The day of snowballing riots and violence that culminated in President Kurmanbek Bakiyev's fleeing his capital Wednesday evening is the worst nightmare of every despot in Central Asia and beyond. A government that thought it had secured itself against opposition by increasingly brutal police methods suddenly found a people rising in anger, besieging ministries, beating up the interior minister and finally forcing the president to scuttle to a private jet.
It was a grim mirror image of 2005's Tulip Revolution that brought Bakiyev to power when a broad coalition of antigovernment forces ousted former president Askar Akayev, and with similar swiftness. International commentators back then were quick to lump Kyrgyzstan's Tulip Revolution along with the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia and the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine. Indeed the popular anger at old, corrupt Communist elites was similar in all cases. But in truth the Kyrgyz "color revolution" brought to power not pro-Western democrats but a group of former apparatchiks who quickly became as hated as the ousted Akayev regime.
The Bakiyev family "ran the country like a criminal syndicate," says Professor Alexander Cooley of Columbia University. Worst of all, for the people of Kyrgyzstan and the region, Bakiyev and his allies soon began cracking down on opposition activism, on international observers such as the International Crisis Group, and on the U.S. presence in his country by threatening to expel American troops from the Manas airbase, a key staging post for NATO operations in Afghanistan.
But the swift collapse of the government isn't just a nightmare for the nervous rulers of the region; it's a serious cause for concern for both Central Asia's big neighbors, Russia and China, as well as for Western countries trying to fight wars against an Afghan insurgency as well as wider wars on terrorism and drugs. What Kyrgyzstan tells us is that the rulers of the oil-rich Central Asian nations are in fact far less stable than they pretend. Until the Tulip Revolution, four of the five former Soviet republics that make up the region were still run by the Communist-era strongmen—who controlled an estimated 35 percent of the world's natural-gas supplies. Two remain in power, Kazakhstan's 70-year-old Nursultan Nazarbayev and Uzbekistan's 72-year-old Islam Karimov. Both have been criticized for human-rights abuses, and the likelihood is that they will crack down even harder in response to the events in Kyrgyzstan's capital, Bishkek.
Bakiyev's ouster may make the West think again about its support for corrupt and unpopular regimes in the region. "Over the last few years, the West and the EU have posited a tradeoff between stability and governance," Cooley says. But Wednesday's events in Bishkek show "that's a false trade-off." In other words, repression and corruption weaken, rather than strengthen, regimes—and when they collapse, people remember who supported the hated despot. By that token, Russia, surprisingly enough, comes off looking better than the U.S. Moscow has been strongly critical of the Bakiyev regime for at least a year, ever since Bakiyev took a $300 million tranche of Kremlin aid money that came with the categorical (if secret) proviso that the Kyrgyz must kick the U.S. out of the Manas airbase in return. Instead, Bakiyev took the Russian money, doubled down on the Americans for more rent, and, in the process, made a sworn enemy of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
"Neither Russia nor your humble servant have any links to the events in Kyrgyzstan," Putin told reporters, and he's probably telling the truth, since the limits of Russia's soft power in Kyrgyzstan were shown up by Moscow's failure to squeeze the Americans out of Manas. Still, Putin was unable to resist the temptation to twist the knife in the fallen president. "When Bakiyev came to power a few years ago he severely criticized his predecessor for nepotism—and now I have the impression that Bakiyev stepped on the same rake."
But though Russia has been the most prominent international critic of the Bakiyevs, Moscow's opportunities for leveraging that into soft and hard power are limited. U.S. rent on the Manas base, which was hiked last July from $17.1 million a year to $60 million, plus an additional $117 million for economic development, upgrading the airport, and fighting drug trafficking in the country, makes up a significant chunk of the nation's income. And it's unlikely that the incoming opposition leaders, who include former foreign minister Roza Otunbayeva and veteran activist Temir Sariyev, will take an anti-U.S. stance. Indeed the U.S. Embassy criticized the imprisonment of Sariyev and his supporters over the last year, and the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Kyrgyz service remains the most trusted source of news for most Kyrgyz people, despite repeated government attempts to jam it.
The immediate cause of the latest protests couldn't have been more local—a protest at a rise in electricity tariffs, imposed by national utility companies controlled by the president's family. But their message is universal. In March, Bakiyev told a national congress that democracy based on elections and individual human rights would "no longer be suitable" for Kyrgyzstan and proposed a sham "consultative democracy" instead. Ordinary Kyrgyz obviously felt that less democracy would mean more corruption and came out on the streets to protest. Hopefully, the next government will learn the lesson that Bakiyev did not—and perhaps make Kyrgyzstan the first country in Central Asia to be both democratic and stable. Washington has both idealistic and very practical reasons to help make it so.