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No Tulips This Time, But Hope
Igmen at UCLA in 2008

No Tulips This Time, But Hope

Ali F. Igmen, a historian at CSU Long Beach who specializes in Central Asia and Kyrgyzstan, recalls the disappointments of the country's 2005 revolution in assessing the events of this week.

The seemingly perpetual regional rivalry between the Bishkek-based North and the Osh-based South has haunted Kyrgyzstan.

Long Beach, April 8, 2010

WHERE DID THE tulips go?

Kyrgyz government forces killed more than 40 people yesterday, barely more than five years after the largely nonviolent Tulip Revolution of May 24, 2005. The number of the killed and the wounded will probably be larger when we find out the final numbers. This brutal response to demonstrators in the capital city of Bishkek and other large cities proves that there were no tulips in sight this time, but blood and screams. Nevertheless, there is some hope that today's revolution will lead to a brighter outcome than the last one.

In 2005, corruption charges and widespread popular opposition brought down President Askar Akayev, who had led the independent Kyrgyz Republic since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1992.  Kurmanbek Bakiyev, Akayev's successor as president until yesterday, appears to have fled the capital for the same reasons.

Despite the optimism of the tulip revolutionaries when Bakiyev came to power, his government did not allow opposition to flourish, but rather made it diminish. Just as Akayev favored his northern relatives and family members, Bakiyev placed his own southern relatives in the key positions. The seemingly perpetual regional rivalry between the Bishkek-based North and the Osh-based South haunted this country once again.

This time, in 2010, the last straw was the arrest of two prominent opposition leaders. A third opposition leader, the former foreign minister and U.S. ambassador Roza Otunbayeva, has now organized an interim government. I remember how Otunbayeva, on a visit to Seattle about ten years ago, gave hope to me and other graduate students in the Central Asian Studies Program of University of Washington, when she hinted that Kyrgyzstan had the potential of becoming perhaps the only democratic country in Central Asia. Later, many of us became researchers, scholars and teachers of the area. I lived and worked in Kyrgyzstan three separate occasions since 1995.

Through the years I have listened to the concerns and complaints of my Kyrgyz friends, who are not often willing to reveal their dissatisfaction with their own people and government. But the events of April 7, 2010 may be a turning point. These people who have been living under a corrupt government which enriched its members at the expense of an increasingly poor population are refusing to hide the dirty laundry any longer. When families sit in darkness that is caused by the mismanagement of the hydroelectric industry (the only real industry this country possesses), when families feed their children stale nan for supper night after night due to out-of-control prices, and when the government refuses to allow opposition to address these problems, violence takes over. So far, however, it seems that the government forces are the perpetrators of the violence. 

Let us hope that this lone, and lonely, U.S. ally in Central Asia puts yesterday's horrible events behind it and finds a new way forward, as it did not in 2005. The Kyrgyz people deserve a functioning and honorable government that does not favor the north or the south. This will require courage from Kyrgyz leaders and could be aided by an Obama administration that values the Kyrgyz people enough to support meaningful democratic reforms, in addition to paying rent for the Manas Base, the only American base in Central Asia.

Ali F. Igmen is an assistant professor of Central Asian history and the director of Oral History Program at California State University at Long Beach.

Center for European and Eurasian Studies