Friday, April 09, 2010

Revolution in Kyrgyzstan: nothing to do with tulips.

The 'colour revolutions' of the Bush era are not exactly in rude health. Ukraine, whose future was orange back in December 2004, has reverted to its post-Soviet rulers. Georgia, which had its 'Rose revolution' in 2003, has lost a fight it picked with Russia, and its leadership has barely survived the subsequent protests and armed mutiny. Now Kyrgyzstan has overthrown the government established by its 'Tulip revolution' some five years ago.

Kyrgyzstan's revolt was never quite like the others, however. The opposition leaders, to be sure, were educated in the techniques of popular mobilisation by right-wing Liberty Institute activists in Georgia. And they were hugely reliant on support from US institutions like USAID, as well as publishing support from Freedom House. But, whereas the masses played a largely passive role in Georgia and Ukraine, essentially supporting a struggle carried on within the state machinery, the opposition in Kyrgyzstan had to mobilise people to revolt if it wanted to take power. President Akayev was not going peacefully. They had to seize government buildings and police stations, which they did beginning in the southern cities of Osh and Jalalabad. They had to convoke mass meetings, kurultai, at which they passed resolutions declaring Akayev's reign illegitemate. They had to physically occupy the palace and drive the president out. Dragan Plavsic narrates:

on 24 March, the protests spread to the capital, Bishkek, where a mass demonstration, swelling to some 50,000, stormed the presidential palace, forcing Akayev from power. Widespread looting and arson then followed. Something of the flavour of these events was captured by Times reporter Jeremy Page when he visited the presidential palace:

In Mr Akayev’s personal quarters I found a protester in a general’s hat raiding the fridge. Another was having a go on the president’s exercise bike and a third was trying on his multicoloured ceremonial felt robes. The president himself had fled.12

These events demonstrate that, to use Page’s phrase, ‘geopolitics was not the driving force behind the Kyrgyz revolution’.


Just as it would have been wrong then to reduce the 'Tulip' revolt to external manipulation, so it would be wrong now to reduce the revolt against Kurmanbek Bakiyev's government to the "long arm of Moscow". Russia's government has certainly been agitating against Bakiyev since he declined to host a Russian military base while hosting a US base. One immediate source of the rebellion was high energy prices brought about by Russia's decision to impose new import duties on Kyrgyzstan's energy from Russia. And Roza Utunbayeva, of the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan, who has declared herself the country's 'interim leader', has been cultivating Russian support, appearing on Interfax to denounce the government for having "stolen our revolution". She now thanks them for helping to "expose" the "criminal, nepotistic" regime of Bakiyev. The Social Democrats, themselves participants in the 'Tulip' revolution, allege that their candidate, Almazbek Atambayev, won last year's presidential elections, which Bakiyev claimed to have won by 83%, and are thus quite ready to pluck the fruit of this revolt with Moscow's support. And in the service of ensuring their control, they are authorising the police and militias to shoot any suspected 'looters'. (No trivial matter: the presidential fir trees have already been pinched.)

However, the Social Democrats didn't make this revolution, nor did they or Russian supporters cause it. After all, Russia's influence in Kyrgyzstan is not greater than that of America. The underlying issue is that Bakiyev embarked on exactly the same programme of privatizing and expropriating public goods as all the neoliberal rulers in central Asia have, and resorted to thuggery, nepotism and suppression of the media when his power base and popular support began to fragment. The Social Democrats are already promising to restore two major electricity companies to public ownership. Bakiyev had explicitly opposed privatization in opposition, and his victory was won on the basis of popular revulsion against the dicatorial methods of his predecessor, so when the opposition accused him of stealing the revolution, there was some merit to it. And the government's reliance on US backing, as well as its continued support for the American military base, has generated massive public opposition. American backing is held partially responsible for enabling Bakiyev's corrupt and dictatorial regime. If, as looks possible, the US base is closed, that will be one of the most popular policies the new government implements. It will also shut down one of the key bases from which the US wages war on Afghanistan, something Obama is anxious to prevent. The struggle between Russia and the US for hegemony over this region remains, despite recent nuptials in Prague, lethal.

Notwithstanding the efforts by the Social Democrats to crown themselves the victors, this is not just a repeat of the 'Tulip revolution', in which public protests facilitate a shift of power between wealthy ruling class blocs. This sharp analysis explains why:

One difference between the 7 April protests and the Tulip Revolution is the level of violence. This week’s events were the bloodiest in Kyrgyz history. In confronting protesters, the police relied on live bullets while protesters used stones and Molotov cocktails. Official reports put the number of people killed at more than 60 and those wounded at more than 500.

Another difference was of regional character. While the Tulip Revolution was sparked by protests and government building seizures in the southern regions (Jalal-Abad, Osh), this time the protests erupted mainly in the poor and remote northern regions such as Talas and Naryn, where residents have long complained of exclusion.

There are other remarkable differences between the current protests and those of five years ago.

Triggers for the protests differed. Unlike the Tulip Revolution, when the spark for mass mobilization was the Akaev regime’s efforts to block a number of wealthy opposition elites from gaining seats in parliament, the current protests were triggered by simmering anger at the grassroots level.

...

Yet another notable difference between April 2010 and March 2005 were the "engines" behind the change. During the March 2005 protests, demonstrations were organized by wealthy elites who felt that their bids to gain seats in the parliament were threatened by the incumbent Akaev regime. Such elites then mobilized their supporters in their towns and villages, relying on local networks and offers of cash. The protests we saw on 7 April were sporadic and chaotic. In many ways, they appeared to be more an uncoordinated grass-roots revolt by a disenchanted population than an elite-driven and planned campaign. As a result, the speed with which the protests erupted and spread was surprising, not only to international observers, but also to many locals. The administration and some opposition leaders seem to have not appreciated the extent of popular anger and were themselves taken aback. In other words, because there was no credible information about the distribution of power before the protests, there was little room for opposition factions and the incumbent regime to come to a negotiated settlement.

Neither the government nor opposition factions are in full control of the crowds. Already, there are reports of destruction of property and marauding in Bishkek and the regions that have seen protests.


If the 'Tulip revolution' wasn't a precise replica of its Georgian and Ukrainian cousins, this revolt is as different as can be. Despite an extraordinarily violent crackdown by Bakiyev, the grassroots insurgency prevailed. Protesters succeeded in taking over police stations, weapons, even winning police over to their side. They have demonstrated that the state does not possess a tight control over the means of violence, and that therefore popular demands cannot be ignored or suppressed. The Social Democrats, despite attempting to take the reins of power, still don't really control the country. If they attempt to control it with violence, they may face the same end as Bakiyev and Akayev.