Kyrgyzstan: Why Tulips Are Not Roses (Or Oranges)

By Sean-Paul Kelley

To the casual observer recent events in Kyrgyzstan resemble those of Georgia and the Ukraine. But as the euphoric opening moves of revolution pass, a political and geographical split widens between rival Kyrgyz clans. If the factionalization of Kyrgystan's divided polity continues it will destabilize the area and further complicate the tense relations of the region's contending powers.

There are parallels among the recent revolutions sweeping across the former Soviet Union. Each began in the capital, each was inspired, if not backed by U.S. policy, money and rhetoric and in each the aims of the revolutionaries were agreed upon in advance. However, the unrest in Kyrgyzstan was spontaneous in nature and began in the provinces, unlike the events that erupted in capitals of the Republic of Georgia and the Ukraine.

In the late nineties when the differences between Kyrgyzstan's regions were less pronounced than they are today a survey was conducted to explore issues effecting Kyrgyzstan's future. Even then a key conclusion of the survey identified a striking division in this mountainous country where the ruling Kyrgyz clans from the north largely ignore the needs and aspirations of the Uzbeks in the south. In the poll, two thirds of the Kyrgyz people felt that the North-South division of the country would ultimately lead to conflict.

Most ethnic Kyrgyz who live in the north are drawn from a cultural milieu of clan-based nomadic horse shepherds loosely affiliated with Islam, whereas Southern Kyrgyzstan is full of Islamized Uzbeks dependent upon the rapidly deteriorating cotton monoculture of the Ferghana Valley. Here it is not uncommon to see women donning the veil, Wahhabist relief organizations and the occasional Saudi built Mosque. Indeed, the IMU (Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan) derived most of its support from the Ferghana.

While the IMU fights for its life in the Northwest Provinces of Pakistan [1], Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a non-violent radical Islamist group, plots and organizes in both Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Former President Akayev of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbek president Islam Karimov outlawed Hizb-ut-Tahrir amidst worries that a violent faction of Hizb-ut-Tahrir has formed.[2] For the new Kyrgyz leaders, however, Hizb-ut-Tahrir is a future problem. Their first priority is contending with the aftermath of revolution.

Action, Reaction and Counteraction

After the votes for the Parliamentary elections were tallied on February 27 the ruling party appeared victorious.

The celebrations were cut short by a February 28 OSCE report that indicated "widespread vote-buying, de-registration [of legitimate] candidates and interference with independent media."[3]

Several days later a small and disorganized crowd tried but failed to take over a regional administration building in the Ferghana city of Jalalabad.
Then on March 13 the ruling party declared the results of the run-off election: Akayev's party claimed an absolute majority in the parliament.
Opposition groups in the south quickly cried foul.

Five days later the crying morphed into rage when an opposition mob in Osh seized a regional administration building. But on the 19th of March OMON troops (Kyrgyz riot police, who some claimed were Kazakh citizens) retook it.

Undaunted, the opposition countered OMON the following day, overwhelming the regional administration building, the Internal Affairs Office and the International Airport at Jalalabad.

Scoring more victories in Jalalabad on the 21st of March, the opposition occupied the regional and city administration buildings.

Emboldened by their victories they also occupied the national security service office (the Kyrgyz KBG) in Osh.

The region's new leader, Kushbak Tezekbayev, exerted his newfound power, telling a Russian news agency, "The situation is stable in the region and the law enforcement system is beginning to work. The traffic police are on duty and police departments will soon resume their work as well." [4]

On March 22, as reported by Interfax, "a convoy of buses carrying opposition activists departed from Osh to Bishkek" with the goal of organizing protests in the capitol.

That same day in Bishkek the Central Election Commission certified the results of the election and the new parliament sat for the first time.

The morning of the 23rd was preceded by a restless, rumor-filled and tense night. Crowds gathered along the tree-lined boulevards of Bishkek. Competing protests soon erupted. Some were natives of Bishkek, and others were from the south.

In the next few days, as opposition crowds grew larger and more radical, the presidential offices would be seized, Akayev's fifteen-year tenure as president of Kyrgyzstan would end and widespread looting would befall the city of Bishkek.

The dynamism of events in Bishkek captured the world's attention as a tiny and poor republic, high up in the mountains of Central Asia burst onto the world's front pages.

Internal Interests, External Powers

Policymakers, as a rule, prefer stability. And so the unsettled nature of events in Kyrgyzstan leaves many watchers with more questions than answers.

One key question will be how the leaders in Bishkek reconcile power sharing with the south now that an ethnic Uzbek is governor of the province. If this is handled poorly, will separatist undercurrents emerge outright?

Indeed, how would the government of Islam Karimov respond to more autonomous policies in a largely lawless region that directly borders Uzbekistan's most troublesome province? After all, the border has already been mined.

Moreover, Kyrgyzstan's revolution is viewed by the Russian foreign policy elite as another American attempt at denying them what is rightfully theirs: an unimpeded sphere of influence. At what point must Putin simply say, 'nyet.'

There is also the nagging question of competing Russian and American air bases in Bishkek to contend with. How will Kyrgyzstan's new leaders cope with the competing influences of American neo-imperialism and Russia's attempt to re-establish control in its 'near-abroad?' Will they be as skillful in balancing the rival powers as Akayev was?

It is important to point out that Bush's proclaimed 'March of Freedom' is not the sole benchmark of American interests in the region. The Bush Administration considers Al Qaeda a threat, even if the president rarely mentions the name of its founder. Al Qaeda is still a threat looking for a home. Might the Ferghana end up being a 21st century Bekaa Valley?

What of the colossus next door, China? Already China has one unstable neighbor in North Korea. They don't need or want another. How will they behave if Kyrgyzstan disintegrates?

Furthermore, China doesn't appreciate U.S. meddling in what they consider to be their backyard. China's problem with American influence in the region stems from the perceived hypocrisy of Bush's "War On Terror." From the Chinese perspective it's a war that should include the separatist threat in China's Xinjiang province. However, in Washington, mum's the word.

In fact, Stratfor, a corporate intelligence firm widely considered to be a barometer of neo-conservative strategy, writes "[the] Chinese don't believe the United States is obsessed with Al Qaeda any longer. They believe the Americans are obsessed with China, and they see events in Kyrgyzstan as a security threat."

Finally, there is the issue of water. Pedestrian it is, but essential nonetheless. Although global climate change is hastening the evaporation of the glaciers Kyrgyzstan still has lots of water. Uzbekistan and China have little. In fact, Uzbekistan has so mismanaged its water resources that the Aral Sea has lost 50 percent of its volume. How will Kyrgyzstan manage these rapidly evaporating resources with two dehydrated neighbors?

The problem of Kyrgyzstan cannot be reduced into prettified sound bites. It's not enough to equate developments in Kyrgyzstan as a fight between 'free peoples' and 'despots.' It is a divided nation sandwiched between several larger, thirstier and hungrier powers, all of who are competing for its attention. While other nations in similar historical circumstances have turned such a geopolitical situation to their advantage, cohesion and shared goals were the rule internally.

One resource Kyrgyzstan needs but doesn't have is stability. It also needs time. It doesn't have much of that either.


1. [See Eurasianet Archive for more details: ]

2. [See: for more.]

3. [See OSCE,]
(See for details.)

4. [See for details.]

Sean-Paul Kelley is the Editor of The Agonist, an online global commentary and news community. He has traveled widely and is currently writing a book on his adventures in Central Asia. He graduated with a B.A. in Diplomatic History from the University of Houston and is currently completing his Masters in History.