Kyrgyzstan Govt Toppled

Some very big happenings in yet another former Soviet Republic, and a country that Russia considers within its “sphere of influence.” Krygyztan is in what was the south east of the former USSR, and shares a southeastern border with China.

Kyrgyzstan Government Is Toppled
President Flees Protesters;
Opposition Leaders Move
To Establish Authority

March 25, 2005; Page A3

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan ? Thousands of protesters, many arriving here by busload from the south and some wielding rocks and sticks, forced their president of 14 years to flee and joined Ukraine and Georgia in a round of mostly peaceful revolutions in Moscow’s backyard.

The startlingly fast regime change plunged this Central Asian capital into a volatile blend of chaos and euphoria, surprising the protesters themselves; some were celebrating on the seventh floor of the presidential palace here, sitting in President Askar Akayev’s chair, drinking wine from his kitchen and wearing his ties. The transition presented an immediate challenge for a loose confederation of opposition leaders, who were scrambling to try to organize government authority while looters took advantage of the absence of police on the streets.

Beyond Kyrgyzstan, the events disturbed administrations of the surrounding oil-rich region just south of Russia and west of China, where autocratic leaders in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and elsewhere also face varying degrees of popular opposition. And it made this predominantly Muslim country of five million people the latest blow to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s influence in the former Soviet empire.

The fall of another government that enjoyed Moscow’s tacit support points up the Kremlin’s inability to catch up with democratic movements in its backyard. The Kyrgyz revolution will only increase the Kremlin’s fears that revolts in the former Soviet Union could destabilize Russia itself.

Another subplot was the role of largely U.S.-sponsored nongovernmental organizations – some affiliated with those also present in Ukraine and Georgia – that helped the opposition by providing access to independent media and Western-trained election observers.

In an unusual situation, both the U.S. and Russia have military bases in the capital – the U.S. base is a main supply center support its troops in Afghanistan, put in place with Mr. Akayev’s permission. Any successor to Mr. Akayev is likely to seek good relations both with Moscow and with Washington.

Yesterday’s events formed a dramatic end to the tenure of President Akayev, who himself came to power on the back of the so-called “silk revolution” in 1990 and was seen as the young nation’s best democratic hope. Initially, he steered Kyrgyzstan through important economic changes, and allowed freedoms unparalleled in his authoritarian neighborhood. But Mr. Akayev turned increasingly autocratic himself, and resentment grew against him and his family, whose members are alleged to control many lucrative companies and industries.

Impatience with his rule reached critical mass this month when parliamentary elections, described as rigged by the same international observers who criticized Ukraine’s elections, stacked the assembly with pro-government deputies and raised the possibility of Mr. Akayev extending his rule beyond the constitutionally mandated limit in October. Last night, it was unclear where he and his family had fled, with conflicting reports placing him in Kazakhstan and Russia, with the U.S. saying there was no proof he had left.

Meanwhile the national court disbanded the newly elected parliament and reinstated the previous one. It chose the leader of the umbrella opposition group, former Prime Minister Kurmanbek Bakiev, as interim prime minister and the closest thing to a uniting figure. Felix Kulov, a prominent opposition leader jailed by the Akayev administration on dubious corruption charges in 2000, was freed and put in charge of law enforcement.

The U.S. stopped short of hailing the events. But after briefing President Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Kyrgyzstan could wind up a democratic success story if political change occurs without violence. “It doesn’t happen on Day One,” Ms. Rice said. “If we can take events on the ground … encourage the various parties in Kyrgyzstan to move into a process that will then lead to the election of a government and move this process of democracy forward, it will have been a very good thing.”

The day began here with deceptive calm. At 9 a.m., protesters started gathering near a hospital treating drug addiction and alcoholism on the edge of town. Inside, Dr. Jenishbek Nazaraliev, a prominent critic of the regime, sat in his office with an assault rifle propped against the wall. “We must administer shock and stress for the unification of the nation,” he said, using medical terminology.

Outside, opposition leaders gathered on the hospital’s roof as people with yellow and pink banners massed across the street. Many came from the south of the country, where opposition forces had seized power in two key cities after clashes with the police. The protesters, already numbering in thousands, embarked on a 40-minute march toward the main government building downtown.

Helmeted police holding shields massed around the building, and the protesters began a charge throwing large rocks and swinging wooden sticks. Some protesters and police sustained injuries, but no deaths were reported. The police never opened fire, despite earlier threats by some government officials that force may be used. Later, they cited government orders not to do so.

As the demonstrators broke through the fence surrounding the government building, they faced the army. “Calm down, sister!” Gen. Abdigul Chotbayev, commander of the garrison told a protester who asked him to resign from the military. Several minutes later, the soldiers retreated in the face of an unruly crowd that pushed its way to the main entrance and threw rocks at the windows. Many started looting everything from cookies and soldiers’ mess kits to computers and mementos of the regime; others tried to stop the chaos, warning that they were looting and damaging the very property the new government will need.

A mixture of reasons drew people to the presidential palace – growing poverty, anger with a president who seemed increasingly disconnected from his people, plain curiosity, and the adrenaline of a revolution. Bakyt Murzaliev, an engineer from Bishkek who was among the protesters, said he hadn’t received his $40 monthly salary in eight months.

On the seventh floor, inside Mr. Akayev’s well-appointed office with inlaid parquet, protesters took turns having their pictures taken on his chair. “Would you like some wine?” asked a young man, holding two bottles. A member of the presidential administration who stayed after his colleagues fled said the police and the army were under specific orders not to open fire. “We have enough bullets here to kill thousands,” said Evgenii Razinkin, a military guard posted outside Mr. Akayev’s office. “But we gave our oath to the people, to the constitution, not to the president.”

The massive retreat of the police from the streets lured out the looters. In Beta Stores, a popular supermarket selling everything from food to Turkish carpets to ovens, hundreds of looters broke windows and carried handfuls of goods amid a smell of spilled detergent and crushed-up cookies. “Would you like to buy some panties, wholesale?” a man holding a pile of underwear asked. Inside, Maksud Mambekov and his friends tried in vain to stop the looting. “We never thought it would come to this,” he said. “All we wanted is for Akayev to resign.”

Meanwhile, opposition leaders, including Mr. Bakiev and former Foreign Minister Roza Otunbayeva, held an emergency planning meeting. Unlike similar revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan doesn’t have a single opposition leader to clearly rally the nation. But Mr. Bakiev is considered a moderate, still on speaking terms with members of the Akayev government, who could unite country’s political factions and restore public order. The parliament named another opposition figure, Ishenbai Kadyrbekov, as interim president. Under Kyrgyzstan’s old governmental system, most power rested with the president. It isn’t clear whether duties would be divided similarly in the interim system.

Last night, the opposition leaders were talking to the police and military and were hoping to get them back on the streets by morning to end the looting.

Mr. Bakiev traveled to Moscow last month to reassure the Kremlin that the Kyrgyz opposition wasn’t anti-Russian. Unlike in Georgia and Ukraine, people across the political spectrum in Kyrgyzstan are largely united on the need to maintain friendly relations with Russia, an employer of many Kyrgyz expatriates and a historical ally. In a recent interview, Mr. Bakiev said he supports the idea of dual citizenship for Kyrgyzstan and Russia, a cause also championed by some of Mr. Akayev’s allies.

But the revolution in Bishkek further dents the reputation of Mr. Putin, who came to power promising to restore Russia’s greatness but who has been caught flatfooted by movements that have toppled governments in neighboring Georgia and Ukraine. On Tuesday, Russia’s Foreign Ministry had sounded alarms about the growing protests here, saying that “extremist forces” must not be allowed to undermine the Kyrgyz government.

Apparently chastened by its experience in Ukraine, the Kremlin didn’t try to intervene as heavily in Kyrgyzstan. Mr. Putin didn’t publicly comment or endorse the election results that have been the source of protests. Lately, Mr. Putin has tried to revive Moscow’s flagging authority in former Soviet states by proposing a Joint Economic Space, consisting of Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. The proposal has gotten a chilly response from Kiev.

Igor Bunin, at the Center for Political Technologies in Russia, says Moscow now may give up trying to influence events in former Soviet states. But the downfall of the government in Kyrgyzstan could impact Russia itself, as an increasingly paranoid Kremlin tries to snuff out an already moribund domestic opposition. “Putin may try to crack down inside Russia to make sure that the Orange Revolution [in Ukraine] and its spin-offs aren’t repeated here,” Mr. Bunin said.

---- Alan Cullison, Neil King and Guy Chazan contributed to this article.

Write to Philip Shishkin at

Daniel Drezner has some interesting observations on both sides of the idea that Krygyzstan is part of a larger wave of democratization taking place in the world (though sadly, not in Africa):

The fourth wave of democratization?

Events in Kyrgyzstan (click here for a useful BBC backgrounder: BBC NEWS | Asia-Pacific | Q&A: Kyrgyzstan protests ), combined with previous events in Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, Ukraine, Afghanistan and Georgia, are making me wonder if maybe, just maybe, we’re at the beginning of the fourth wave of democratization. In his book The Third Wave ( ), Samuel Huntingtion observed that previous moments of democratic regime change took place in clusters. The first (small) wave was in the early 1800’s, the second took place immediately after the Second World War, and the third wave started in Southern Europe in 1974 and ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

All waves of democratization are followed by counter-waves, which happened in the mid-to-late nineties, with authoritarian and semi-authoritarian regimes emerging in a lot of the post-Soviet states. However, the exogenous shock of 9/11, the Rose Revolution in Georgia, and the strong rhetoric of the Bush administration on this front has combined to trigger some serious political change across the Eurasian land mass.

The Kyrgyz example is likely to send chills down the spine of two much larger countries – Russia and China. In Moscow, Vladimir Putin can’t be thrilled with the fact that he can’t have a tea break without some country in his near abroad overthrowing a ruler that was on decent terms with Putin. The fact that ousted Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev is reportedly fleeing to Russia will highlight this painful fact.

As for China, Beijing’s first preference is not to have a democratic revolution take place in Central Asia so close to Xinjiang – China’s western-most province with plenty of restive Uighurs chafing at Beijing’s control. [UPDATE: In somewhat unrelated news, China is also feeling international pressure from it’s ham-handed efforts to presure Taiwan: ]

Let’s be clear – there’s a fair amount of fragility in this nascent fourth wave: Iraq could curdle, Kyrgyzstan could descend into chaos, Hamas could win Palestinian elections, and Lebanon could be split by sectarian strife. The Bush administration’s actions may not match their rhetoric ( Has Bush gone soft? ). Writing in the International Herald-Tribune, Aaron David Miller points out the resiliency of Arab dictatorships ( ):

[i] By and large the Arab world has proved to be remarkably stable. Hafez al-Assad, the current Syrian president’s father, governed with an iron hand longer than all of his predecessors combined; Egypt had only four presidents (all of them authoritarian) in its modern history; at his death King Hussein had governed Jordan for more than 45 years; and in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait royal families control politics and power to this day. While the rest of the world has witnessed dramatic political change, the Arab world seems trapped in limbo. There are now more time-tested democracies in Africa, a continent raked by manmade and natural disasters, than in the Arab world…

It would be nice to hope that the Palestinian and Iraqi models will serve as launching pads for rising democracies; but for the foreseeable future, the odds are against it. Arabs may be excited and fascinated by political ferment in Iraq; but they are also alarmed by the absence of public order, the cacophony of Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish voices, and the seemingly irrepressible and violent insurgency. Despite genuine desire among millions of Arabs for greater openness, there will be no rush toward democracy. Nor should we be surprised by the formidable capacity of these authoritarian regimes to quash meaningful reform. In this regard, getting Syria out of Lebanon may well take much longer than many anticipated.

Paradoxically, the Arab-Israeli conflict, which most of these regimes generally want to see resolved, serves as a firebreak against the kind of political reform that many of these regimes don't want. Clearly, when the Arab public is riled up by events in Palestine, it is less focused on events at home. If the Bush administration wants to pursue democratization in the Arab world effectively, it should work to defuse the Arab-Israeli conflict and deny the regimes the ability to use it to avoid political and economic reform.[/i]

Then again, as Michael Doran points out in Foreign Affairs online ( ), this whole Palestine-as-pivot-root-causes theory of change in the Middle East just might be hokum:

[i] So far the “lawless unilateralism” of the Bush administration, along with its failure to “deliver” Israeli concessions, has generated not the Arab nationalist backlash that the root-causes school predicted, but the end of the Libyan nuclear program, elections in Palestine and Iraq, a move toward elections in Egypt, and a nationalist uprising against Syrian occupation in Lebanon. These events would seem rather good evidence for the proposition that the Palestinian issue is only one of several important concerns in Middle East politics, not the pivot on which all regional events turn.

The Arab world is in the throes of a prolonged historical crisis, as its societies, economies, and polities struggle to overcome their various internal problems and make a successful transition to modernity. The Palestine-is-central dogma offers little insight into that crisis. Recognizing this, the Bush administration has wisely decoupled the Palestine question from the other major issues that bedevil Arab-American relations. So far this strategy has worked well, bringing benefits to both the United States and many Arabs. By putting the Palestinian issue in its proper perspective, it could even end up helping Palestinians and Israelis as well.[/i]


UPDATE: Also be sure to check out Stephen A. Cook’s essay in the March/April 2005 issue of Foreign Affairs on how to promote political reform in the Arab Middle East ( The Right Way to Promote Arab Reform ). The abstract:

[i]If President Bush hopes to make good on his promise to bring democracy to the Arab world, he must rethink U.S. strategy, which overemphasizes civil society and economic development. Neither has caused much political liberalization in the Middle East, nor have more punitive measures. To promote Arab democracy, Washington needs a new approach: offering financial incentives for political reform. [/i]