The Revolution Revisited

by Alexander Wolters

In early 2012 Prime Minister Omurbek Babanov announced a Hundred Days Program. His government planned to quickly reactivate the economy and tackle the most urgent problems within the society. Political experts considered the plan surprisingly realistic, yet many doubted if there was actually enough political will left to implement even such realistic steps. For the general public this question was already rendered meaningless. Almost two years after the so-called April Revolution, people in Kyrgyzstan, for the most part it seemed, were disappointed in the new politics and neither trusted the nascent parliamentary system nor the party politicians. Recent shifts in the government do not change this general impression.

This grey outlook makes it difficult to evaluate the developments over the past two years. Initially, one might think Kyrgyzstan did a great job in transforming its political institutions to move away from old-style authoritarianism to a modern political order. And yet, it seems the country moved nowhere in terms of economic and social development.

When the bloody ouster of president Bakiev took place in April 2010, I had just arrived in Bishkek. What I observed in the days following the storming of the White House, the former seat of government, gave me the impression that Kyrgyzstan was experiencing a genuine revolutionary situation. The air was filled with all kinds of emotions. Fears of retribution were mixed with hopes for a new beginning, anger towards the former leadership alternated with pride for the successful overthrow, and all felt the grief for the loss of the 87 men that died trying to topple the old regime. The need to express these emotions led to the transformation of the area around the White House and the square Ala-Too into a small yet revolutionary laboratory for free speech. The high iron fence surrounding the White House became the billboard for endless expressions of sorrow and messages of condemnation, for calls for solidarity and letters of support. If one walked by the Erkindik statue in front of the Historical Museum, one could see people regularly gathering under its umbrella and listening to each other’s opinions, temporarily establishing a Kyrgyz version of a “Speakers’ Corner”. And soon small yurts were erected, hosting imams who offered consolation in prayer for those who sought to express their grief.

The new authorities let the laboratory exist and did not dare to interfere. For some weeks, an autonomous public space allowed new forms of exchange to develop, not limited by an institutional order that still needed to be established. Later on, the absence of such order would be tragically felt in the days of the terrible ethnic clashes in Osh. In Bishkek, for the time being, the revolutionary stimulus provided the space to think of the creation of something entirely new. Back then my impression was that the laboratory on the streets turned into an experiment for a new political system. In the midst of political unrest, Kyrgyzstan pushed through a constitution that laid the foundation for a parliamentary system. A couple of months later, in October 2010, Central Asia saw its first competitive elections, accompanied by actual campaigns and TV discussion rounds. Against all odds, a coalition was formed that appointed a government which endured scandals, but did not fall. A year later presidential powers were peacefully handed from Roza Otunbaeva to Almazbek Atambaev and a second coalition that installed Babanov’s government was formed.

Despite the recurring predictions of failure and collapse, the new political order still holds. It is entrenching itself through small reforms like, for instance, endowing the legislative branch of power with the right to declare the state of emergency, formerly a display of presidential sovereignty. The revolutionary stimulus from the April 2010 events seems to be guaranteeing the continuation of the experiment. This development I find rather astonishing and too often neglected by observers in and outside Kyrgyzstan.

At the same time one must admit, however, that this new order does not produce better political decisions than those preceding it. The energy crisis during the winter months, by some expected to be repeated this year, was brutal proof of that. To sense the level of frustration with the stagnating development in Kyrgyzstan one only needs to skim through the commentaries in the Internet. Everyday politics is still the same old game played by the same old people, only this time they don’t gather in the president’s residence, but meet up in the corridors of the parliament. If the revolutionary situation in April 2010 initiated a break with the past in terms of the political institutional setting, it certainly did not with regard to the political culture.

In sum, two and a half years after the April Revolution the promise of a better life stays unfulfilled. Yet against the rising public desire for a strong leader, I believe that new “laboratories” are the way out of political depression. The new political order reconstituted liberties and eventually allowed for an opening towards civil society initiatives and a revival of culture and art. One can only hope that these nuclei of creativity will finally reach the political sphere and send out their stimuli. In the end, the common good in Kyrgyzstan will depend on a politics where creative decision makers constantly formulate new ideas to meet tomorrow’s challenges.

Previous versions of this article have been published on BBC Kyrgyz and BBC Uzbek.

About the author:

Alexander Wolters completed his PhD at the European University Viadrina, Frankfurt (Oder). In his work he concentrates on forms of political communication and social conflicts in Central Asia.