The Latest Revolution

Madeleine Reeves

There is an eerie thrill to be had from walking through the home of a deposed president. Legitimate trespassing. Private vice exposed. By the time we came to gawp on Saturday afternoon, three days after the uprising that had overthrown Kyrgyzstan’s government on 7 April, the Bakievs’ house in the capital, Bishkek, was an empty, burned-out shell. Everything sellable had been taken, down to the light-fittings and wall tiles. Sections of the roof were hanging loose where it hadn’t burned right through. The front door had already gone, and so had several of the windows. Inside, the soot-covered walls had become a blackboard for expletives. ‘Bakiev, you son of a bitch, go!’ read some wall-high graffiti, signed ‘From the People’. The floors were a sea of discarded papers, notebooks, magazines, business cards. We picked our way across them, looking for clues and for something to salvage. We took photos. We stood and stared, sifting with our feet through the scattered, sodden possessions of a president disgraced.

The rich pickings had gone first, to waiting criminals well aware that looting follows a coup as night follows day: televisions and fridges, a washing-machine, jewellery, furniture. When the television crews arrived at the house the morning after the uprising, smaller trophies were being carried out from the smoking remains: children’s toys, photo albums, pot plants, kitchen equipment, clothes – the hangers left strewn across the lawn like a family of feeding birds. Voting bulletins with the numbers changed were held up full view to the cameras. A middle-aged Kyrgyz man waved a torn picture of the president’s wife dressed in stately garb. ‘Look at that handbag, covered in jewels!’ he said in broken Russian. ‘Her dress is nothing but jewels. They’ve sold off all the riches, everything this country had, and look at how we live! We’ve become nishchie’ – paupers, a term harking back to earlier class wars and justifications of revolutionary grab. ‘What else do they expect? This is the people (narod) taking back what is theirs.’

We had been here before. In March 2005 the ‘Tulip Revolution’ that propelled Kurmanbek Bakiev to power was followed by three nights of looting: markets, shops, cafés and offices were stripped bare and the streets of central Bishkek showered with broken glass and rotten, trampled vegetables. This time shopkeepers were better prepared. Many city centre stores have invested in metal shutters. Some of the new multistorey ‘trading centres’ have no windows at all, only giant billboards in place of glass – a striking contrast to the late socialist buildings over which they tower. ‘Revolutionary architecture’, someone called it.

Early in the afternoon of 7 April, when it was clear that a demonstration to demand an end to ‘family rule’ was turning into something altogether more violent and serious, shop fronts and office windows were plastered with the precautionary slogan: ‘Biz el menen!’ – ‘We’re with the people!’ Sometimes this was accompanied by a statement of ethnic or party affiliation: ‘This shop is owned by Kyrgyz,’ or simply ‘Talas’, a reference to the north-western city where riots had broken out the previous day, and an index now of being on the right side of Kyrgyzstan’s political fence.

Being ‘with’ the people, however, is different from being ‘from’ them. For many Bishkek residents, the young men who thronged the city as the day began – predominantly poor, predominantly rural in background and Kyrgyz-speaking rather than Russian – were a ‘people’ with whom they only ambivalently identified. Some of the demonstrators had been bused in by rural micro-credit groups and activist organisations: critical institutions for translating economic grievances into political demands. Others, mobilised along lines of kinship and regional loyalty, came to join leader-patrons from the same district or clan (uruu). Most, however, arrived from nearby villages and the sprawling migrant districts that service Bishkek’s markets, travelling in by public transport, responding to the phone calls of friends, former schoolmates and fellow villagers already making their way from a planned gathering at the eastern edge of the city to the White House, the seat of government, in the centre of town. Others, no doubt, just came to look.

Within a few hours, a demonstration of 1500 people had swelled to a crowd of tens of thousands, many armed with stones and wooden sticks. It was a crowd without a leader. High-up members of the opposition United People’s Movement – including a former prime minister and former parliamentary speaker – had been arrested the previous night after riots broke out in the west of the country, and the demonstration was led, impromptu, by supporters who didn’t have a megaphone between them. In contrast to the 2005 coup, when banners, slogans and tulip-waving demonstrators enabled a symbolic connection to be drawn to ‘coloured revolutions’ elsewhere in the former Soviet space, this was – at least at the level of the popular revolt that consumed Bishkek – an altogether less ‘managed’ affair.

Eighty-five people died on 7 April from bullet wounds and sniper fire, as sections of the crowd tried to ram their way through the gates of the White House and claim the government building by force. The vast majority of the casualties were young, ethnically Kyrgyz men born outside Bishkek: a fact not lost on those who watched the carnage unfold on national television. For many long-term Bishkekers, the claim of the ‘incomers’ (priezhie) to the city is a contested one. ‘Get back to your village, then!’ was an old woman’s yelled response to the television as a young man who had taken part in the uprising complained on camera about the lack of housing in the city and the need for land to be given to ‘the people’ for the construction of private homes. Many Bishkekers were angry that, for the second time in recent memory, state buildings had been ransacked or set on fire – the parliament, the prosecutor-general’s office, the White House, the headquarters of Kyrgyz National TV – and that they would have to foot the bill. As in 2005, the point when the nation and its interests became the justification for revolutionary action was also the moment when its social divisions were most dramatically exposed. The uprising will have consequences for the idea of a plural ‘Kyrgyzstani nation’, with its sizeable minorities of Uzbeks, Russians, Dungans and other groups (together making up 30 per cent of the population according to last year’s census).

As the seizure of state buildings gave way to the expected looting, an ‘emergency broadcast’ was delivered live from the one functioning studio of the ransacked television station. Alongside the frantic appeals for calm, the amateur footage of wounded bodies and burning buildings, the appeals for donations of blood and money, and the succession of victory speeches from an erstwhile ‘opposition’ thrust unceremoniously to power, a tickertape of text messages sent in by the public rolled across the screen. ‘How is TsUM? Still alive?’ one of the messages asked, referring to the central department store and Bishkek icon that had been saved in 2005 after being surrounded by a ring of Bishkekers in a defensive cordon. ‘Kök-Jar microdistrict is quiet. Almaz, look after yourself!’ another read. ‘Everything from Voyentorg to Panfilov has been robbed.’ ‘Asalam aleikum, Kyrgyz brothers. We’re all Muslims. Calm yourselves.’ And then just: ‘Our poor, poor city!’

By the time the city came to bury its dead three days later in a public ceremony at Ata-Beiit, a memorial complex built to honour the victims of the 1930s Terror, a public narrative was already crystallising. Bards singing improvised mourning laments hailed the dead young men as baatyrs, warrior-heroes, and placed a curse on seven generations of Bakiev offspring. ‘Bakievge kul bolboibuz!’, ‘We won’t be slaves to Bakiev!’ members of the new interim government told the gathered mourners, echoing a phrase that had been used by the demonstrators as they marched to the government building.

In this narrative, 7 April marked a ‘people’s uprising’ in the most unambiguous sense. This was the moment when the people had had enough: when those who had nothing to lose seized power from a regime that had long since stopped listening. The polyglot, fiercely intelligent leader of the interim government – the Moscow-educated Roza Otunbaeva, head of the Social Democratic Party – put a pointed version of this argument to an Izvestia reporter who wanted to know why the chaotic, violent events of the previous week should be considered ‘revolutionary’. ‘I can positively say that the people rose in rebellion,’ Mrs Otunbaeva replied. ‘Whether or not it was a revolution is for historians to decide. Some say the rebellion was prepared from outside – the work of Russia or America. But it was not so. The Kyrgyz people quite simply lost their patience.’

The reality may be a little more complicated than Otunbaeva’s response suggests. The Putin-Medvedev duo certainly seems tacitly to have supported the shift of power and has been quick to endorse the interim government. Putin’s terse observation on 8 April that ‘corruption and nepotism’ were in large part to blame for Bakiev’s downfall was hardly a generous send-off to a fellow member of the CIS. Whatever the role of Russia or its underlying motivation (and the conspiracy theories fly thick and fast in post-coup Bishkek), it is clear that the regime had not been behaving as Russia wished. By late last year, the Kremlin was increasingly exasperated that Bakiev – who had just seen a quadrupling of the US subvention to Kyrgyzstan – had gone back on his promise to close the Manas airbase outside Bishkek, used as a transit station for Nato’s Afghan campaign.

Inside Kyrgyzstan, growing economic grievances began to translate into targeted demands for ‘the Family’ to go. Over the previous five years Bakiev, together with his six brothers and two sons, had privatised state power in ways that made the former president, Askar Akaev, ousted in 2005 for having ‘stolen’ from the state, look benign. Between them the extended Bakiev family dominated the state’s security structures, economic agencies and most lucrative embassy positions. The 32-year-old Maksim Bakiev, the president’s second son, headed the state agency for ‘development, innovation and investment’, giving him direct control over most of the formal flows of money entering the economy – including the revenue from the sale of the jet fuel that keeps the US Afghan mission airborne.

The concentration of political and economic power in family hands has coincided with a decline in opportunities for work for the rest of the population, coupled with a knock to living standards as inflation and hikes in the cost of utilities have struck. In January the unit cost of electricity was doubled overnight, and was set to rise again in the summer, in preparation for the quick privatisation of the energy sector at well under market cost. At the same time, the primary source of income for many rural and peri-urban families – the remittances sent by family members working in the construction sector in Russia – has declined sharply as Russia’s oil-fuelled building boom goes cold. Seasonal labour in Russia has acted as a social safety net for the best part of the last decade, concealing domestic economic stagnation. Kyrgyzstan is now one of the most remittance-dependent economies in the world, along with Lesotho, Haiti and its resource-poor neighbour Tajikistan. In rural regions of southern Kyrgyzstan there is hardly a family that does not have at least one son (and now, increasingly, daughters) working in the Russian construction sector. ‘Moscow feeds us,’ the expression goes. Everyone here knew that when Bakiev’s deal with the US over its airbase provoked Russian anger, this was a political gamble too far.

Russia, indeed, wasn’t slow to demonstrate its discontent. In the second half of March the Russian media began a concerted period of negative reporting about Kyrgyzstan. Since much of Kyrgyzstan (including areas well beyond the predominantly Russophone Bishkek) tunes in to Russian state TV for its news, the campaign was a source at once of anxiety and curiosity, not least because much of the most vociferous criticism concerned Maksim Bakiev’s shady financial dealings. When, on 1 April, in the middle of the spring planting season, Russia suddenly announced a 100 per cent duty on the import of fuel products to Kyrgyzstan, there was renewed fear about the consequences of a souring of relations with the country on which so many Kyrgyzstanis rely for their livelihood.

The economic squeeze has coincided with a dramatic decrease in channels for legitimate expression of dissent. Kyrgyzstan has always enjoyed relative freedom of expression (‘relative’, that is, to its Central Asian neighbours). The independent press has frequently struggled against arbitrary raids from the security services and tax police, but journalists had, in the past, enjoyed comparative freedom to write what they pleased. In the last two years, however, attacks on journalists, often spectacularly brutal in nature, have silenced criticism and led newspapers once known for their investigative journalism to fill their pages with celebrity profiles and puzzle pages. In December, shortly before he was due to launch a website in support of the Kyrgyzstani opposition, the Bishkek journalist Gennady Pavliuk was thrown from the sixth-floor window of an apartment block in Almaty. Other less prominent journalists have taken up jobs as interpreters and translators. In the weeks leading up to the April uprising, Kyrgyzstani citizens found websites blocked, independent radio stations taken off the air, and parliament debating a law that would make it easier for the security services to tap mobile phones.

Then there were last year’s fiddled elections, Bakiev’s constitutional changes, his replication of a Russian-style ‘presidential party’ which state employees across the country were pressured into joining, the disappearance, intimidation and arrest of opposition figures: all this combined with ‘scientific’ justifications of the notion that participatory democracy wouldn’t fit with the Kyrgyz mentality. Two weeks before the April violence, Bishkek hosted a Congress of Harmony intended to appease a fractious population. Bakiev’s speech attacked imported concepts of human rights and advocated something called ‘consultative democracy’ as better suited to Kyrgyz nomadic traditions. ‘Today, across the world,’ the carefully selected hall of delegates was told, ‘the failures of accepted models of democracy, based primarily on elections and human rights, are being actively debated. It is far from clear that such models are appropriate for all countries and all people.’ The Congress of Harmony passed off harmoniously enough, though it served only to consolidate support for the opposition. An alternative People’s Congress, held a few days earlier, had already given moral authority to seizure as the only remaining viable model of political engagement. As in 2005, force became the idiom of popular politics.

The problem, of course, is that revolutionary grab – zakhvat – tends to beget itself. This is most visible in the nights of looting that follow a coup: a carnival of popular redress that flourishes when the police stay home, as they did on the night of 7 April. It is evident, too, in the jostling for lucrative positions in state administration as thousands of cadres tainted by association with the old regime and its servant party are purged from their posts. It is reflected most memorably in the seizure of privately owned land, as landless young families (and a fair number of speculators hoping for a share of the action) stake out, with stones and string, the boundaries of plots to which they assert a claim. Swathes of parkland and freshly planted fields at the northern and southern perimeters of Bishkek have been taken over in this way: dotted with yurts and tents until the foundations of more permanent homes are laid. The logic is simple and compelling: as the banner hoisted over one of the yurts in a self-declared new neighbouhood put it in defiant capitals, ‘The master of the land is the people!’ The new mayor of Bishkek tried to calm the crowd of zakhvatchiki last week, promising that land would only be allocated ‘according to the law’. But he, too, was shouted down. As one of the young men called out, leaving the mayor temporarily speechless, ‘You grabbed power. So what’s the difference? We grabbed land. We also need to live!’

Here lies the difficulty for an interim government thrown to power by a popular coup and governing now by decree in the name of ‘the people’. With parliament dissolved (because the last elections were rigged), the constitution declared void (because it was passed by an illegitimate parliament) and employees of the constitutional court, down to the stenographers and cleaning ladies, dismissed from their jobs (because they were all serving a corrupt regime), this is a government whose sole claim to legitimacy is that ‘the people’ put it there by force. It is a fragile claim with which to hold things together – all the more so since there are thousands, if not tens of thousands of people who developed a modus vivendi within the old system and now find themselves without a job.

Kyrgyzstan is now in the paradoxical situation of having rule by decree in the name of restoring democracy; root and branch purges of the public sector in the name of countering corruption; and a hiatus in the rule of law as a basis for restoring legitimacy. Students of Lenin – there are a good few in the Kyrgyz elite – would convince us that this is necessary to establish a different kind of politics: to write the slate anew. The rest cling uncomfortably to the hope that they are right. New elections have been scheduled for October. But whether this experiment in revolutionary rule holds until then is anyone’s guess. And with Russia grumbling about the dangers of ‘state failure’ in Kyrgyzstan and the need to defend its ‘compatriots’ abroad, the interim government might not have long to prove its case.