Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Have all the Tulips Wilted?: Kyrgyz Official Attacks President’s Son on YoutTube

I often feel as if the international community dismissed the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan almost before it had been completed. While the Rose and Orange Revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine were led by political personalities who could easily be seen as reformers in the west, Kyrgyzstan’s Tulip Revolution lacked leadership. It was almost spontaneous, and it lacked the organizational order seen in Georgia and Ukraine. Indeed, President Bakiyev has mostly disappointed those who had hoped that Kyrgyzstan might make a break with authoritarianism and a concerted move towards liberal democracy. Still, have all the Tulips wilted in Kyrgyzstan? Afterall, the events that took place in March 2005 in Kyrgyzstan did reflect widespread public dissatisfaction with a government that no longer served its citizens.
In the months following the March 2005 events that led to President Akayev’s fleeing his country, I regularly visited Bishkek and spoke with politicians and civic activists about where their country was headed. While they generally expressed disappointment with the country’s lack of leadership, they also suggested that at least now people had awaken and would not permit a repeat of the government graft and nepotism that characterized the last years of Akayev’s rule. Even a year ago, when I conducted focus groups around the country with activists, I found that people remained engaged politically and seemed determined to prevent their country’s return to a family-run cleptocracy.
This public will to hold the government accountable, however, has not translated into much reform. In fact, over the last year, many have suggested that Bakiyev and his family have generally replicated the corrupt family-run governance model that marked Akayev’s last years. In fact, the parallels are almost uncanny. Last summer, the long string of post-revolution opposition protests were finally silenced as the ruling party took almost total control of the parliament through familiar electoral tactics. Not only were there significant questions about the free and fair conduct of the elections, but criminal charges were brought up against several activists and politicians in the opposition, including Edil Baisalov, who eventually fled the country. Furthermore, since Bakiyev took over, a gradual privatization and re-privatization of important businesses and industries has generally concentrated more and more wealth in the hands of the Bakiyev family and its friends. And, perhaps most importantly, Bakiyev’s son Maksim has been accused of assuming the role of Akayev’s son Aidar. Like Aidar, he has been accused of abusing his father’s power by usurping businesses and bullying others for the economic and political gains of himself and his friends.
This background contextualizes a video that has recently been released on YouTube by Klara Kabilova, the Chairwoman of Kyrgyzstan’s Central Election Commission (see below).

Kabilova has accused Maksim Bakiyev of threatening her life during recent local elections, suggesting that he tried to force her to influence electoral results. She calls on the President to keep his son under control and to ensure the protection of Kyrgyzstan’s citizens. In concluding her remarks, she notes that she has decided to leave her post and that the future of Kyrgyz statehood hangs in the balance if Maksim Bakiyev continues to act as he has without accountability. Edil Baisalov has also responded to Kabilova’s video on YouTube with his own commentary (see below). Baisalov more directly blames President Bakiyev for his son’s antics, noting that Kyrgyzstan is no longer ruled by a government for the people, but by a family for its own enrichment. He also addresses Ms. Kabilova, reminding her that she has served Bakiyev and has helped him establish the situation in which the country and government now find themselves.

Anywhere else in Central Asia, the posting of such a video to the internet by the Chairwoman of the Central Election Commission would be shocking. In Kyrgyzstan, however, it is not really that surprising anymore. People are no longer afraid to speak out, and they have higher expectations of government accountability. Unfortunately, this willingness to publicly criticize in Kyrgyzstan has not yet resulted in actually changing the face of government. Rather, it seems that it is leading more often than not to critics leaving the country (Kabilova reportedly is leaving the country as well in fear of her life).
Overall, the spirit of March 2005 lives on in Kyrgyzstan as citizens (and even important government officials) are ready to go public with their criticisms of the present regime. The only question is whether the hope that characterized the protests of 2005 is still recoverable in the country, or whether the legacy of the Tulip revolution is merely an ability and willingness to expose injustice, not the belief that it can be reversed. In many ways, the Tulips of 2005 have wilted, but they have not died entirely. Perhaps, they are just awaiting somebody with vision to show the way to a better future.

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