Martha Brill Olcott, one of the top U.S. experts on Central Asia, says the rebellion that toppled the president of Kyrgyzstan March 24 was caused by the opposition’s fear that Askar Akayev was plotting to have a hand-picked parliament keep him in office beyond constitutional term limits.
“Akayev had become a very unpopular figure,” she says, “But I was surprised that the opposition succeeded so quickly. The two mistakes that we make is to underestimate the strength of the opposition and the stupidity of the government.”
Olcott is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC, where she co-directs the Carnegie Moscow Center Project on Ethnicity and Politics in the former Soviet Union.
She was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on March 24, 2005.
Kyrgyzstan is quite foreign to most people. Can you give us a quick synopsis of its recent history?
Kyrgyzstan is a small, mountainous Central Asian nation that’s located just south of Kazakhstan. It borders Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and China, it’s most important great-power neighbor. It does not have a border with Russia, but is a close ally.
The country has the liveliest political life of any Central Asian state, though I say that with some trepidation today. It was the closest to participatory democracy of any of these states, which is why, when President Askar Akayev began to grow increasingly less democratic in the mid-1990s, there was very vocal opposition from within the country against him. The trigger for the current cycle of events was the parliamentary elections held February 27 and, in a second round, March 13. International observers found the elections to be competitive but below international standards of fairness.
Several prominent people, Kyrgyz diplomats, for instance, were not permitted to run for election because of a constitutional provision that says a candidate must live in the country continuously for five years preceding an election. There were reports of vote-buying in some of the electoral districts in which major opposition figures were running. If I recall correctly, fewer than ten opposition figures were elected to a parliament that was supposed to have a total of 75 members. Two very prominent opposition politicians lost in the second round and both alleged substantial electoral irregularities.
Has Akayev been the only president since the collapse of the Soviet Union?
He was, but he was brought to power by a 1990 parliamentary rebellion while Kyrgyzstan was still part of the Soviet Union. The Supreme Soviet [parliament] of Kyrgyzstan failed to elect as president the head of the Communist Party as a show of displeasure against him. That was how Akayev came to power.
So, he was the only president this country had after it gained its independence with the other former Soviet republics in 1991. This was important in the recent parliamentary elections, because, according to the constitution, Akayev was due to leave office after the presidential elections scheduled for October . One of the things the opposition feared was that Akayev would use this pocket parliament he had elected to change the constitution either to allow him to run again or to make the country a parliamentary republic with the speaker of parliament in charge. The point of comparison to [recent upheaval in] Georgia and Ukraine is that the protests were against electoral falsification and based on fears the president would illegally extend his power.
Has Kyrgyzstan always had close relations with Moscow?
The Kyrgyz are close to Russia and have grown closer to Russia in the past couple of years.
Why is that? I thought the central Asian countries were not particularly close to Russia.
Actually, that’s not true. Most of the Kazakhs are quite close to Russia. The relationship in the Kyrgyz case is much more a dependency relationship. The Kyrgyz economy is much weaker than Kazakhstan’s, for example, and trade with Russia is an important component. And, as the president became less democratic, he sought security guarantees for his regime, and Russia seemed a more likely place to get security guarantees for nondemocratic regimes than America.
In fact, the United States was critical of the way the latest election was carried out. The U.S. ambassador was criticized as having been very partisan, although the United States did not take any sort of active role in the events of Kyrgyzstan. This was really a largely, almost exclusively, Kyrgyz event.
Describe the economy.
It has undergone structural economic reform. The country’s largest single income producer is a gold mine that’s being worked with Canadians. For the Soviets, Kyrgyzstan was a source of gold. It was one of those republics, in terms of a [centralized] state budget system, that was a recipient republic; that is, it got more money allocated to it than it provided to the state budget.
It ran a deficit?
Yes. The budgeting was so weird. But if you look at what the Kyrgyz gave to the Soviet budget and what they got back, they got back more. But nothing was valued at its world price, so it made the whole thing very confused.
Does Kyrgyzstan have oil?
Very little amounts of oil, but it does have natural gas. It’s not self-sufficient in energy. It has hydroelectric power, which it doesn’t, at this point, export for large profit. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that in the future it will. Russia has become increasingly active in the hydroelectric sector in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in the last two years.
Is there one ethnic group that dominates?
It’s a unified group?
Not completely. The Kyrgyz became a majority in the country in the 1980s. There’s a large population in the south of the country that lives in ethnically homogenous units. About 20 percent of the country was Russian. Much of the Russian population, about 30 to 40 percent, probably, have left the country since independence. There are a lot of divides between northern Kyrgyzstan and southern Kyrgyzstan.
Big mountain ranges cut Kyrgyzstan into three parts or even four parts. You can’t go very far in Kyrgyzstan without hitting a mountain range. The area west of the capital of Bishkek is known as the south. It is pretty cut off from the rest of the country. One of the things behind the unrest in the south was that the southerners, those who live in Jalal-Abad and Osh, feel very much disadvantaged vis-a-vis the north.
For most of the last 50 years, the government of Kyrgyzstan, be it a Soviet republic or an independent state, has been in the hands of northerners. So, even though the Kyrgyz are the predominant ethnic group in the country, there is a big regional difference. There can be tensions based on location. Some of these become clan differences, but I think location is more predictive of difference than clan background within the Kyrgyz community.
Who are the leaders of the opposition?
There are about six or seven opposition leaders. They coalesced at various stages. There has always been opposition to the president outside government, and there has always been opposition in parliament.
In the spring of 2002, there were demonstrations in the south, and people were killed in these demonstrations. That practically brought Akayev down. At that point, the man who was prime minister, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who seems to be acting effectively as head of the government now, went into opposition as well. Several years earlier, Akayev arrested his former vice president, Felix Kulov; he was in jail almost seven years until this morning. He’s been an opposition figure all the way through, and people have been able to use his name. And he had his party, but he wasn’t physically part of it.
Bakiyev had announced previously he would run against the president. Last October, the former foreign minister, Roza Otunbayeva, came back to the country; she had been a long-time ambassador. She tried to unite the opposition, but Bakiyev didn’t join and Kulov, of course, was in jail. But after the first round of the parliamentary elections, most of the opposition joined her.
Bakiyev got through the first round of elections February 27, but he was defeated in the next round [on March 13]. It is hard to believe it occurred democratically, because he was very popular in his electoral district. After his defeat, he joined a group of other southern politicians to form a united opposition. When he joined forces with these people, their position in the south really solidified because he is from the south. He had a lot of prominent figures supporting him. So, it’s really been only about a week that these people have all been together. And then today, Kulov got out of jail, and now there really is a unified opposition.
How will the Russians react to events in Kyrgyzstan?
They have a less vested interest [than they did in Ukraine]. This is a situation they can save easily, because all the opposition politicians are as oriented to Moscow as they are to the West, if not even more oriented to Moscow. None of these people has run on or is organizing on an anti-Russian line. They’re not saying, “We’ve got to change relations with Moscow.” They’re not saying they’re going to join NATO. What poses the threat to Russia is the way the president was driven out, not the outcome. It’s the process that posed the threat to Russia.
The reaction of the Kyrgyz security forces to the demonstrations was obviously restrained.
Yes. The security forces created a huge mess and killed six people in the spring of 2002. Akayev was virtually forced to resign. He knew he had no hope of staying if he shot anybody. And clearly the Russians accepted his restraint. He has had a lot of security advice from Russia since 2002.
Akayev had become a very unpopular figure. But I was surprised that the opposition succeeded so quickly. The two mistakes that we make is to underestimate the strength of the opposition and the stupidity of the government. The government’s actions in the second round of elections united an opposition that was not united.
Will there be new parliamentary elections?
Somebody is going to do something to restore power. In the event that a foreign-encouraged restoration does not occur and there’s not civil war on the streets, I do think there will be a call for elections as quickly as it is technically feasible.
What’s interesting is that there really isn’t a geopolitical agenda here. There is not a strong economic agenda. It’s for democratic elections. It’s for power going to the people. It’s for ending corruption in government, which is not going to be easy.
It will be interesting if they stay united. Part of democracy is the election of a lot of voices. The Kyrgyz are not fractious by nature. [But the most recent] parliament was very noisy, and it had only 15 or 20 opposition people. If there is a parliament elected by people who vote for whom they really want, it’s going to be a very noisy body. So, I think the Kyrgyz are probably as united today as they’re going to be. Akayev had support from people not because they loved him, but because they were doing well. Their personal lives benefited through his presidency and they hoped for further benefit. Once he’s removed, they don’t have any loyalty at all. This is kind of the moment of greatest unity. From this point, we’ll get to see what democracy looks like in Central Asia. Hopefully, it will not produce chaos.