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A third chance for Kyrgyzstan?

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9 April 2010 16:14

Why should we be hopeful about this latest round in Kyrgyzstan's revolutionary political cycle? Will the newly-formed interim government led by Roza Otunbayeva be any different from its predecessors?

There are two reasons to think it might. But first, some historical background.

Kyrgyzstan — a small and impoverished state nestled between Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China in the mountainous backwaters of Central Asia — is no stranger to political upheaval. And disappointment.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, this former Socialist Republic was ushered into the 'new world order' by a so-called 'liberal' reformer, President Askar Akayev. A scientist, property rights advocate and supporter of relations with Asia and the West, Akayev was initially seen as 'a bright hope for democracy in Central Asia.'

Yet fourteen years later he was still in office, having overruled a constitutional provision limiting his re-election, fraudulently won a third term as President in 2000, and presided over a series of often violent crackdowns on protesters, opposition figures and the media. 

Enter the Tulip Revolution of 2005. As thousands of protesters marched — under fire — on Government House in the capital Bishkek, many observers anticipated that a new wave of freedom and grassroots democracy had come to Kyrgyzstan (see here, here vs. here). In the wake of fresh corruption allegations and another electoral scandal, the 'masses' had revolted. Akayev fled the country. Opposition leader Kurmanbek Bakiyev became President, and for a while all seemed to be well.

But not for long.

By November 2006, President Bakiyev was himself ordering the armed suppression of violent anti-government protests that had erupted, again, in Bishkek. Having failed to address political corruption, lift living standards or introduce the democratic reforms (caps on presidential powers) he had promised in 2005, Bakiyev quickly lost the grassroots support that had propelled him to power.

And it got worse. Over the next four years President Bakiyev used violence to silence the media, consolidated his authoritarian rule, and — according to international observers — effectively stole elections in 2007 and 2009.

Which brings us to Wednesday's violence, and to our two reasons for hope.

First, Otunbayeva, a democrat and leader of the Social Democratic Party, has in the past demonstrated a willingness to leave government when it gets — for want of a better phrase — too draconian. In 2004, she fell out with President Akayev to become a key leader in the Tulip Revolution. Otunbayeva then quickly lost the support of the newly-installed Bakiyev Government, pushing instead for a new democratic constitution in 2006. 

Second, Otunbayeva boasts good relations with Russia, the West and the UN. As a former Soviet Ambassador to Malaysia, a former Kyrgyz Ambassador to the US, Canada and the UK, and a former deputy Head of the UN special mission to Georgia, Obunbayeva will be receptive to the entreaties of foreign stakeholders. This is likely to include a positive reaction to calls for democratic reforms within Kyrgyzstan.

For now, we can only wait in anticipation.

Photo by Flickr user timbrauhn, used under a Creative Commons license.

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