Thursday, 29 April 2010


Published in Analytical Articles

By Erica Marat (4/29/2010 issue of the CACI Analyst)

Why did the unrest in Kyrgyzstan turn so violent? The violence on April 7 stands in bright contrast to the Tulip revolution of 2005. In fact, the vast majority of the victims were shot dead by foreign snipers dispatched on the rooftop of a government building in central Bishkek. They were allegedly hired by president Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s brother Zhanysh.

Why did the unrest in Kyrgyzstan turn so violent? The violence on April 7 stands in bright contrast to the Tulip revolution of 2005. In fact, the vast majority of the victims were shot dead by foreign snipers dispatched on the rooftop of a government building in central Bishkek. They were allegedly hired by president Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s brother Zhanysh. In the past five years Zhanysh played a key role in increasing the involvement of the security services in politics to protect the regime. To understand why the riots turned violent, one needs to examine the ways in which the Bakiyev regime became increasingly reliant on the security structures.

BACKGROUND: “The victims were shot in the chest, head, and neck”, say doctors who treated injured rioters on the night of April 7. “No one in the Kyrgyz military is trained to shoot from such a distance with such precision”, argues Ruslan Isakov, a former official in the Kyrgyz security structures. The scale of violence was unprecedented for Kyrgyzstan: 85 people died and over 1,000 were injured. A week after the riots, hundreds of Bishkek residents still pass by the central square where the shooting took place. Portraits of mostly young men hang on the fence protecting government headquarters’ building. A crooked signboard warning “No trespassing on government property, weapons will be used” is still attached to the building’s gates. There is hardly a place in Bishkek where the recent events are not discussed. While locals blame Bakiyev for his ruthlessness, many fear the changes will not bring about any visible progress.

The snipers were allegedly hired by Zhanysh Bakiyev specifically to suppress riots. But even President Bakiyev’s strongest critics think Bakiyev underestimated the people’s anger with his regime and relied too much on the support of the security structures. “He thought that he could scare the public by killing one or two protesters, but bullets only invigorated the rioters”, says a Bishkek dweller who was at the central square during the riots. In effect, by relying on the support of the security structures, Bakiyev increasingly distanced himself from the public, in the false belief that he was invincible.

Over the past two years, Bakiyev implemented swift changes in the security structures. He replaced all power ministers, appointing his most loyal supporters and relatives to key positions. Zhanysh headed the National Security Service. However, he de facto exercised direct control over all military institutions and security services. Being a military officer himself, he was granted enormous political power. Under his patronage, the national army was allowed to intervene in domestic politics, the U.S.-funded Drugs Control Agency was dissolved, and a special armed unit was created to protect top government officials. Finally, Zhanysh is believed to have plotted the assassination of regime opponents, including the former head of the president’s administration Medet Sadyrkulov and Gennady Pavluk, a journalist. As a result of his intervention in politics, drug trafficking was largely controlled by government officials, while opposition leaders and journalists were constantly threatened with physical attacks.

Such pervasive intervention of security officials in the political space marked a shift in Kyrgyzstan from the Soviet type of civil-military relations it had inherited, in which the military was a strong power, yet submissive to political control. Most other former Soviet states kept the military outside the political decision-making process. Under Bakiyev, however, the regime increasingly relied on the support of the military, and specifically of the security services that increasingly asserted control over military structures. Zhanysh was turning more and more independent in his position and there were signs that he would likely be the one to take political decisions at emergency situations such as mass demonstrations or natural disasters.

These predictions were confirmed on April 7 as police was dispatched to central Bishkek and ordered to shoot at protestors. According to current provisional government members, most rioters knew that they would be confronted by real bullets, not simply teargas or rubber bullets. Yet, most believed that the regime would dispatch local troops and police forces, which might not be willing to shoot at fellow citizens. No one expected that foreign snipers would be involved.

The protesters were mostly young to middle age men from Bishkek and its outskirts. They joined the riots after learning of the mass protests that took place in Talas city a day earlier – when a group of demonstrators were able to capture a local government building. All opposition leaders were arrested shortly after the Talas unrest. Since there was no one to coordinate the protests on April 7, the rioters acted chaotically, becoming ever angrier after seeing they were confronted by real bullets. “I saw Kyrgyz men acting like in a real war, trying to shoot in the direction where the snipers were located and trying to help those wounded”, said one of the witnesses of the riots. A number of protesters possessed guns taken earlier from the police forces. Stocks of stones were also brought to the central square before the riots began. At this point, however, it remains unclear who directed the shipment of stones and whether weapons were seized from the police under any specific opposition leader’s command.

IMPLICATIONS: The provisional government is likely to disband most of Zhanysh Bakiyev’s changes. The new government issued a warrant for Zhanysh’s arrest, along with Bakiyev’s sons Maksim and Marat. Reports suggest that the new leadership in Bishkek will disband the National Security Service and the special agency to protect the national elite.

Importantly, unlike the police, Kyrgyzstan’s army never genuinely recognized Bakiyev’s authority. This is partly due to the still powerful Soviet tradition that restricts the army from intervening in domestic affairs. Armed forces remained at their places of permanent deployment when the riots turned violent. They also abandoned Bakiyev abruptly as Ismail Isakov, a former Defense Minister (re-appointed to the position after April 7), was released from prison. He was arrested by Bakiyev in early 2009 on fabricated corruption charges. Because he could not fully rely on the armed forces, Zhanysh had to rely on more cruel and shrewd ways of suppressing mass riots such as hiring foreign snipers.

After gaining the support of the military on April 8, leaders of the provisional government were considerably empowered. Ironically, at this point the provisional government came to be based inside the Defense Ministry building, as all other major government buildings were looted shortly after the riots. Isakov was instantly appointed to head the defense ministry. During his service as Defense Minister in the Bakiyev government, he initiated sound reforms of the military, prioritizing the social needs of the military and promoting a semi-professional army. Importantly, he is strictly against military involvement in politics. Isakov was able to gain a strong positive reputation within the military, and was treated with respect and dignity by prison staff while imprisoned. Isakov is also among the few members of the provisional government who favors a presence of the U.S. Transit Center at the Manas airport.

Overall, Kyrgyzstan’s provisional government has been moving steadfast in overturning Bakiyev’s most illiberal decisions. This includes canceling the privatization of national hydropower sites, invalidating recent increases of electricity tariffs and extra charges for mobile communication, allowing the broadcast of Radio Free Europe and entry for foreign nationals who were previously banned from visiting Kyrgyzstan. It remains to be seen whether this positive trend continues. Some members of the provisional government clearly lack strategic thinking and are unable to even use appropriate terminology to describe democratic reform. While Kyrgyzstan’s armed forces are currently in good hands, Isakov’s efforts might potentially be challenged if the provisional government splits into competing factions. It is still unclear who will eventually head the new government after the constitution is changed. Not everyone in the provisional government is ready to call Roza Otunbayeva their long-term leader.

CONCLUSIONS: Kyrgyzstan experienced a heavy intervention of the security services into public life, which in turn sought to assert control over the military. Bakiyev relied on the power of the security services to secure the continuity of his regime. But he lost control over some of the actions of his brother Zhanysh, which eventually led to unprecedented violence in the country. The current Defense Minister is perhaps best placed to overturn most of Bakiyev’s destructive reforms. But the success with which democratic control over the country’s armed forces and security structures will be established depends on the overall efficiency of the government. For now, the April 7 bloodbath in Bishkek serves as a powerful demonstration of the potential consequences of military intervention in politics. It is up to the new leaders to prevent further outbreaks of violence.

The international community should learn from the experience of Kyrgyzstan that overall security sector reform across the former Soviet space remains a key priority. Indeed, similar outbreaks of violence between civilians and security structures remains a distinct threat across the Central Asian region, as well as other parts of the post-Soviet space.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Erica Marat is a Nonresident Research Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.
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