Almost two days ago now a political crisis erupted in Kyrgyzstan that no one – aside from a small number of observers and experts – could have foreseen. What started off on Tuesday as a local protest in the city of Talas over the fourfold increase of utility rates quickly spread like a brushfire over the entire north of the country, including the capital city of Bishkek. Widespread discontent over the corruption of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev boiled over, leading to a mass popular onslaught on government buildings that the authorities have not been able to stop. As things stand now, there are reports of between 65-100 people dead and hundreds more wounded from clashes with the police, Bakiyev is said to have fled the country, a coalition of opposition parties now claim to be in power, and the future of the U.S. army base in the country has just been put in question.
A story from the Russian news site gazeta.ru has pointed out that the country’s south remains a stronghold for Bakiyev and was a crucial factor in the 2005 Tulip Revolution that saw him oust then-President Askar Akayev. Now it seems to be the north’s turn to protest, apparently fed up with the corruption, nepotism, political repression, and economic regression of his government.
According to a report from the NY Times, the opposing coalition is said to have formed a transition government under the head of Roza Otunbayeva, a former foreign minister. As things remain chaotic on the ground, it is difficult to say what this can mean and the near term effects it will have on the country’s political future. It’s quite clear that Bakiyev is facing a crisis of legitimacy that looks irreconcilable. It is also clear that there has been at least a partial break in the legal order, considering the outbreak of popular revolt and violence in the streets. Seeing as how there has been a rupture in both the legitimacy and the legality of the Bakiyev government, at least from the point of constitutional theory, Kyrgyzstan is on the brink of a revolution.
What remains to be seen is how the transition government will go about consolidating power and calming the riots. Otunbayeva has already claimed that the government will remain in power for six months in order to draw up a new constitution. Furthermore, the fact that opposing parties have managed to form a coalition means that the old legal and political order is still in place, although this does not necessarily mean it possess legitimacy in the eyes of the protesters. At best, the future of Kyrgyzstan could include a new constitution making process and a transition to a more inclusive democratic regime (as was the case in Nepal and South Africa). In the worst case, the new government will be unable to justify its own legitimacy as it tries to re-found the Kyrgyz state and instead turn to more political repression.
This process of constitution making will also undoubtedly face outside pressure. At the moment, the country finds itself in the midst of a geopolitical tug of war between Russia and the United States. Both Putin and Medvedev have made openly critical statements about Bakiyev’s rule since the crisis began, likely seeing it as an opportunity to cultivate a closer relationship with the transition government. This is the same government that will soon have to decide what to do with the U.S. army base on its soil. Bakiyev vowed to evict the Americans last year, only to turn course after pressure from the Obama government, which also agreed to pay much higher rent (showing the importance of the base for American state interests and the War on Terror in Asia). Bakiyev’s about face is said to have been yet another factor in his fall from grace in the eyes of the Kyrgyz public. As Bakyt Beshimov, an opposition politician who had to flee the country last year in fear of his life, said, “The political behavior of the United States has created a situation where the new authorities may want to look more to Russia than to the United States, and it will strengthen their political will to rebuff the United States.” Still, many in the opposition seem to be split on the issue, possibly anticipating the downturn in the national economy that this political crisis will create. Considering that the War on Terror in the region will not be ending anytime soon (in light of Obama’s decision to send additional troops to Afghanistan), an army base could continue to serve as a reliable source of revenue for the new government. In a poor country like Kyrgyzstan – one of the poorest of the former Soviet republics – this could be too enticing of an offer to pass up.