Martha Brill Olcott began by stating that if this experiment with democracy in Kyrgyzstan fails, it will fail more likely due to the lack of preparation by the Kyrgyz elite, rather than because of the immaturity of the Kyrgyz population. She identified the network of relations as a defining characteristic of Kyrgyzstan’s political and societal culture, as well as a cause for this revolution.
The close knitting of the Kyrgyz community had facilitated the expediency of the revolutionary events. The smallness and closeness of the elite allowed the population to hold its leader responsible and played a key role in bringing down President Akaev. The expectations of the populations vis-a-vis the political elite does not exist anywhere else in the region to the same degree, as it does in Kyrgyzstan.
One of the factors that has helped to aggregate popular interest and has created these expectations of the elite is the civil society groups and NGOs that were able to permeate the atmosphere in Kyrgyzstan after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The technological advancements that have penetrated society have also advanced these interests by creating a well-informed population. Kyrgyz population and its elite are the most Internet sophisticated of the Central Asian countries, and the use of cell phones is widespread. This advancement in communication has contributed to the recent political movement as much as the presence of western NGOs in Kyrgyzstan did.
Corruption of the ruling family, perceived not only by the elite, but by the population as well, was also an important factor in bringing about these events. Another contributing factor was the expectation of economic improvement, especially in the south of the country. It remains doubtful, however, that the next leader will be able to improve the situation more than President Askar Akaev was able to, since it is a factor of geography rather than economic policy. The South is already receiving disproportional funding from the budget and there are programs in place to facilitate economic development. However, the failure to meet popular economic expectations, particularly in the south, contributed to this movement.
The antagonistic behavior shown by Akaev toward the old elite, and the belief that he was promoting a new elite further contributed to political instability in Kyrgyzstan. This was not, however, a struggle along generational lines, as it was in Georgia or Ukraine. Here the competing actors were the existing elite and the elite that were being empowered by Akaev, some with questionable business interests. This new elite was widely perceived by the population as corrupt. Akaev’s refusal to resign and a possibility of his prolonged rule past the end of his presidential term also added to the political uncertainty of the country. His actions have fulfilled the claims of the opposition such as the use of pocket parliament in order to alter the constitution and extend his presidency.
This situation could have been avoided if several steps had been taken by President Akaev. The first step was to promote free and fair election and to exempt foreign diplomats from the continuous residence requirement, as it is done in most countries. Steps were also necessary to promote free and independent media and to avoid bribery, or at least to denounce it publicly and disassociate himself from this kind of behavior. It remains unclear why Akaev has not done so, since these actions would not have caused a significant alteration in the new parliament, but the situation would have been much more politically stable and the institution of parliament would have had moral and legal authority behind it.
The dangers of the current situation for Kyrgyzstan are both long and short term. The short-term danger is the refusal of the population to recognize and accept political compromise that the opposition has reached by seating the recently elected parliament. The population protested against the unfair election process and corruption, which is embodied by the new parliament. This could lead to further political instability and unpredictable outcomes. The long-term danger is equally profound. If a president is chosen from the South and economic conditions do not improve, only short-term security will be achieved, and the danger of the southern revolt within a few years will remain.
The best possible solution to this crisis rests in several factors. First, any political ambiguity must be avoided, and President Akaev should resign. There should be a neutral figure as an acting president, and dates of a presidential election should be set, with at least 3 months for election campaign. Secondly, there must be a new parliamentary election within a period of one year or eighteen months. These elections should not occur without a national discussion of the balance of power between the government bodies. If this approach proves to be effective, it will have the greatest impact on neighboring states.
The situation in Kyrgyzstan sends a strong message to the elites in the neighboring states, and they should pay attention to it because the moment for opportunity is ripe in some of Central Asian countries. Kazakhstan is the most vulnerable to the same kind of movement seen in Georgia or Ukraine. The Kazakh elite is eager to emulate the Ukrainian election. Although the parliamentary elections took place last fall, the elite is waiting for the presidential elections to take decisive action. The Kazakh president has a lot of political leverage, and if he chooses so, he can avoid the Kyrgyz scenario if he takes the necessary steps now. There is, however, a powerful contingent around President Nazarbaev, that is interested in preservation and not reforms, facilitating a revolution to happen quicker. Unlike the Kyrgyz case, however, the younger generation is wavering in their loyalty to the opposition, the standard of living is much higher, the poor populations are very dispersed, and Nazarbaev is interested in his place in history. Thus, the struggle of the opposition against the current regime will be an uphill battle.
As the recent parliamentary elections demonstrate, Tajikistan lacks the mobilization of potential. The elections occurred on the same day as in Kyrgyzstan and were rigged. The opposition has not recognized the election results but people have not taken to the streets. The political dynamics of Tajikistan are strikingly different. It is unlikely that the movement by the opposition will take form of the movements of Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan because there is a chance of antisystemic opposition in various forms, such as Islamic, quasi-anarchic, or social. The memory of the five years of civil war weighs heavily on society. The Tajiks also perceive their economy as on upswing, and the president is a very strong figure.
Uzbekistan, however, has a real prospect of popular dissent. The sense of popular discontent is growing and the slow pace of economic reform encourages further discord. Due to lack of a cultural setting that is conducive to public discussion and presence of NGOs, such as in Kyrgyzstan, the Kazakh ruling elite is ill-equipped to channel democratic behavior. There is also lack of intuitive understanding of a democratic movement as well as lack of secular opposition that has administrative experience, and there is danger of religiously inspired unrest.
The striking feature of Kyrgyzstan’s unrest is that unlike the movements in Georgia, Ukraine, and possibly Moldova or Belarus, Kyrgyzstan’s revolution was not about geopolitical reorientation, and there are no prospects for change in Kyrgyzstan’s foreign or domestic policy. This movement was about Kyrgystan’s internal politics, against corruption, and in support of a power sharing system. There is no evidence of western NGOs’ direct involvement in the Kyrgyz movement, but it was rather the environment of information exchange facilitated by NGOs that has eventually led to this movement.
This crisis has, however, been perceived in Russia as a blow for Putin, but not Russia’s geopolitical interests. Some believe that by not getting involved in the crisis and agreeing to meet with the opposition, Putin has failed again to demonstrate any influence over the CIS. The Kyrgyz revolution, however, should not be placed in the category of conflicts of competing geopolitical interests, but rather in the area of domestic politics of the CIS states. This is not about the competition between the Russian and the Western camps, but rather about citizens’ rights to be ruled by non-corrupt officials and effective leaders.
During the question and answer session Olcott was asked whether the opposition has a particular program that is different from Akaev’s platform, and whether civil unrest can lead to ethnic or religious conflicts or Islamist take over. Olcott replied that the main goal of the opposition is to restore a democratic political process and to create political accountability in economic policy in Kyrgyzstan. As a result of these movements, the South has been more empowered, there has been real effort to bring in Uzbeks, and there is greater awareness of what can happen if ethnic tensions rise. There is virtually no chance of an Islamist take over in Kazakhstan, but there is some risk in the south of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan that the political void that is left by an absence of a democratic system will be filled by Islamic themes, not necessarily meaning that Islamic parties will take control directly, but that secular politicians will be increasingly drawn to play the Islamic card.
Furthermore, Olcott was asked about the role of Kazakhstan and Russia in this movement and about the significance of elections as a trigger of civil disobedience across the former Soviet Union. She replied that Russia and Kazakhstan can play a positive role and they are potentially effective intermediaries in this crisis. So far, however, the Kyrgyz have not addressed the issue of Kazakh assets in Kyrgyzstan. Olcott also stated that elections have been a trigger in the former Soviet Union in facilitating regime changes since the late eighties, and that the trick is to really identify which elections will become such basis for change. She identified a death of a leader, or his political abdication of power, as another possible event where such transitions can take place.