control at the moment," he said. "All they can do is just flirt with specific groups of elites."

The question now is whether the mass of people who participated in the uprising--and who suffered a terrible loss of life in the process--will be satisfied with the new government. Otunbayeva has pledged to convene a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution and hold elections in six months. But the people are also in desperate need of jobs and economic security.

And what's more, they've showed their power. As Kagarlitsky pointed out, the uprising in Kyrgyzstan will reverberate across Central Asia. "This is definitely the beginning of the destabilization of the region," he said. "It will have a domino effect in the long term. In the short term, the Central Asian leaders will tighten the screws, which will lead to more control and more authoritarianism. The question is how far these regimes will go."

Pakistan's Daily Times made a similar point:

The masses, fed up with the denial of their rights, across-the-board corruption and profiteering, tailored alterations of the constitution to suit whosoever usurps power, a lack of basic amenities and skyrocketing inflation, hold the power to exhibit an extreme degree of pent-up animosity. The Pakistani public, too, has been alerted, not just to its rights but also of the blatant denial of them.

As can be seen in these latest developments in Kyrgyzstan, it is the people who bring about a change once the limit of their patience has been reached.