The Dilapidation of Authoritarianism
No. 2 2010 April/June
Alexander V. Lukin

Doctor of Philosophy
MGIMO University, Moscow, Russia
Institute for International Studies
Center for East Asian and Shanghai Cooperation Organization Studies
National Research University–Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia
Head of the Department of International Relations


SPIN RSCI: 6899-4298
ORCID: 0000-0002-1962-2892
ResearcherID: L-4986-2015
Scopus AuthorID: 7102949872


E-mail: [email protected]
Address: Room 4101, 76 Vernadsky Prospect, Moscow 119454, Russia.

Kyrgyzstan and the Post-Soviet Space: A Rule or an Exception?

This article is based on conversations the author had with members of the Kyrgyz interim government, political scientists and ordinary citizens during a trip to Bishkek in May 2009.

The recent revolution in Kyrgyzstan – the second in five years – and the bloodshed in the south of the country that followed it have cast doubts over the country’s viability as an independent state. Also, the fact that practically all officials in the new administration held posts in the administrations of Askar Akayev and Kurmanbek Bakiyev, but were forced to side with the opposition, makes one wonder if there will be a replay of this scenario. There is yet another important factor: an outwardly solid authoritarian regime, one among many in the territory of the former Soviet Union, collapsed within a few days. This raises a more general question: Is this an exceptional case or does it open a new chapter in post-Soviet history?

The causes behind the change of power are quite explicit.

First, Kurmanbek Bakiyev took a course towards building a rigid authoritarian regime. Elections turned into a farce that had nothing to do with the free expression of the people’s will and repression against the opposition annihilated any opportunity to express discontent over the government’s activity by legal means. Bakiyev’s speech about his disappointment with the institution of elections as such and about plans to establish a “consultative democracy,” which he made at the kurultai (the assembly of representatives) convened at his own decision, was the last drop. The nation saw this as the president’s desire to hand down state power to his son, bypassing all legitimate procedures.

Second, the Bakiyev regime was marked by an unparalleled level of overt nepotism and corruption. State power de facto fell into the hands of the president’s relatives, above all his son and his brother, who also took control over financial flows. Interim President Roza Otunbayeva says the funds misappropriated by Bakiyev’s family reach an estimated $2 billion, which exceeds the country’s annual budget.

Third, the balance of governmental representation from the country’s northern and southern regions, which differ markedly in terms of culture, tradition and level of development, was dramatically upset. Bakiyev, who comes from the southern Jalal-Abad region, surrounded himself with relatives and, on a broader scale, almost exclusively with natives of the southern region. The inter-clan balance was not observed either. Many Kyrgyz politicians are leaders of powerful clans and they usually draw support from certain corporations (sometimes legal, sometimes not), lead parties of their own and – most importantly – have a stronghold in one or another city or district. In addition to the severe antagonism between the country’s north and south, there are contentions at a lower level – between regions and districts. Bakiyev ousted former allies in the anti-Akayev opposition, thereby infringing on the interests of many influential clans. The result was that he began to lose influence in his country’s north and south likewise, whereas the popularity of other leaders grew, primarily Omurbek Tekebayev, who comes from a different district of the Jalal-Abad region.

Fourth are social problems. Although the Kyrgyz economy posted modest growth in 2009, the country’s standard of living remains very low, especially compared with Russia or neighboring Kazakhstan, the two countries that the Kyrgyz visit most often. The spark that ignited the turmoil was a sizable – almost double – increase in housing and public utility fees, as well as electricity tariffs.

The social and political turmoil in early April overthrew the Bakiyev regime and created prerequisites for building a more efficacious and diversified system of state power. This does not mean, however, that the problems inherent in the previous period have been eliminated. The interim government does not have unanimity and there is no guarantee that it will not make any mistakes. Further developments in Kyrgyzstan will depend on a variety of factors, including the moves that Russia might make.


Currently, Russia’s and Kyrgyzstan’s mutual interests boil down to the following:

  • the maintenance of political stability;
  •  the maintenance of a special nature of relations between Moscow and Bishkek;
  •  prevention of anti-Russian actions in Kyrgyzstan.

Immediately after the change of power, the interim government had control over the situation in the country, but time is working against it. More and more people will gradually begin to think that the nation’s problems have been left unattended, or that they are being resolved too slowly and political forces of every description may use this as a ploy. Since law enforcement agencies are paralyzed, even a relatively small group of say 5,000 people is enough to seize power or to instigate turmoil which may lead to the country’s split. Rehearsals of such events took place in the south in May, and in June we witnessed a full-scale destabilization as the country’s southern regions got caught in the fire of ethnic conflicts.

The position of the new authorities is also precarious because they lack experience and there is internal discord that has the potential to get worse. At the same time, the presence of representatives of different regions and clans in the new government may work as a stabilizing factor.

Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s administration compromised itself to a degree that makes a return to power scarcely possible. At the same time, the collapse of the interim government and seizure of power by Bakiyev’s associates in cooperation with some other forces have not been ruled out. A worsening of the situation, contentions within the ruling coalition and people’s disillusionment may radicalize the developments and open the road to power for the forces that accuse both Bakiyev and the interim government of inefficiency and corruption.

If one considers the Bakiyev family’s close ties to the U.S. and the absence of a practicable alternative, it is natural to assume that Bishkek is increasingly orienting itself towards Moscow. Moreover, the population is becoming convinced that Russia supports the new authorities and that it even played a role in the overthrow of the Bakiyev regime. Should the incumbent interim government collapse, any new leadership will most likely have an anti-Russian and, quite possibly, nationalistic taint. Chaos and the collapse of the country cannot be ruled out then. Given the situation, the Russian leadership seems to have taken the right step as it offered support for the interim government. In practical implementation of this course, Russia should focus on several aspects.

The vital issue for the new authorities is the maintenance of financial capability and the ability to preserve law and order; that is why material aid and assistance in making law enforcement agencies efficient are of critical importance. It might make sense to expand financial assistance and to shoulder certain expenses, since the collapse of the interim government would mean far greater damage for Russia’s interests. As for law and order, the Kyrgyz favored a visit by Vladimir Rushailo, the Russian president’s special envoy for developing relations with Kyrgyzstan. Yet it is important to remember that Russia’s overblown presence there, especially in the sphere of law and order, may provoke unfavorable reactions over time. The opponents of the interim government have already labeled Rushailo a “Governor General from Moscow.” That is why the presence of Russian law enforcement forces should be limited to the bare minimum and assistance should be reduced to consultations and training. Force should only be used if there is a real threat to the overthrow of the interim government and the country’s collapse. But should such a situation emerge, Russia should necessarily resort to force. Otherwise it will lose influence in Kyrgyzstan and the interim government will have to address other countries for help. At the same time, Russia should make it clear that its military force or – which is preferable – CSTO force will be used exclusively for peacekeeping and will be withdrawn from the country immediately after stabilization is achieved there. It is essential that Roza Otunbayeva’s administration avoid the charges that it is being kept alive at the point of Russian bayonets.

Bishkek should be guided towards the earliest possible formation of a legitimate state power, even without observing all the mandatory procedures. Postponing elections until October 10 may produce a situation where much of the interim government’s authority withers before the election. Displeasure with its policies may pour out in anti-government protests in the run-up to the polls, and that is why a referendum on the constitution and elections should be moved forward to an earlier date (the way the Russian authorities did in 1993). Legitimization of the new authorities would also speed up their recognition by Kyrgyzstan’s partners in the CIS, the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. As a result, acute issues regarding the country’s representation at summits of these organizations would be forestalled. Unfavorable assessments of the changes in Kyrgyzstan on the part of these organizations (for instance, the CSTO) undermine the interim government’s positions inside the country. There are unofficial statements in Bishkek that Russia ostensibly is not using all the opportunities available to it for helping the new government become legitimized, although officials from the very same government have expressed gratitude to Moscow. For instance, Roza Otunbayeva praised the fact that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev personally introduced her to Chinese President Hu Jintao during the May 9th Victory Day celebrations in Moscow, thus helping her to establish personal contacts with Hu Jintao and explain to him the situation in her country.

Russia should use its influence to convince the government of Uzbekistan to open the border with Kyrgyzstan. The closure of the borders by Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan turned into a weighty factor of destabilization in Kyrgyzstan, both in economic and psychological terms. Once realizing this, Kazakhstan opened its border in May but the Uzbek authorities have not done so to date. Some Kyrgyz political scientists are very apprehensive that Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan may carve up their country’s territory; they call for blocking the water route to the two neighboring countries until the border reopens. Implementation of such scenarios may seriously destabilize the situation across the region. Moscow must baffle any potential attempts of military interference in Kyrgyzstan by its neighbors.

Russia should also make efforts to convince Belarus to extradite Kurmanbek Bakiyev to Kyrgyzstan, or to cut short his political activity if extradition is impossible. Attempts by Bakiyev to mobilize his supporters from abroad at the connivance of the Belarusian authorities, which are viewed in Bishkek as Russia’s allies, are considerably hurting the popularity of the interim government and Russia.

The strengthening of the parliament’s powers at the expense of the presidential powers, which is stipulated by the new draft constitution, seems to be the correct step. It creates an opportunity for different political forces to be present in the legislative body of power, without vesting unlimited power in anyone. At the same time it seems feasible to preserve the country’s division into territorial districts and its mixed system of elections (while the draft envisions a proportionate system of voting). Voting at the level of territorial districts would ensure a balance of parliamentary representation for regions and territorial clans. A system of this kind could offer a guarantee against the seizure of state power by one person or a clan. To achieve this goal, the interim government should develop a division of the branches of power and ensure genuine independence for the judiciary, as the latter might take on an arbiter’s role in the struggle between groups and clans.

It would make sense for the Russian embassy in Bishkek – and the Russian media, too, for that matter – to take a very cautious stance on describing the events in Kyrgyzstan. People in that country watch Russian television channels; exaggerating the scale of instability and highlighting the ethnic nature of conflicts there spoil the audiences’ attitude towards Russia, enfeeble the interim government and may even exacerbate the situation. It is precisely at this moment, which is very difficult for its neighbors, that Russia should enhance its relations with Kyrgyzstan in culture, science and research, sports and other humanitarian areas. Any visit by a Russian delegation to Kyrgyzstan is viewed today as an expression of support and warms people’s attitude towards Moscow. Like Kyrgyzstan’s other neighbors, Russia is highly interested in that nation’s political stability and economic prosperity hence Moscow should do everything in its power to facilitate the new leaders’ steps towards bridging existing differences to ensure the country’s stable future.

It is important to widely approve Bishkek’s plans to fulfill all of its international commitments and to put off large-scale foreign-policy decisions, including those related to the U.S. airbase at the Manas airport, until a new legitimate government is elected. An overly hasty closure of the base might bring accusations against the interim government that it is pro-Moscow, as well as charges against Moscow that it organized a coup for own petty purposes. Generally speaking, Russian-U.S. interaction in the regional context should become the subject of detailed top-level discussions – between Moscow and Washington in the first place. It looks like the Russian and U.S. presidents are aware of the importance of tapping mutually acceptable solutions.


The new revolution in Kyrgyzstan, the second after the country declared its independence, makes one think about the situation in the country and in the post-Soviet space in general. At first, the instability that gripped many countries in the ruins of the former Soviet Union was looked at as the inevitable aftermath of abrupt historical change. The color revolutions evoked joy in the West – they were treated as transitions for regimes previously oriented towards authoritarian Putinist Russia over to Western-style democracy. But disillusionment came quickly as the new governments proved to be little different from the old ones. Western reporters wrote that the victory of the anti-Bakiyev opposition came out of a plot cleverly conceived by Moscow, which was displeased with the overthrown regime’s refusal to close down the airbase at Manas. All of these versions are obviously superficial.

Following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, regimes of various degree of authoritarianism came to power in the former Soviet republics – almost immediately in some of them and after a period of time in others. They varied from the populist regime of President Lukashenko in Belarus, to the relatively mild regime of President Akayev in Kyrgyzstan, to the bluntly Asiatic totalitarianism of Turkmenbasi in Turkmenistan. This could by no means be an accident and it certainly overturns the arguments of those who seek the root causes of today’s Russian authoritarianism in the Russians’ ethnic specificity. The traditions, religions and cultures of peoples living in the Soviet Union differed substantially, yet they shared common Soviet life experience, and therefore the origins of today’s situation should be sought in the political culture of Soviet society.

In a nutshell, the causes of the current trend towards authoritarianism can be explained as follows. The Soviet Union fell apart because of its leadership’s inability to provide the anticipated quality of life and the anticipated level of social justice. As long as society was relatively closed and material standards kept growing (during Khrushchev’s rule and especially in the early Brezhnev years), tensions did not reach a critical level. Yet the gap between the anticipated and the real standards of living widened in the years of stagnation. When the degree of openness surged during Gorbachev’s perestroika amid a falling quality of life and the drastically-reduced controlling powers of persecution agencies, the situation exploded.

It was the “educated class,” as dissident Andrei Amalrik predicted once, rather than all of society that acted as the drive engine of change. The Soviet leaders who were highly interested in developing technologies – defense-oriented ones above all – fostered this section of the people with their own hands. They had contacts with foreign colleagues and realized the backwardness of the Soviet political system and the mismatch between this system and their own slogans and objectives. Representatives of this class formed the platform of the opposition-minded intellectual quarters and the liberal part of state bureaucracy. Their activity brought about the decay of the Soviet Union.

The breakup of the Soviet Union shifted power in the former republics to groups made up – in variable proportions – of the old nomenklatura and members of the oppositionist “democratic” public quarters. In some republics (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan), the nomenklatura remained practically unchanged; in other places (Armenia, Georgia, Estonia, Latvia) the “democrats” gained full power. A compromise was reached in other post-Soviet countries (Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan). All of them have one common feature though – the new governments adopted popular democratic slogans while the representatives of the old nomenklatura and the new democrats had noticeable distinctions from Western models. For one thing all of them were the products of Soviet political culture; for another, they had a common understanding of what power is. They believed it was necessary to rapidly build a civilized society; all formal procedures and considerations of the legitimacy of what they should do would not matter. In their opinion, all these things would only play into the hands of their adversaries, and therefore were harmful to the country.

Presumably, authoritarianism is an inescapable factor at this stage of the withdrawal from the totalitarian system. This was said by many Russian thinkers, including Ivan Ilyin and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The belief in the possibility of building Western-style societies immediately after Soviet totalitarianism brought about a split of territories, civil wars, ethnic conflicts and innumerable victims. But no one escaped authoritarianism all the same.

The current stage of development of the post-Soviet space can be compared to the transition from a traditionalist society to a modern one in many countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America. This was evidenced fairly recently by some parts of Europe, too – the Iberian Peninsula, Greece and a sizable part of Eastern Europe before World War II. This stage is marked by political instability and frequent changes of people in power amid a basically authoritarian type of governance. Periods of relatively bigger democracy would alternate with anarchy and the seizure of power by the military or other proponents of “setting law and order” in the country. The social basis for this play is always the same – the union of bureaucracy and big business.

Post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan is a perfect example of a country going though this phase of development. But if one recalls the turbulent political history of neighboring Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and distant Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia, or the political instability in Russia in the early 1990s, it will become clear that all of these phenomena fall in the same line. Naturally, the post-Soviet space is also home to more stable regimes. Their stability hinges on the degree of repressiveness, political culture of the population and other factors, but even they are not secured against abrupt illegitimate changes.

The clue to breaking out of this circle of instability lies in building stable state institutions, which is impossible without a radical change of political culture. According to public opinion polls, people in most post-Soviet states regard higher living standards, social justice, maintenance of order, openness to the outside world, and the elimination of corruption and nepotism among the priorities of the day. At the same time, only a few people are concerned about guarantees of political rights and freedoms, genuine independence of the judiciary and legislative power, and equality before the law for all members of society. Political apathy prevails, while the majority of people find the domination of executive power in the provision of economic development a fairly normal thing. Such mentality can hardly form the groundwork for a steady democratic political system.

Political coups are unlikely to change the essence of a regime of this type. The current situation differs markedly from that of the early 20th century or the end of the Soviet period. The tsarist and Soviet systems could be destroyed since they were based on the power of elites who were estranged from the masses and espoused goals unintelligible for the masses. The destruction of the carriers of conceptions and traditions distinctive of these elites led to the elimination of the systems as such. In contrast, the ideology of today’s authoritarian regimes is popular among the masses. Separate failures and accidents (like the stunning levels of corruption and nepotism) – which is the case with Kurmanbek Bakiyev – are fraught with eruptions of serious protests. Yet the system of power inclined towards paternalistic authoritarianism will hardly vanish, as it measures up with the system of mass conceptions. Naturally, there are options involving different levels of liberal regimes and different mechanisms for the change of state power, which largely depend on local conditions and specific time. Yet the essence of color revolutions and other eruptive political changes in the post-Soviet space boils down to an illegitimate dislodging of the leaders who have failed to meet people’s expectations and left no room for a legitimate change of power without changing the quality of the rule.

Is a change in the quality of the rule possible? Historical experience shows it is, but the road to modern society is not at all historically predetermined. Some countries – in East Asia, for instance – succeeded in making a leap, while others – like the countries of Latin America and Africa – have become bogged down in stagnation and political instability. A breakthrough in the post-Soviet system requires not only time, but also the state leadership’s efficacious policies for modernizing society – not so much with regard to the economy as the political system in the first place.

The liberal economic idea that the market economy itself will generate the middle class, who will lay the basis for modernization and democratization, is overly simplistic. In reality the post-totalitarian market reforms in the post-Soviet space were in many cases emulated by monopolist entities, half-merged with the state, inefficient and corrupt. They did not find anything lucrative either in democratization or in the development of independent small and medium-sized private enterprise, or whatever changes in general. This is when the state often conducts a policy that directly props up the interests of these monopolies (in Russia, mostly those producing raw materials) and is soldered or allied with them.

In these conditions the government must display an extraordinary will and independence as it carries out reforms contravening the interests of its own social base and overcoming the resistance of the milieu that is losing its privileges. This resistance is already being felt in Russia – on the part of the military frustrated by military reform, prosecutors who are reluctant to work properly (they have already managed to curtail trial by jury), the top police brass who are losing bribes, and the university lobbies who are losing earnings from admission schemes (and have compelled the authorities to ease the requirements of unified state examinations).


Breakthrough reforms have occurred in Russian history on several occasions that met the country’s interests on the whole and were aimed at attaining social stability that was threatened by the jingoism of the elites. On two occasions Tsar Peter I and Tsar Alexander II succeeded in modernizing the structure of state power. It was at that time that the most powerful impulses were imparted to the country’s development.

And where are the new reform-minded tsars today? They are nowhere in sight and this means Russia is not secured against a Kyrgyz-type social and political existence marked by a slow rotting and periodical political cataclysms. The only difference is that Russia’s size and significance implies the possibility of far more impressive cataclysms.

Some signs of budding turmoil in Russia are already there. People are becoming increasingly discontent with growing prices, the hitherto unseen privileges of the authorities, and the inefficiency of the armed forces and the police. “Monstrations” – marches under absurd slogans very much resembling those in Europe in 1968 – that bring together thousands of young people are also tokens of disenchantment with the suffocating atmosphere and the unbearable boredom spelt by both the authorities and the opposition. One should remember that disillusioned young men held control over Paris for several days back in 1968.

A new educated class – well-earning professionals – is clearly taking shape in Russia. While previously they would advocate Putin’s stabilization, now they are becoming increasingly annoyed with the fact that they remain a powerless mass in the system of oligarchies and state bureaucracy. A new hero of our times has emerged who refuses to give way to a boss with a flashing light on the top of his car. This new hero is a typical representative of this class.

This situation necessitates modernization along two lines.

First, we must resolutely rebuild the mechanisms of state power and make them efficient, simultaneously making the state strong and capable of implementing its own decisions. In fact, state power in today’s Russia is enfeebled, since it should show strength in translating its own decisions into life, and not in dealing blows to those who offer alternatives to the state’s inertia. Russia needs a new system of government service for this, a new army and up-to-date police. Any “Silicon Valleys” will be plundered in the absence of such modernization.

Second, a course towards the development of self-government from the grassroots level is necessary; that is, the creation of “niches of independence.” This means a course opposite to the one that took root in this country in the 2000s. The case in hand is not reverting to the stagnant clan system of the 1990s, as suggested in the new voguish reports by ideologists of big monopolies that feel burdened by the growing power of bureaucracy under Vladimir Putin. The new course should be conducted cautiously from the bottom up and should be aimed at something Boris Yeltsin failed to achieve – setting up and institutionally strengthening a state ruled by law and a system of the division of powers instead of the incumbent quasi-parties, quasi-elections and quasi-society.

The existing super-concentration of power deprives the people of initiative and makes them passively accumulate discontent. It is important to give everyone the opportunity to take responsibility for decisions, so that the people could blame themselves for major mistakes, and not the Kremlin. The only problem is that genuine development of public self-government and the division of powers will gradually embrace the courts, the representative agencies, the prosecutors’ offices and regional administrations. This in turn will imply the necessity of power-sharing – something that far from all people holding on to the helm of power are prepared to do. But this is the only way for Russia to free itself from the threat of the Kyrgyz disease.