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Kyrgyzstan: A Hollow Regime Collapses
Kyrgyzstan: A Hollow Regime Collapses
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
The Domestic Challenge to Kyrgyzstan’s Milestone Election
The Domestic Challenge to Kyrgyzstan’s Milestone Election
Briefing 102 / Europe & Central Asia

Kyrgyzstan: A Hollow Regime Collapses

The collapse of the Kyrgyz regime is a case study of the risks facing authoritarianism in Central Asia. What happened in Kyrgyzstan could happen in most of its neighbouring countries. And the consequences could indeed be much worse.


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

A man walks past a monument depicting Kyrgyz folklore hero Manas in Batken, Kyrgyzstan, in March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

The Domestic Challenge to Kyrgyzstan’s Milestone Election

While Kyrgyzstan’s 15 October elections are a rare milestone for Central Asian democracy, the campaign is exposing dangerous fault lines. In the largest city of Osh, the new president will have to face down robust local power brokers, defuse Uzbek-Kyrgyz tensions and re-introduce the rule of law.

Kyrgyzstan’s forthcoming presidential elections on 15 October are a milestone for Central Asia: for the first time, a president from the region will voluntarily stand down at the end of his constitutionally mandated term. Kyrgyzstan has come far in the seven years since the tumultuous events of 2010, when President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was ousted in Bishkek and ethnic violence engulfed the southern city of Osh, killing over 400 people, mostly Uzbeks.

The presidential race is tight and unpredictable. Sooronbai Jeenbekov, from the southern province of Jalalabad and representing the ruling Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK) party, faces Omurbek Babanov, a wealthy independent candidate from the northern province of Talas, still closely aligned with the party he formed in 2010, Respublika. But whoever wins the ballot will face renewed north-south regional tensions as well as rivalries within Osh, where the memory of violence is still fresh and small arms abound.

Osh appears calm, but complaints of local government corruption, mismanagement and lawlessness suggest root causes of the 2010 bloodshed remain unaddressed.

The central government in Bishkek has long struggled to exert its authority over Osh, a city of 276,000 people situated over the mountains in the Ferghana Valley and lying along a route used by traffickers of Afghan opium. More than 43 per cent of the local population are ethnic Uzbeks. In a speech in the city on 28 September, Babanov inadvertently showed how high tensions are. After urging Uzbeks to protect their rights, he swiftly was denounced by leading government figures for inciting ethnic hatred and supporting Uzbek separatism. Osh appears calm, but complaints of local government corruption, mismanagement and lawlessness suggest root causes of the 2010 bloodshed remain unaddressed.

Once controlled by the now-exiled former Mayor Melis Myrzakmatov, a virulent Kyrgyz nationalist allied with former President Bakiyev, Osh has been transformed from the fiefdom of one powerful man into the playground of a handful. Today’s power brokers in the city, all ethnic Kyrgyz, owe little to Bishkek. After the new Kyrgyz government sacked Myrzakmatov in 2013, elections to replace him narrowly were won by Osh’s current mayor, Aitmamat Kadyrbayev. Since then, Bishkek has missed opportunities to rebuild its influence in the city or forge better relationships with the local government.

Kadyrbayev himself was accused of participating in confrontations against the central government that preceded the ethnic clashes in Osh. He was convicted for his alleged role in seizing the Osh regional administration building in 2010, but the judgment was overturned two years later and he was acquitted. Kadyrbayev maintained that the charges were politically motivated. He is now loosely aligned with two other powerful southern actors: Rayimbek Matrayimov, the country’s deputy customs chief, widely regarded as one of the richest people in Kyrgyzstan; and Suyun Omurzakov, the former head of the Osh city and regional police forces, who is now deputy minister of the interior. Although both men now hold national positions, they still exert significant influence in the city.

Reports in the polarised Kyrgyz-language press tend to portray Omurzakov as either a champion of law and order, or associate him with allegations that Osh authorities have allowed a local sports club to train thuggish youth, serving as another tool for power brokers. The club’s manager, Omurzakov’s brother Uluk, denies the accusations made against the club and its members.

Mayor Kadyrbayev meanwhile, has aroused irritation in Osh with high-handed behaviour reminiscent of his predecessor, Myrzakmatov. Notwithstanding Myrzakmatov’s own abuses, under his rule the Osh city administration was a unified force that was relatively accessible to residents and responded to their requests in a reasonably timely manner. This is no longer the case. Broadly speaking, the new Osh elite appears less interested in providing services and garnering popular support than in squeezing the city for its material enrichment.

Any attempt by the victor in the 15 October election to reassert central power over Osh will be risky.

Any attempt by the victor in the 15 October election to reassert central power over Osh will be risky, as the city's local power brokers could react by mobilising their respective constituencies, banking on popular dissatisfaction that could spill over into violent confrontation. Outgoing President Almazbek Atambayev was a relatively skillful manager of the competing interests of regional strongmen, even if he did not seek to rebuild Bishkek’s authority in Osh. Should Jeenbekov, believed to be hostile to Matrayimov and Kadyrbayev, be elected president, he could seek to remove these power brokers and replace them with his own southern allies. Babanov, lacking roots in the region, might attempt the same. A struggle over control of elite networks in a city still full of arms and latent ethnic tensions could spell disaster.

Yet doing nothing about growing tensions in Osh is not a good option either. However difficult the task, the next president will need to promote genuine reconciliation between the Uzbek and Kyrgyz communities in the south. Rooting out corruption and reinstating the rule of law should top his agenda. Foreign donors, including Russia and China, should engage the Kyrgyz government on these issues even as they recognise that things will be slow to change and difficult to discuss.