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Democracy, Kyrgyz-style

Remnants of a destroyed government building in Bishkek (photos by Amieke Bouma)

By Amieke Bouma  

On the 27th of June, a nation-wide referendum confirmed Roza Otunbayeva as the new president of Kyrgyzstan. The referendum was endorsed by most international actors, despite the fact that they had not sent any observers. This was deemed too dangerous due to the violent situation in the south of the country. The relative calm during the referendum therefore obviously caused relief. Only a week before, I had also been astonished by the quiet situation in Kyrgyzstan’s capital Bishkek. Ethnic violence was raging between the Kyrgyz and the large Uzbek minority living in the Ferghana valley in the south of Kyrgyzstan, in which an estimated 2000 people died, and another 400.000 fled their homes.   

In Bishkek, however, the only sign of this aggression was a modest pile of foodstuff and other goods brought to the central square in order to be transported to the affected areas. Even more astonishing, little reminded of the street revolution in early April, during which president Kurmanbek Bakiyev was ousted from power. Marks of destruction on a few government buildings were the only visible testimonies of this event that had sparked the political instability leading to the ethnic clashes in the south.  

Central square in Bishkek with a destroyed house on the side

The violent protests of April were the culmination of a larger opposition action, nurtured by widespread resentment over nepotism and corruption in the presidential administration. While the president and his family managed to enrich themselves, mainly by crony privatizations, the already impoverished population of Kyrgyzstan was faced by an increasingly desperate economic situation coupled with large tax increases and price hikes in energy and other commodities.  

Bakiyev could have expected large-scale protests: he himself had come to power in 2005 on the waves of the “Tulip Revolution”, a similar street revolution in which his predecessor, Askar Akayev, had been ousted for broadly similar reasons. In fact, I was told that in earlier large-scale protests against Bakiyev’s rule, the opposition had been careful not to demand his resignation, as “we did not want to have a new Tulip Revolution each year.”  

It is likely that the history of the 2005 Tulip Revolution gave people confidence that it was possible to overthrow the government despite the violent attempt to crack down on the protests. On the other hand, the long term failure of the Tulip Revolution could also have worked as a deterrent for new actions. Back in 2005, the overthrow of Akayev had resulted in the coming to power of Bakiyev, who subsequently gained the reputation of being a much worse president; especially by people in the north (Bakiyev had his support base in the south of the country).  

So – apart from the obvious resentment over Bakiyev’s policies, what were people’s immediate motives to join the April protests, even when these turned violent? One of the reasons seemed to have been the arrest of several opposition leaders on April 6, one day before large-scale protests throughout the country had been announced. According to several informants, most politicians have a support base that is, for a large part, formed through family and clan ties. Thus, as one person put it, “people just came to the protests [in Talas and Bishkek] because they were worried about their relatives.”  

Another person present at the protests in Bishkek mentioned his anger over the situation in Talas (north-west Kyrgyzstan), where protests had started one day earlier and the government was violently cracking down on the opposition: “On the radio, they [government representatives] said that they had everything under control. But my brother told me there was chaos. They were lying to us, and that is why I went to protest.”  

Finally, several people mentioned the importance of the 2005 revolution in establishing a frame for political action. In a country where there is little possibility for official political participation, many people “see going to the street as the epitome of democracy”.  Overthrowing the government thereby becomes the possible substitute for voting them out.  

How sustainable is such a situation? On the one hand, it is obvious that most people – and especially those from the north – were happy to get rid of Bakiyev. On the other hand, most people do not seem to have high expectations from the new government either. The high approval rates for the interim government and the new constitution as seen in the national referendum seem to have been caused more by the desire for political stability than by a real enthusiasm over the new leaders. It is therefore to be hoped that the interim  government, now that it has been legitimized by the referendum, will be able to change the political system sufficiently for the people not to feel the need to overthrow the government in able to be heard.  

Amieke Bouma is a PhD student at the History Department of VU University Amsterdam. She carries out historical anthropological research on Kyrgyzstan. Her full report of her recent visit to Kyrgyzstan, including an eye-witness account of the events of April 6-7, can be found on the Euopean Studies website of the University of Amsterdam.  

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