An Orange-Tinged Revolt

18 may 2005

Resume: The recent uprising in Kyrgyzstan became yet another element in the chain of revolutions that have swept the post-Soviet space. However, the Kyrgyz case vividly demonstrates that outward appearances hide serious differences in the causes and content of these developments.

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 West.

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 time.

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 power.


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 term.

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 power.

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 president.

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 reverse.

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.

Last updated 18 may 2005, 16:29

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