A popular uprising in the small Central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan ousted the government from power on 7 April. Protests against government corruption and poverty began in the northern town of Talas on 6 April and quickly spread through the rest of the country, reaching the capital, Bishkek, the following day. The protests turned violent when police fired on the demonstrators. Protesters attacked the offices of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, as well as radio and television stations controlled by the state, gaining control of a state television channel and the internal security headquarters. Interior minister Moldomusa Kongatiyev, responsible for the police repression, was killed in the riots and Bakiyev was forced to flee the capital.
Tensions have been heightened by the international crisis, failed neoliberal policies, the presence of the US military at Manas airbase and corruption. The fall of the Bakiyev administration is all the more stark when compared to its coming to power in the so-called Tulip Revolution of March 2005. Then, Askar Akayev, who had been president since Kyrgyzstan gained independence from the USSR in 1991, was swept from office following demonstrations against alleged vote rigging and the unlawful arrests of opposition politicians. Bakiyev won 88.9 percent of the vote in presidential elections in June that year.
The Tulip Revolution was one of a series of movements in former Soviet republics, such as the Rose Revolution in Georgia and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, which aimed at a more Western-style “democracy” at the expense of their traditional relationship with Moscow.
The governments installed by these movements were backed by Washington. This was part of the US strategy to increase economic and political influence in former USSR countries and to isolate Russia. Kyrgyzstan is central to the US imperial strategy. The Manas airbase is the only remaining US airbase in Central Asia and key to its war in Afghanistan. The country’s proximity to Russia and China heightens its importance.
This year’s uprising in Kyrgyzstan has been the latest in a series of setbacks for this strategy. The defeat of Georgia’s army in a brief but bloody border war with Russia over the disputed territory of South Ossetia displayed the limits of the US’s ability to aid its new allies against their larger neighbour. Elsewhere, a reversal in fortunes for Ukraine’s Orange Revolution has led to pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovych regaining his former office.
While under Soviet control Kyrgyzstan was widely considered one of the most “Russified” countries in Central Asia – over 36 percent of Kyrgyzs spoke Russian as a first language. However, the national culture of Kyrgyzstan never fully disappeared and tensions increased up to the collapse of the USSR in 1991.
In 1989 there were protests against the racist policies of the Moscow government. It had been Soviet policy to push ethnic Kyrgyz inhabitants out of major cities in favour of Russians and nationals of other Soviet countries. By 1990 an opposition movement, the Kyrgyzstan Democratic Movement, had developed into a major political player. It called for democratic reforms and greater national freedoms. The movement gained in force and won support in parliament. Akayev, considered a liberal candidate, was elected president in a surprise victory in August 1990.
Despite growing tensions between Bishkek and Moscow, independence from the USSR wasn’t yet overwhelmingly popular. Over 90 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s exports were sold within the USSR.
However, increasing unrest in a number of Soviet republics led Mikhail Gorbachev’s government to offer them more independence in the form of the New Union Treaty. The Treaty was strongly supported in the Central Asian republics. In a referendum in March 1991, 88.7 percent of Kyrgyzs voted for the New Union. However, that August a group of Communist Party hardliners launched a coup against Gorbachev’s government, believing the treaty would lead to the breakup of the USSR, and established the State of Emergency Committee. The committee attempted to overthrow Akayev’s government, but the coup failed. In August and September 1991 most non- Russian Soviet republics, including Kyrgyzstan, Georgia and Ukraine, declared their intention to leave the USSR. Akayev, along with the entire bureau and secretariat, resigned from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. This was followed by a Supreme Soviet vote declaring independence on 31 August.
The collapse of the USSR marked a new era in global politics and US foreign policy. From the end of the Second World War, US military and economic power had been counterbalanced by that of the USSR. Throughout the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century the ascension of many former people’s republics of Eastern Europe into the European Union and Nato was part of the process of expanding the US sphere of influence in the region. Using institutions such as the World Trade Organisation and the International Monetary Fund, the US pressured a number of countries into implementing neoliberal reforms.
It is in this context that the events in Kyrgyzstan should be viewed. But it is important to understand that none of the “colour coded” movements were simply US-backed coups; all were also based on genuine support from the mass of people for democratic change. Over the last few years this support has fallen away, not because there is a shift towards pro-Russian ideas but rather as a reaction to the failure of pro-Western governments to provide real change. They seem only to pay lip-service to the democratic and social aspirations of the people who put them into power, while pushing through neoliberal economic reforms.
In Georgia the US encouraged the development of a number of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) supported by US foundations since the fall of the USSR. This led to the emergence of pro-US public figures who pushed for a more Western-style government and economy. Although Eduard Shevardnadze, the president from 1995 to 2003, was far from being anti-Washington (he was in favour of Nato membership and sent troops to Kosovo and Iraq) he was believed to be shifting Georgia towards a more Moscow-orientated foreign policy. But there was growing disillusionment with his regime, due to poverty, privatisation and electoral fraud. Former justice minister Mikheil Saakashvili came to power after a wave of demonstrations against vote- rigging in the 2003 parliamentary elections. US money poured into the opposition movement, dubbed the Rose Revolution, to ensure a pro-Western government was installed.
A strategically important oil pipeline from Azerbaijan runs through Georgia to supply oil to Europe while avoiding Russia and Iran. However, the overextension of the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan meant that it was not in a position to defend Georgia. When in 2008 the Georgian government attacked South Ossetia, a region which had long been in favour of breaking with Georgia and uniting with Russia, the Russian army intervened and defeated the Georgian army with alarming speed. Both South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another largely pro-Russian region, became Russian protectorates. This defeat displayed the limits of US power and also signalled that Russia was again flexing its muscles.
In November 2004 the Ukrainian presidential elections increased tension in the former Soviet republics. One candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, represented pro-Western ideas, with support largely based in the Ukrainian-speaking west of the country, while Viktor Yanukovych stood for the more pro-Moscow Russian-speaking east. Yanukovych was seen to represent the status quo, while the US State Department channelled $65 million into Yushchenko’s campaign.
After a hard-fought campaign, and allegations of electoral fraud and of Russian attempts to poison Yushchenko, a series of protests brought him to power. However, in elections held in January and February this year Yanukovych was re-elected president. Yushchenko’s inability to bring about reforms other than pro-Western economic policies meant that he was unable to consolidate the support he won in 2004.
The recent events in Kyrgyzstan mark the latest reversal in fortunes for these colour-coded revolutions. The Tulip Revolution of 2005 began as a protest movement against vote-rigging and corruption by Akayev’s regime. Like Shevardnadze in Ukraine he was hardly anti the US; he had pursued privatisation and allowed the US to establish the Manas airbase. But these policies led to a growing movement against his presidency.
As many as 60 percent of Kyrgyzs lived in poverty and 700,000 of the 5 million strong population emigrated, mostly to Russia, for work. The US ensured its influence played a part in the opposition movement, largely through NGOs. At least 170 US NGOs operated in Kyrgyzstan in 2005, and many Kyrgyzs were sent to Ukraine to experience the Orange Revolution. The US State Department operated its own printing house in Bishkek from 2002, producing many opposition publications. USAID invested over $2 million prior to the elections. Accusations of vote-rigging in the 2005 parliamentary elections led to protests, beginning in the south of the country.
Akayev was driven out of power and Kurmanbek Bakiyev was made president. Bakiyev’s regime, however, failed to meet the expectations of the people who put him into power. He pursued neoliberal policies to an even greater degree than Akayev did. Furthermore, he promised to close down the Manas airbase but, after backroom negotiations, simply increased the rent. Allegations of corruption followed Bakiyev’s regime in a similar way to that of Akayev’s before.
The latest uprising does not necessarily mark a new era of democratic and social change for Kyrgyzstan. The coalition of opposition figures in the temporary government are largely made up of former members of the ruling groups of both Akayev’s and Bakiyev’s governments. The provisional president, Roza Otunbayeva, is a former foreign minister.
However, the rebellion in Kyrgyzstan should be welcomed by socialists – not simply because it saw people take power to end a corrupt capitalist government. From 1991 the US has worked to establish its dominance as the world’s sole superpower, but we are beginning to see the limits of its power.
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