Power Shift: Volatility in the Caucasus

By Yang, Catherine | Harvard International Review, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

Power Shift: Volatility in the Caucasus


Yang, Catherine, Harvard International Review


Kyrgyzstan is no stranger to political volatility. Ever since the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, ethnic tensions have simmered under the increasingly authoritarian rule of former president Askar Akayev, who was first elected unopposed and has since won elections overshadowed by allegations of ballot-rigging. More recently, Kyrgyzstan has suffered through tumultuous events in the past decade, which have taken the country in a new direction with respect to its government's future and its relationships with the United States and neighboring countries, including Russia. In 2002 the first major demonstrations against Akayev flared up, and in 2005 Kyrgyzstan followed Georgia and Ukraine's revolutions of the previous year with its own "Tulip Revolution," ousting Akayev from power. However, this has not simplified any governmental matters--in the past year, Kyrgyzstan's continuing turmoil has left its neighboring countries on edge and created an opportunity for Russia to extend its influence, with geopolitical repercussions for the balance of power in the Caucasus.

The "Tulip Revolution" was sparked amid allegations of vote-rigging in favor of Akayev's children for legislative positions. In the ensuing chaos, Akayev fled to Russia and Kurmanbek Bakiyev took power. Rampant corruption characterized his tenure, and a population soon disillusioned by misrule, high energy prices, and a poorly performing economy rioted across the country in April 2010. Bakiyev retreated to Belarus, while a provisional government led by Roza Otunbayeva took control. At first, this might have seemed a mere repeat performance of the replacement of one corrupt government by another. Unfortunately, the widespread rioting continued even after Bakiyev's departure, and in doing so revealed ethnic rifts that could easily be exploited. The country has always been loosely divided between Kyrgyz communities in the south and Uzbeks in the north. Such ethnic identification was once suppressed under Soviet rule, yet in the past twenty years has become prominent again. In particular, Bakiyev was perceived as favoring Kyrgyz over Uzbek interests. Here the discontent over Bakiyev's governance was ripe for the picking. Yet one wonders why the ethnic tensions suddenly imploded at this particular point, when they had been stifled for so many years. It is suspect to toss off the ethnic rioting as an inevitable situation contained within Kyrgyzstan, an inner conflict unaffected by outside forces.

Indeed, closer examination reveals some nimble maneuvering to undermine Bakiyev's government. Russia happens to control a large proportion of the media in Kyrgyzstan; throughout the weeks preceding the April 2010 riots, it used this influence to run a negative campaign against Bakiyev, fiercely attacking him on charges of corruption, nepotism, and journalist murders. In addition, Russia abruptly imposed taxes on its energy exports to Kyrgyzstan on April 1, which immediately drove up and exacerbated the Kyrgyz energy price situation. This would almost certainly spur on the public's anger as well--and indeed, just five days later, demonstrators started coming out in droves in a series of protests that spread across the country to the capital of Bishkek itself, and ultimately led to Bakiyev's ouster. These incidents cannot automatically be taken as isolated, especially in light of the striking fact that this series of events should happen after Bakiyev's interaction with Russia over military bases in Kyrgyzstan. …

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