Kyrgyzstan: A Hollow Regime Collapses
Asia Briefing Nº102
27 Apr 2010
A swift, violent rebellion swept into the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek in early April 2010, sparked by anger at painful utility price increases and the corruption that was the defining characteristic of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s rule. In less than two days the president had fled. Some 85 people were killed and the centre of the capital was looted. The thirteen-member provisional government now faces a daunting series of challenges. Bakiyev leaves behind a bankrupt state hollowed out by corruption and crime. Economic failure and collapsing infrastructure have generated deep public resentment. If the provisional government moves fast to assert its power, the risks of major long-term violence are containable: there are no signs of extensive support for Bakiyev or of a North-South split. The speed with which the Bakiyev administration collapsed is a salutary reminder of the risks of overemphasising Western security concerns in framing policy towards the region.
So far the provisional government’s perfomance has not been promising. Its members have largely failed to present themselves as a cohesive or coherent administration, or to be transparent about their activities at a time of great anxiety and uncertainty. They have displayed a lack of common ideology or strategy, and show signs of internal discord. Unless they quickly address these problems, they risk a rapid erosion of their authority.
Though their declared aim is to stabilise the country in preparation for parliamentary and presidential elections six months from now, the provisional government has to do much more. They must prepare people for the multiple crises – in the energy sector, for example – that could flare up at any time due to the neglect and pillaging of the country’s infrastructure. They have to take urgent measures to ensure that organised crime or the narcotics trade do not again infiltrate political life. They need to begin talking to devout Muslims – an increasingly alienated part of society who seem to have been largely bystanders in the April 2010 revolt. They will also need to convince
donors that they can absorb aid. This is no small task, given the top-down corruption of the system of government they have inherited. They will, finally, have to move rapidly to reassure the public that they are willing and able to work for the country’s good, not just their own enrichment.
This briefing explains and analyses the events of the past five years, in an effort to provide context and background to the uprising. Bakiyev came to power in the so-called Tulip Revolution of March 2005, which ousted President Askar Akayev, whom opposition leaders accused of nepotism, corruption and growing authoritarianism. Once in office, Bakiyev quickly abandoned most semblances of democracy, creating a narrow-based political structure run by his own family and for their profit. A combination of ruthlessness and incompetence led to the regime’s downfall. Almost exactly five years after his victory, Bakiyev was charged with the same abuses as Akayev had been, by many of the same people with whom he had staged the 2005 “revolution”.
Despite the much-discussed theory that Moscow instigated or stage-managed the uprising, the evidence at this point does not support this view. For its part, the U.S., in its concern to maintain the Manas air base as a major hub for the war in Afghanistan, was unwilling to counter the Bakiyev regime’s increasingly abusive behaviour.
The fundamental lessons that can be drawn from the events of April 2010 are clear. First, the authoritarian model of government has not worked in Kyrgyzstan, and is unlikely in the long run to work in the rest of Central Asia. Its superficial stability is attractive to Western leaders who are looking for a safe environment to pursue commercial or security interests, such as the current effort to prosecute the war in Afghanistan. But the deep-seated and invisible instabilities of authoritarian regimes remove all predictability. A well-defended government, seemingly without a coherent challenge from its political opponents and apathetic populace, can be swept away in a day. By blocking all social safety valves – the media, public dissent, political discourse and the right to legal redress – the Bakiyev regime created a semblance of calm. But it was unable to control the underground currents of anger at the regime’s rapacity. The closure of all other channels of change made a violent response just about the only option for an angry population.
Second, the causes of the uprising – state theft and repression, a total lack of interest by rulers in their people – are common to all of Kyrgyzstan’s neighbours. The collapse of the Bakiyev regime is a case study of the risks facing authoritarianism in Central Asia. What happened in Kyrgyzstan in terms of corruption and repression is already taking place in several other countries. What happened in Bishkek in April 2010 could happen in most of its neighbours. It could indeed be much worse.
Central Asia’s leaders will probably ignore this warning, but at their peril. The international community needs, in its interest and that of long-term stability, to change its approach of public silence leavened by the discreet word in the ear of the autocrat. It can start by conducting its relations with undemocratic regimes in an explicit, open way, where issues of social justice and development are given parity with the more classic concerns of security or trade – or at least expressed sufficiently in word and deed that the people know their conditions are part of the bilateral equation. Authoritarian and unresponsive regimes are not only embarrassing allies, but unreliable ones. A sudden push to try to create democracy in a few years from zero is too ambitious. Speaking truth to regional powers would be a good start.
Bishkek/Brussels, 27 April 2010