Kyrgyzstan`s Pyrrhic Victory
Erica Marat

On March 24 Kyrgyzstan celebrated the Tulip Revolution’s third anniversary. Although the day has gained a status of a public holiday, it was mainly the Kyrgyz government that celebrated the anniversary. For the majority of the Kyrgyz public the day is rather a mockery of their hopes to end endemic corruption in the state with the ouster of former president Askar Akayev.

Three years ago, both local and international observers regarded Akayev’s ouster on March 24 as Kyrgyzstan’s step towards democratization. However, today Kyrgyzstan’s course towards democracy is often assessed as disrupted by president Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s corrupt regime. Instead of a great leader that many Kyrgyz had expected after removing Akayev, Bakiyev turned out to be a great incubator of the previous regime’s mistakes. Even Bakiyev himself avoids defining March 24, 2005 as the Tulip Revolution, rather referring to it as “March 2005 events”.

During his first year in power, Bakiyev failed to clean up the Augean stables of Akayev’s corruption, thus disappointing most of his supporters. For a few months after removing Akayev, Bakiyev enjoyed widespread popularity in the masses despite the fact that he was largely unknown before the removal of Akayev. He then quickly lost the support of his colleagues from the opposition who had risen against Akayev’s regime. In January 2007, almost two after past the ‘revolution’, Bakiyev broke ties with Felix Kulov, who then occupied the position of prime minister and enjoyed high popular approval ratings. Things became even murkier when Bakiyev announced a constitutional reform in September 2007 that allowed him to gain endless powers and entirely alienate the opposition.

At the March 24 celebrations last year, Bakiyev surprised the local public by spontaneously volunteering to dance at the central square in Bishkek. He cheered up to an Uzbek folk song, obviously changing the course of the celebrations’ official protocol. However, this year, Bakiyev spend over a month in Germany, reportedly undergoing medical treatment. He missed this year’s celebrations, provoking rumors about his health conditions. During Bakiyev’s prolonged absence, the government and parliament functioned properly, even trying to cover up the president’s absence. This showed Bakiyev’s ability to maintain a firm control over the government even without his physical presence.

Compared to Akayev, Bakiyev’s government seems to have far greater internal consolidation and loyalty to the president. While Akayev preferred to have the parliament filled with political actors with wealthy backgrounds, Bakiyev’s Ak Zhol party is represented in the parliament mostly by politicians with weaker financial bases. While the parliament elected in 2005 during Akayev’s reign was able to quickly change its loyalty to the new president given its members’ financial independence, Bakiyev’s parliament is more dependent on the regime and appears interested in its continuity. Because the December 2007 parliamentary elections were conducted on the basis of party-list system, current parliamentarians rely more on the party as opposed to supporters at the local precinct level.

However, Bakiyev’s regime appears to suffer from similar predicaments as the regime led by Akayev. Informal competition over sources of corruption is evolving among members of Bakiyev’s family and political allies. This competition might weaken the loyalty of political and business actors to the regime, and strengthen the opposition.

On the international arena, Bakiyev strengthened relations with Russia and China, while most western officials think the situation in Kyrgyzstan has worsened in the past few years. Kyrgyz officials became more unpredictable for western partners, often failing to fulfill its commitments to international agreements. In 2005, then U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld visited Kyrgyzstan twice to reassure the status of the U.S. military base’s in the country. Furthermore, the constitutional referendum in October 2007 and the parliamentary elections of December 2007, as well as the banning of public demonstrations in central Bishkek, showed the Kyrgyz government’s disregard of its commitments before the OSCE. Furthermore, the government’s moves to block Ukraine from membership in the World Trade Organization and refusing to recognize Kosovar independence pointed at the Kyrgyz government’s wish to please its largest neighbors – Russia and China.

Despite Kyrgyzstan’s deteriorating democratic record, there is still a level of freedom of speech in the country. The NGO community in Kyrgyzstan remains vibrant and diverse. There are signs of local NGOs moving away from dependency on external financing and consolidating actions across organizations. Since the Tulip Revolution turned out to be a great disappointment in Kyrgyzstan, in coming years NGOs and opposition leaders will need to formulate a strategy to assure the transformation of Bakiyev’s regime.

This article was first published in the April 2, 08 issue of the CACI Analyst: