Updated: 3:37 p.m. ET March 27, 2005

Another People's Revolt

First came the Rose revolution in Georgia, then the Orange Revolution in Kiev. Is it now time for Tulips?

By Frank Brown

Newsweek International

Another people power revolt has erupted in the former Soviet Union. The question now: who's next, and when? On a bright spring morning last Thursday in Kyrgyzstan's capital, Bishkek, thousands of protesters, armed with sticks and stones, stormed the White House, the government's seat of power. Frightened riot police and officials were given safe passage out of the Soviet-era edifice before the crowd gleefully set to work sacking the place. When the victorious demonstrators left the building that evening, student volunteers at the doors checked bags, reclaiming office supplies and equipment that would be needed by the new government. The Kremlin-backed president, Askar Akayev, fled the country for Russia.

The old regime may be gone. But it's not clear that it's dead-nor that the disorganized opposition can rule. Already, the euphoria of revolution is giving way to doubt as ordinary Kyrgyz enter each new day of looting and chaos. Akayev loyalists were marching Saturday on the capital; there's ominous talk of civil war. Still, one fact is indisputable: yet another autocratic domino in the former Soviet sphere has toppled toward democracy.

Kyrgyzstan's Tulip Revolution came just three months after Ukraine's Orange Revolution and 16 months after Georgia's Rose Revolution. In all three cases, peaceful street demonstrations over rigged elections brought down corrupt, out-of-touch regimes with strong ties to Moscow. Kyrgyzstan is the first predominantly Muslim state to fall-and the first whose ousted president had vowed to let nothing of the sort happen in his country, even writing a recent book on the topic. A human-rights activist in Moscow with extensive opposition ties in Central Asia, Ismagil Shangareyev, calls Kyrgyzstan's swift regime change an ominous wake-up call: "This is an example for all the rest."

As Kyrgyzstan arose, neighboring regimes closed their borders and cracked down on opposition. In authoritarian Belarus, more than 1,000 protesters took to the streets Friday, seeking to spark a Kyrgyz-like mass demonstration. Earlier in March Russian President Vladimir Putin created a new department tasked with shoring up ties with former Soviet countries and blocking future revolutions that, some in the Kremlin sincerely believe, are being fomented by the West. Authorities in oil-rich Kazakhstan started cracking down on NGOs as early as February, after Kyrgyz opposition groups began to mount demonstrations protesting flawed parliamentary elections. "They are investigating NGOs all across the country. The prosecutor's office is working on it. The tax police, too," says Yury Gusakov of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Observing the Law.

Along with Europe's last dictatorship, Belarus, and turbulent Uzbekistan, these regimes share a generation of leaders with a narrow Soviet mentality. People power, whether in Bishkek or Kiev? They don't get it. Democracy, for them, is another word for insurgency. Fair elections are for chumps. They favor the president-for-life model-14 years in Akayev's case, who (according to one Western official in Bishkek) had become "delusional." Power corrupts and isolates, he says: "All you publish is happy news, and eventually you start to believe it."

Rather than reach out to their opponents, these leaders are desperately trying to shore up their positions. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, whose son was once married to Akayev's daughter, is working on legislation that would change election laws and give greater power to security forces. The idea is to be ready for presidential elections set for 2006, when Nazarbayev is likely to face a powerful foe, former parliament speaker and now unified-opposition candidate Zharmakhan Tuyakbai. If Kyrgyz-style chaos looms in Kazakhstan, the West is likely to step in, given the potential effect on world energy prices.

Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov already rules his 24 million citizens with an iron fist. "He has used up all the possibilities for getting harsher. He can't do any more," says Central Asian expert Alexsei Malashenko of Moscow's Carnegie Center. Routinely censured for human-rights abuses that include the torture and rape of detainees, Uzbekistan currently has up to 10,000 people imprisoned on political or religious grounds. Yet Karimov, reportedly ill with cancer, shows no signs of coming to terms with a Muslim opposition that draws its strength from poor, jobless young men. That, experts say, is a recipe for an explosive uprising, far more violent than what took place across the border.

For now, most observers are watching Belarus as the next possible domino to fall. President Aleksandr Lukashenko has beefed up the authority of the local KGB, shut down dissident Internet sites and arrested opposition leaders. Even so, demonstrators have been turning out daily in the capital, holding portraits of the country's 10 political prisoners, among them two men jailed for "insulting the president's dignity." On Friday, 150 of 1,000 protesters were arrested, only to have more take their place. Opposition activist Andrei Sannikov is hopeful if not optimistic. "We're seeing the third wave of democratization, but it hasn't touched us yet," he says. "As long as the people don't really take to the streets, don't express their opinions, nothing will change."

Yet, in Kyrgyzstan, no one expected events to move so fast, either. Says U.S. Ambassador Stephen Young: "I have to say, I am surprised." Even a leading opposition figure, Social Democratic Party head Almaz Atambayev, told supporters preparing to march Thursday: "We aren't going to take over any buildings today." Certainly, the Kyrgyz government was caught unawares; two ministers were trapped when demonstrators seized their offices-and escorted them out unharmed.

Blinded by his own insularity, Akayev was thrust from office just days after he dismissed his political foes as unworthy of negotiation. If unchallenged, last month's elections would have cemented Akayev's hold on power. With the voting rigged, his son and daughter both won seats in the new Parliament, along with a phalanx of corrupt cronies.

Protests over the ballot began in the poorer, overwhelmingly Muslim south of Kyrgyzstan and culminated in the takeover of two major cities. Opposition leaders quickly established order, setting up joint patrols with police and promising to send busloads of protesters through the mountains and to Bishkek. By Wednesday afternoon, the capital of 800,000 was coming to life with a small demonstration organized by the student group Kel Kel-an organization with ties to Ukraine's Pora youth movement, the engine of the Orange Revolution. Some 26 students were arrested and dragged into waiting buses as at least 1,000 people looked on. "The government just doesn't have the power to control the people anymore, so they use these methods," said a disapproving Bolot Ismailov, an unemployed man on the edge of the crowd wearing a traditional high-peaked felt Kyrgyz hat. That night, much of Bishkek was leafleted with an appeal to show up the next day for an anti-Akayev march on the White House.

Thursday's protest drew tens of thousands of marchers. At first it was peaceful, albeit poorly organized. Shapeless clumps of people listened to elderly men berate Akayev's regime. Then, in midafternoon, scores of fit young men wearing blue armbands and carrying wooden clubs and makeshift plywood shields descended on the protesters, beating people without provocation. Vastly outnumbering the pro-government attackers, the protesters fought back and, in a massive surge, overpowered the riot troops outside the White House. Once inside, opposition leader Kurmanbek Bakiyev, a former prime minister under Akayev, raced to Akayev's seventh-floor office to make an appeal for calm and urge caution. Within a couple of hours, Kyrgyzstan's one bona fide political prisoner, Ar-Namys party leader Felix Kulov, a former Interior minister, was released from prison and whisked to the White House, free for the first time since 2000.

That night, as government television pledged its loyalty to the people and turned its airwaves over to the opposition, the center of the city plunged into chaos. Looters sacked first the Narodny chain of supermarkets owned by the Akayev clan and then scores of other stores. The poorly equipped police, frightened and leaderless, were nowhere to be seen as gangs of young men, many of them drunk, carried shopping bags full of beer and laundry detergent home. By daybreak, three people were dead, more than 100 injured and the city a shambles. Many, including some influential lawmakers, were disgusted. "These events show that there is no real opposition leader," says Kabai Karabekov, an independent M.P. who lost his seat in last month's flawed elections.

For now, Bakiyev is acting president and prime minister. Kulov, a charismatic politician and former mayor of Bishkek, heads the security forces. Roza Otunbayeva, the country's first ambassador to the United States and a figure well known in Moscow, is foreign minister. All three are pragmatists expected to run in presidential elections tentatively set for June 26.

In striking contrast to his condemnation of Western meddling in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin was almost sanguine in his response to last week's events in Kyrgyzstan. Though regretting the fact that Akayev was deposed by "illegal" means, he quickly declared that the country's new leaders were well known to Moscow and that he was ready to work with them. Indeed, these same Kyrgyz opposition leaders were welcomed to the Kremlin for talks earlier this year. By contrast, the Kremlin reportedly rebuffed Akayev when he made a secret trip to Moscow earlier this month, seeking a meeting with Putin. "Maybe they are learning," says Lilia Shevtsova, author of "Putin's Russia." "They didn't use the heavy ammunition this time."

Nonetheless, Putin and Russia have plainly suffered another defeat. Akayev's ouster puts yet another nail in the coffin of Putin's cherished Commonwealth of Independent States, created when the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991. At home, nationalist parties, among them the increasingly powerful Motherland, can add Kyrgyzstan to the list of former colonies that Putin has "lost" to the Russian fold. Much depends on what happens next. If revolution spreads to Belarus, say, then why shouldn't unrest begin to appear in Russia itself, where Putin's more benign form of autocracy is beginning to chafe? Clearly, these are heady times for opposition movements across the old Soviet sphere. Yet remember this: Kyrgyzstan, with its disorganized leadership and nights of looting, may yet prove to be a cautionary tale. Be careful what you wish for.