An Orange-Tinged Revolt
No. 2 2005 April/June

The developments in Kyrgyzstan, which began as yet another
colored revolution based on the Serbian-Georgian-Ukrainian models
but later turned into something fundamentally different, have
provided much food for thought. What is going on in the post-Soviet
space? Are we witnessing the signs of a process common to all the
post-Soviet countries? Or do outward appearances hide serious
differences in the causes and content of these developments?
Answers to these questions require an understanding of the
peculiarities of the situation in Kyrgyzstan, as well as the
phenomenon generally described as the “orange revolution.”


The expression “orange revolution” stands for those peaceful
actions of the middle class (intelligentsia, small and medium-sized
businesses, students) of various countries which are aimed at
achieving one global goal: Westernization. The participants of
these movements do not only desire to live in Europe, but also have
grounds for believing that if political changes occur in their
country, this dream can come true in 10 to 15 years. It is for this
reason they take to the streets where they are prepared to stay in
freezing temperatures for days or even weeks. Accordingly,
everything that runs counter to European integration – be it the
corrupted regime of Eduard Shevardnadze, the autarchy of Slobodan
Milosevic, or the pro-Russian candidate Victor Yanukovich – turns
out to be on the other side of the barricades.

Another important trait of an “orange revolution” is its
pronouncedly “legitimate” nature, which makes it basically
different from past revolts which were aimed at destroying the old
world and building a new system of power on its ruins. The “orange”
not only declare their devotion to law (in contrast to the old
regime that violates the law) but also seek to observe it, avoiding
openly illegitimate actions. Even the controversial oath taken by
Victor Yushchenko at the height of the revolution in Ukraine was
merely a token gesture intended to provide morale to his supporters
as the confrontation began to drag out. No one – not even
Yushchenko himself – considered him to be the legitimate president
after that oath-taking, as it was not a presidential oath but an
“oath of loyalty” to the people of Ukraine. The Supreme Court’s
ruling to hold a third round of presidential elections came as the
decisive moment of the revolution.

And what prevailed in Kyrgyzstan? There is no “road to Europe”
for that country because of its geographical location (even Turkey,
a long-standing member of NATO, has been integrating into the
European Union with much difficulty), the mentality of its
population and the level of its economic development. Even the most
consistent Westernizers in Kyrgyzstan must recognize this fact. As
for the intelligentsia, a large part of it, grouped around the
Kyrgyz-Russian Slavic University, obviously sympathizes with
Russia. The establishment of Russian as an official language in
Kyrgyzstan proceeded without any problems in comparison with
Ukraine and Moldova. The West provided limited support to the
Kyrgyz opposition, the exception being its support of pluralism in
the regime in order to increase Western influence on political
processes in the country. Obviously, a victory by the opponents of
President Askar Akayev was beyond the dreams of the West. Judging
by all of the factors, and despite U.S. statements about the new
success in the “crusade for freedom” proclaimed by President George
Bush, the revolution in Bishkek came as a complete surprise to the

To Kyrgyz businesspeople this revolution was a shock, as it
undermined stability in society and a normal business environment.
Moreover, many businesses incurred heavy losses and some were even
destroyed. Whereas initial reports from South Kyrgyzstan about the
looting of banks in Dzhalal-Abad could be taken as “Akayev
propaganda,” the devastation of a business center in Bishkek
shocked even those who sympathized with the changes. The
embarrassed opposition tried to find acceptable explanations for
what had happened. It issued statements, for example, that the
rebellious people were destroying the property of those
businesspeople linked to the former regime. But when it became
clear that the crowds were indiscriminately destroying everything,
including offices of foreign companies, there emerged a new
explanation: the looters were the agents of that regime. (This
reminds one of the February 1917 events in St. Petersburg, where
the blame for the bloodshed was put on policemen who had, it was
said, opened fire from attics with machine-guns at crowds.)

Finally, it was generally acknowledged that the Bishkek looters
were utterly apolitical and only took advantage of the anarchy.
Here again, one can draw an analogy with February 1917, when the
antigovernment opposition lost control of the situation on the
streets and some of the insurgent leaders were even tempted to get
their hands on machine-guns. In Kyrgyzstan, however, order was soon
re-established, although the forces that had begun the revolt
against Akayev played a minor role in that.
The consequences of the chaos were dramatic: colossal losses, the
suicides of several bankrupt businessmen, and a heavy blow to the
country’s investment attractiveness for an indefinite period of

As for the legitimacy of the actions of the anti-Akayev
opposition, let’s recall its major moves. First, there was the
appointment of “people’s governors” even before the march on
Bishkek. Second, the seizure of government buildings and physical
attacks on representatives of the legitimate power (these actions
cannot be blamed on anarchical looters). Third, repeated attempts
to exert pressure on representative bodies of power already after
the overthrow of Akayev – suffice it to recall that the first
interim president, Ishenbai Kadyrbekov, held his post for only a
few hours and was replaced by Kurmanbek Bakiyev, although both were
from the same opposition camp.

As for the opposition’s appeal to the old parliament elected in
2000, this resembled the Georgian scenario but was more of an
imitation of it as international and European organizations
recognized this year’s elections in Kyrgyzstan more legitimate than
the previous elections. Furthermore, the main factor in the
legitimization of Georgia’s revolution was the Supreme Court’s
decision to annul the election results. Only then was it possible
to raise the issue of prolonging the powers of the previous
parliament. In Kyrgyzstan, the opposition initially ignored the
‘judicial factor’ and used it in its interests only after it seized


The above considerations make it inappropriate to talk about an
“orange revolution” in Kyrgyzstan. The developments in that Central
Asian country were rather an imitation of revolution – a subject
now in vogue. They involved mass actions complete with colored
ribbons (the organizers, however, even failed to decide on a
dominating color theme and, therefore, on a name for their
“revolution”) and an appeal to the old parliament. Yet, all of
these developments were merely secondary to the real developments –
the traditional struggle between the northern and the southern
regions of the country and the desire of the southern clans to take
revenge for their being sidelined from power. In contrast with
Ukraine, where the conflict between the eastern and western regions
was only a component of the momentous events in which the
population of the country’s central regions played a decisive role,
Kyrgyzstan was swept by a typical redistribution process initiated
by offended politicians. It was no accident that the opposition
united ex-administrators and Communists, advocates of rapprochement
with the West and members of archaic southern groups.

In 1985, power in Kyrgyzstan passed to Absamat Masaliyev, a
representative of the southern elite; he replaced the “northerner”
Turdakun Usubaliyev, who had ruled the then Soviet Kyrgyz Republic
since the days of Nikita Khrushchev. The Kremlin either was not
knowledgeable on the north-south conflict in Kyrgyzstan, or
considered it a vestige of feudal times which could be ignored in
making major decisions. What did matter to the Kremlin was that
Masaliyev belonged to Mikhail Gorbachev’s generation of Communist
Party functionaries; Usubaliyev, his predecessor, was more than ten
years older than the “father of perestroika.”

In 1990, the north took revenge, using perestroika slogans and
naming academician Askar Akayev, believed to hold liberal and
reformist views, as its leader. The “southerners” failed to sense
changes in the political atmosphere in their country and continued
to resort to orthodox Communist rhetoric and defend the obsolete
ideology. Since then, the southern clans remained in the
opposition, but they did not lose hope for a comeback. For a short
period of time (2000-2002) their representative, Kurmanbek Bakiyev,
held the country’s second-highest post of prime minister, yet he
did not have real powers. Upon his resignation, he joined the
opposition. It must be pointed out, however, that during the 15
years of his rule, Akayev came into conflict with some
“northerners” as well, such as General Felix Kulov, who at various
times held the posts of vice president, interior and security
ministers, and was even the mayor of Bishkek. Ultimately, the
general was accused of economic crimes and convicted. Another
northern politician who fell into disgrace with Akayev was former
Foreign Minister Roza Otunbayeva (after the revolution she regained
her post). Of all opposition leaders in Kyrgyzstan, Otunbayeva was
the most recognizable personality in the West.

During the initial stages of the uprising (until Askar Akayev
left the country), the main watershed lay between the Bishkek
authorities and the southern clans (the Osh and Dzhalal-Abad clans
and, partly, Uzbek clans) which instigated the anti-presidential
revolt. The southern clans implemented some “orange” technologies
to impart respectability to their positions in the eyes of fellow
Kyrgyzes and, more importantly, in the eyes of foreign observers
and international organizations. The main problem of the Akayev
regime was its disunity and the president’s indecisiveness. This is
not surprising, considering that Akayev’s powers were to expire
this autumn, without promising any revolutions. The national
constitution did not allow him to be re-elected for another

To find an acceptable solution, the Akayev team considered
various plans: a referendum to revise the Constitution (the West,
whose positions Akayev always took into account, opposed such a
move), the nomination of a successor (the regime failed to find a
person that would be acceptable to all), and the transition to a
parliamentary republic (the political risks of such a move were
unknown). Finally, no decision was made; this fatefully weakened
the regime, disoriented its supporters, and inspired the
opposition. Incidentally, similar developments are not very likely
in other countries of Central Asia and Kazakhstan, since their
leaders are not confronted with the problem of a handover of

At the second stage, the situation changed. At first, the
“southerners,” no longer content just with Akayev’s overthrow,
insisted that their popular leader Bakiyev not only regain the
premiership but also be named as interim president. Representatives
of the south in the new administration were appointed to head the
Defense Ministry and the General Prosecutor’s Office. The
scheduling of presidential elections for June by the previous
parliament (which is weak and dependent on the “revolutionaries”)
was also a beneficial decision for the south, as it gave an
advantage to Bakiyev; incidentally, the latter was the first to
declare his intentions to run for the presidency.

The subsequent developments, however, ran counter to the plans
of the southern clans. The northern elite, which dissociated itself
from Akayev, insisted on the legitimization of the new parliament,
which included many influential “northerners” who were not going to
surrender their deputies’ mandates obtained in a bitter election
campaign. Felix Kulov, who had been released from prison and had
led efforts to halt the looting in Bishkek, became the new leader
of the north. Later, he tendered his resignation (thus showing that
he had no power ambitions), and the new parliament requested the
Supreme Court to reconsider his case. By European standards, the
legislators’ move was a violation of the separation of powers
principle and an attempt to exercise pressure on the court, but for
the “revolutionary” Kyrgyzstan it did not seem unusual.

The south did not prove to be a truly united force. The
“southerner” Omurbek Tekebayev, one of the best-known opponents of
Akayev, was named chairman of the new parliament; yet Tekebayev was
suffering from difficulties with Bakiyev. And during the 2000
presidential campaign, he cooperated with Kulov: Tekebayev ran for
presidency with Kulov as his nominee for prime minister.
Furthermore, another prominent southern politician, Adakham
Madumarov, not only declined the post of deputy prime minister in
the Bakiyev Cabinet, but also declared his plans to run for

It remains unclear how the north-south conflict will be
resolved. Whereas the south is identified as the “party of
revenge,” the north is identified as the “party of order.” Much now
depends on whether the conflicting parties can reach agreement on a
format of power that would take into consideration all of the key
interests. If they are successful, a common candidate to represent
the larger part of the north and the south may become the
indisputable favorite at the presidential elections, with his
rivals being reduced to sparring partners. But if the parties fail
to agree, the election campaign in Kyrgyzstan may turn into a
bitter inter-clan confrontation with unpredictable consequences –
from a new aggravation of tensions to the threat of disunity.

In considering the “risk zones” for future “colored” revolutions
in the post-Soviet space, Belarus and Armenia are the most probable
hotspots. In Belarus, the opposition is inspired by the Ukrainian
example, and the West is determined to support it: after all, the
regime of Alexander Lukashenko remains the last “outcast” in
contemporary Europe. Public opinion polls show a growth of
pro-European sentiment among the Belarusian population. Now, it is
up to the opposition to provide a leader who could confront
Lukashenko. Thus far, it has failed, but this does not mean there
will be no such leader by the 2006 presidential elections. It is
worth remembering that few people outside the former Yugoslavia had
heard of professor Vojislav Koshtunica just one year before he came
to power there in 2000.

As for Armenia, the 2003 elections were contested by the
opposition which, however, is also a rather heterogeneous mix of
political forces unable to nominate a common leader. In 1998,
however, it successfully forced the then president Levon
Ter-Petrosyan to resign. After that, Russia’s influence in the
country increased; now, however, the situation may go in

What unites such diverse countries as Belarus and Armenia is
that their elites can hope for at least a gradual integration into
Europe. This factor provides inspiration to the advocates of
reform. Their activity may stimulate the introduction of
revolutionary scenarios, which, however, will hardly resemble the
Kyrgyz clan revolt which cost Askar Akayev his presidency.