Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

The Unexpected Revolution

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, March 29, 2005 --  

The rapid collapse of Kyrgyzstan's government during protests last week adds a new and dramatic chapter to a series of revolutions that have swept former Soviet countries over the past year. The height of the drama was reached on Thursday, when thousands of Kyrgyz gathered at the presidential palace to protest rigged election results awarding parliament seats to corrupt President Askar Akayev's family members and other obedient supporters. Before anyone realized what was happening, the protesters had stormed past police lines and into the palace, as the disgraced president fled out a side door into exile.

Opposition groups' claims that they had no plans to seize power that day are supported by the utter chaos that followed -- two nights of looting in the capital, a power struggle between the old parliament and the newly elected one, and a face-off between two prominent opposition leaders. Anti-Akayev politicians certainly didn't plan this result.

The incredibly rapid fall of the government -- much faster than in the recent revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia -- was both a blessing and a curse. It was a blessing because it ensured there would not be an opportunity to violently suppress the protests, as looked possible in Ukraine and Georgia. It was a curse because it gave the opposition no chance to negotiate and plan a smooth transition from the old, corrupt regime.

To be sure, this revolution will prove unlike those in Ukraine and Georgia. The deposed Kyrgyz president, in contrast to the other two ousted post-Soviet leaders, was nominally pro-Western and liberal-minded. But years after his pretty words made him the West's post-Soviet darling, Akayev settled into the cronyism and corruption that is all too common in the former Soviet Union. But no matter how empty his words became, his liberal rhetoric remained. The unfortunate result is that opposition leaders now occupying Kyrgyzstan's White House will be tempted to distinguish themselves from Akayev by appearing less Western and more nationalistic.

The danger is especially grave from Feliks Kulov, a former political prisoner who was released after the opposition takeover. A former Kyrgyz KGB chief, Kulov ran afoul of the government years ago by planning to challenge Akayev in the last presidential election.

After being released last week, Kulov quickly took charge of the security services, and it didn't take long for him to return to his strong-arm KGB roots. Within days, he was threatening to arrest members of the old parliament -- the very people that freed him from prison -- when they refused to disband.2 Should Kulov emerge as the real power in Kyrgyzstan, the liberties of the people could be in serious jeopardy.

Regardless of the challenges facing Kyrgyzstan, the country's incredibly quick revolution will provide encouragement for those suffering under authoritarian leaders around the world. Three times in the past year, strongman presidents have been forced to give in to popular pressure generated by rigged elections. Even if no further revolutions follow those in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, many despots will think twice before blatantly rigging elections in the future. For this achievement alone, the Kyrgyz protesters deserve the world's gratitude.

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1. Chicago Tribune, Protesters in Kyrgyzstan Storm Palace, Force President to Flee, March 24, 2005

2. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Kyrgyzstan: Leaders Battle With Constitutional Deadlock, March 28, 2005