Opportunities and Challenges Await Kyrgyzstan’s Incoming President
Opportunities and Challenges Await Kyrgyzstan’s Incoming President
Report / Europe & Central Asia 2 minutes

Kyrgyzstan: After the Revolution

The March 2005 popular revolt ended President Askar Akaev's increasingly authoritarian fourteen-year rule and gave political and economic progress a chance.

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Executive Summary

The March 2005 popular revolt ended President Askar Akaev's increasingly authoritarian fourteen-year rule and gave political and economic progress a chance. However, the new leaders face significant obstacles. If the situation is mishandled, and people conclude nothing has changed except the names at the top, Kyrgyzstan could become seriously unstable.

When Akaev came to power at independence in 1991, he seemed an ideal president: young, energetic, and apparently committed to political change and an open economy. He encouraged economic reform and a certain political openness, at least relative to his Central Asian neighbours. However, following his controversial 2000 reelection, he moved in a more authoritarian direction, and his popularity faded.

Above all he failed to stem corruption or develop the rule of law. Instead the political system was increasingly dominated by his family and a small group of supporters. The corruption which developed around Akaev's family was a main cause of his fall.

Akaev overcame challenges through co-option of elites and occasional repression of opponents. His main rival, former Vice President Feliks Kulov, was imprisoned on trumped-up corruption charges in 2001 and remained there until March 2005. Key media outlets, except for a few opposition newspapers, were almost completely under government control.

The president survived politically in 2002 when six people were shot dead by police in the southern Aksy district, leading to several months of protests. But the government did not learn its lesson, and Akaev increasingly seemed out of touch with reality, promoting unrealistic programs and not understanding the socio-economic crisis besetting the population. He had always been much weaker in the south but was losing popularity even in the north. This regional divide, though sometimes exaggerated and manipulated, remains important in political life.

The ouster of Akaev should not have been entirely unexpected. He had not only lost popular support, but also was increasingly losing the backing of key national and regional elites, who were irritated at family control of the economy and rising corruption. There had been many warnings[fn]For example, see Crisis Group Asia Report N°81, Political Transition in Kyrgyzstan: Problems and Prospects, 11 August 2004.Hide Footnote  that unfair elections could create a climactic crisis, but Akaev and his aides had become complacent about their ability to manipulate and suppress opposition.

Akaev failed to develop key state institutions. When protests started in the wake of parliamentary elections in February, it was quickly clear the state was weak, and few elites were willing to defend the president. At the end, the regime collapsed in a few hours.

As they prepare for presidential elections in July 2005, Kyrgyzstan's new leaders face critical challenges that risk undermining the country's important step toward real democracy:

  • the need for political reform, particularly to redress imbalances created by Akaev's centralisation of power in the presidency and the weakness of state institutions;
  • a looming economic crisis that could be worsened by tax collection problems and weak administration;
  • a crisis over land seizures, squatters and enduring problems with land tenure; and
  • the growing security risk from criminal groups with economic and political power.

Bishkek/Brussels, 4 May 2005

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