By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 31, 2005
BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan -- The sun blazed down on Ala Too Square from a powder-blue sky. Children splashed and squealed in the marble fountains. Teenagers in tight jeans gathered in clumps to lick ice cream cones and gossip.
A little more than two months ago, this vast plaza in the capital of Kyrgyzstan was the gathering point for thousands of enraged protesters, who toppled their nation's longtime leader in two hours.
But the idyllic atmosphere on the square on a recent afternoon masked lingering unease in this impoverished former Soviet republic over the consequences of the March 24 Tulip Revolution that ousted President Askar Akayev.
"Nothing, absolutely nothing, has changed," Darya Ibrayeva, a 35-year-old homemaker, said with disgust as she pulled her 4-year-old out of the water. She noted that her husband, who gave up his job as a policeman a year ago for better-paid work selling clothing in Russia, still could not afford to return. "The rich are still getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer," she said. "I thought those who seized power would be different. But I've lost faith."
Marina Idakieva, 40, a hairdresser who was out walking her Pekingese, was more charitable. "It takes time to make positive changes. I think things will really get better after the elections," she said, referring to the presidential contest scheduled for July 10.
Few people express doubt about who will win. Acting President Kurmanbek Bakiyev is widely considered the favorite in a field of otherwise obscure candidates. Bakiyev is a former prime minister turned opposition figure and was appointed to the temporary post by his fellow protest leaders after Akayev's resignation. Until recently, Bakiyev was expecting a stiff challenge from Felix Kulov, a magnetic former secret police official who was jailed by Akayev's government and freed by protesters on the same day they seized control of the presidential palace.
But in mid-May Kulov agreed to withdraw from the race in exchange for Bakiyev's promise to appoint him prime minister.
Many people here say approvingly that the two men make a complementary pair. Bakiyev, a Soviet-trained economist, is considered an even-tempered technocrat. Kulov, who put together security patrols to stop the looting after the revolution, is seen as an effective, if sometimes hot-tempered, law enforcer.
Because Kulov draws his support from the northern part of the country and Bakiyev from the south, there was concern that a race between the two would exacerbate Kyrgyzstan's regional divisions. Those tensions, which have their roots in the relative poverty and religious conservatism of the south's large, ethnically Uzbek minority, could easily have erupted in violence, analysts said.
"In Kyrgyzstan, leaders often can't control the people acting in their names, so even if [the losing candidate] told his supporters not to take to the streets, people might have done so anyway," said David Mikosz, head of the Bishkek office of IFES, a Washington-based election assistance agency.
But by running as a team, Mikosz and other analysts say, Bakiyev and Kulov have denied their countrymen their first chance at a meaningful presidential vote since Kyrgyzstan gained its independence in 1991 after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
With Akayev firmly in control since then, "there's no history of a loyal opposition here," Mikosz said. "It's always been those in power versus those fighting to take power. It would have been really good to go through the exercise of having two strong candidates competing in the realm of ideas and then establishing the idea of a loyal opposition."
Dinara Asanbaeva, academic supervisor at a political science academy sponsored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said the arrangement also made her doubt both men's commitment to democracy.
"These leaders are just trying to divide up the benefits of the revolution between themselves," she said. "It's a change of the political elite but not of the political system."
People are also concerned because Bakiyev will inherit a constitution -- retooled by Akayev in the '90s -- that gives the president sweeping powers over parliament and makes impeachment all but impossible.
There are plans to reform the constitution by referendum in September, and Bakiyev has pledged to support such moves if he is elected. But under the current constitution, Kyrgyzstan's 5 million citizens would have few legal options if Bakiyev were to go back on his word.
"I'm afraid that with all the power he will have after the elections, it will be very difficult for him to resist," Asanbaeva said. "Every human being is weak, and Mr. Bakiyev has a past in [Akayev's] government. The only reason he was in opposition was because of personal differences with Akayev, not out of principle."
Many point out that Akayev, too, started out as a reformer, encouraging a free press and nonprofit civic groups and opening Kyrgyzstan's formerly state-controlled economy to foreign investment. Aid from the United States poured in, and there was talk of overcoming the mountainous nation's lack of natural resources by turning it into a banking center for its wealthier neighbors -- a "Switzerland of Central Asia," as it was widely called.
As the years passed, however, opponents said that Akayev seemed far more preoccupied with consolidating power. This winter he used patently fraudulent ploys to disqualify a series of political opponents from running for parliament, prompting the protests that led to his ouster. Akayev's family also accumulated wealth by seizing control of what appears to have been a vast network of businesses, and they made no attempt to conceal it.
Now Bakiyev has appointed a commission to investigate dozens of enterprises allegedly owned or controlled by what was commonly referred to as "the Family." Investigators have announced that Kyrgyzstan's tax revenue will rise by tens of millions of dollars this year now that some of those companies, which the government contends had bribed their way out of paying taxes, are being forced to pay what they owe.
David Grant, director of Kyrgyzstan's International Business Council, which represents major investors here, said his members supported the principle behind the investigations. But he expressed concern that the process had so far been arbitrary and secretive.
"It's not at all clear why certain companies are on the commission's list and why certain others are not," he said. "And some of the people on the commission have business interests related to some of the people they are investigating. . . . If you really want to stop corruption and make a break with the previous system, this kind of thing should be done by an independent auditor who responds to a prosecutor."
Grant stressed that the business community was at least relieved that the deal between Bakiyev and Kulov appeared to have bought some short-term stability.
As for what will happen after that, he sighed and echoed the refrain heard on Bishkek's streets. "I don't know," he said. "That is a lot less certain."