The Tulip Revolution has been suffering a lot of bad press lately, fed in part by the frustration of Kyrgyzstan's young political activists from student groups and other nongovernmental organizations who had very idealized versions of what a transfer of power was likely to bring. Like Ukraine and Georgia, one faction of the split political elite took over from another. But unlike Georgia, power was not transferred from one generation to another. Unlike Ukraine, the worldview of the newcomers does not vary significantly from their predecessors', and the foreign policies that they will pursue will likely be identical.
The Tulip Revolution was also messier than its Georgian and Ukrainian predecessors, and in both the north and the south of Kyrgyzstan, crowds rushed government buildings, leaving a trail of civilian and government casualties -- including a few fatalities -- behind them. It was also messier politically, as President Askar Akayev swore in the legislature that the crowds had taken to the streets to protest. And once Akayev refused to resign formally, the interim government felt obliged to compromise with the new legislature rather than risk a constitutional crisis that could have resulted in civil war.
The result is that the interim government in Kyrgyzstan faces an uphill battle to demonstrate its democratic credentials. But while the major tests are yet to come, the Kyrgyz population deserves credit for not putting up with an election filled with irregularities, from the opposition figures who were barred from running on technicalities, to potentially independent candidates intimidated into stepping down, to possible fraud at the ballot boxes.
For the last 15 years, the leaders of all the Central Asian states have been warning the West that their populations were not ready for democracy and that without the guidance of strong authority figures, the situation would degenerate into mob rule. But the mob in Kyrgyzstan was easily quelled with promises that new office-holders would take their public trust more seriously than their predecessors. But if the Kyrgyz elite degenerate into "business as usual, Central Asian-style," the hope for democratic reform in the region more generally will be dashed. And if the Kyrgyz masses were to take to the streets once more -- in a year or two, or even sooner -- it is unlikely that their protests would be broken up without the use of force and without considerable bloodshed.
The Kyrgyz elite have the fate of their nation in their hands. Now that all the major factions in the Kyrgyz elite -- save Akayev and his most intimate associates -- have been brought into the interim government, it is time for the elite to appease the masses. The now largely united elite should be capable of holding transparent elections and agreeing to accept their results. And then, once Akayev's successor is chosen by the population, he -- or she -- should preside over a national debate about what constitutional reforms are necessary to create a political system that will keep public trust high throughout Kyrgyzstan's inevitably lingering economic transition. If the Kyrgyz can do this, they will keep the pressure on the presidents of neighboring states to make their regimes more accountable to their populations. The first to feel the pressure will be Nursultan Nazarbayev in neighboring Kazakhstan.
The political system in Kazakhstan most resembles that of Kyrgyzstan, in that in both countries, there is already a strong penetration of civil society institutions; the political and economic elite are partially fragmented; and the president has been associated with a pattern of corruption. But there are important differences.
Kazakhstan is a much wealthier society than Kyrgyzstan, with a much larger economy. Both countries have pursued relatively similar policies of economic reform, but Kazakhstan has attracted vastly greater sums of foreign investment, due to its large oil and gas reserves, which have also allowed the Kazakhs to benefit from high global oil prices. As a result, poverty is much less of a problem there than in Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan's poor are relatively dispersed across the country's enormous territorial expanse, making them much more difficult to organize.
The Kazakh opposition, which took a real beating during the 2004 parliamentary elections, hopes to turn the next presidential elections, set for December 2006, into a Ukrainian-style rout. Most members of the opposition have already settled on a single candidate, Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, former parliament speaker and deputy chairman of the pro-presidential Otan party, who broke with Nazarbayev last October. It is hard to gauge how much popular support the opposition enjoys, and Nazarbayev might try and diminish the appeal of the opposition by setting himself up as an agent of political reform. Nazarbayev maintains that he is committed to real, albeit gradual, political reform, to be accompanied by concrete steps to improve the social and economic conditions of the Kazakh people. The Kazakh leader has expressed a strong desire for his country to assume the presidency of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2009, and to do this, the upcoming presidential elections have to meet international norms.
The Tajik opposition also believes that it have a better chance of defeating President Emomali Rakhmonov in 2006 than of getting the recent parliamentary results overturned. Tajikistan held parliamentary elections on the same day that the first round of elections was held in Kyrgyzstan, and these also fell far short of international norms. The four opposition parties -- the Democratic, Communist, Islamic and Social Democratic parties -- have strongly protested the election results and have pressed for a new election. But they have not been able to translate these protests into large popular demonstrations against the Rakhmonov government, largely because the population of Tajikistan is still partially traumatized by the lengthy civil war that began in the early 1990s.
Virtually no one holds out the hope that Turkmenistan's political system will change. While Saparmurat Niyazov talks of holding presidential elections in 2008 or 2009, it would be impossible to hold competitive elections during his lifetime. But one day, someone trusted by Niyazov may move against him, not by taking to the streets -- prominent dissident and former Turkmen foreign minister Boris Shikhmuradov showed the futility of that approach -- but by the more classic and less subtle approach of simply physically eliminating him.
The prospect of political instability in Uzbekistan appears to be a more imminent one. Political discourse in Uzbekistan is slowly growing more relaxed. In private and semi-private settings, ordinary Uzbeks have begun to venture to discuss politics, to speculate on the health of the president and to ponder what may come in the future. They also have begun grumbling publicly. Less common are formal public protests, but they too are occurring with increasing frequency.
The Uzbek government made some largely symbolic steps to introduce a few promised political changes. However, the absence of formal political institutions that can moderate elite competition means that the period of political transition will be a time of potential instability in Uzbekistan. Excluded political groups seeking to expand their influence are likely to appeal to regional and sub-national groups as they seek ways to expand their potential power bases. For much the same reason, the role of religious opposition groups -- particularly the least radical ones -- may expand as well.
Akayev's messy exit may not mean that his colleagues in the region will also be pushed from office, but it certainly does increase the likelihood that secular and religious opposition groups will try and oust them. Those who seek political power are going to use all the tools at their disposal to advance their cause. Many will see these contests as their chance of a lifetime to take power.
What we have seen play out over the last few weeks in Kyrgyzstan is but the first scene of a lengthy drama that will dominate the Central Asian stage over the next few years. And we can only hope that in later acts, the action won't turn bloodier.
Martha Brill Olcott, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.