Protests continue throughout Kyrgyzstan on April 7. The current unrest has been brewing for months, fueled by an energy crisis and government crackdowns on the opposition. However, no one force is driving the protests. Several entities, including Russia, stand to benefit from instability in the small Central Asian country.
As protests continue to escalate across Kyrgyzstan — especially in the capital of Bishkek — the Kyrgyz government has said that the opposition has agreed to negotiate (although the opposition has said it is still considering sitting down for talks). Protesters have seized government buildings across the country, and many government buildings in Bishkek are burning. The two main issues to examine in the Kyrgyz unrest are why the protests began and who is really behind it. Protests are incredibly common in Kyrgyzstan, especially in spring. The current protests have had months to simmer as the country has faced an escalating electricity crisis, with rolling blackouts and cutoffs occurring regularly while energy prices rose. The root cause of the electricity crisis is the imbalanced natural resource allocation in Central Asia. Surrounding countries like Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan are rich in energy resources like natural gas and oil, but Kyrgyzstan must import these resources from its neighbors. This situation has led to many disputes between Kyrgyzstan and its neighbors with cutoffs repeatedly occurring during winter. The energy shortage has also led to higher electricity prices, which the Kyrgyz government has passed on to its citizens, putting further strain on the already impoverished population. This has led to increased instability and protests over the past few months, and the government has responded by clamping down on the protesters, the opposition and the media covering the protests. This reaction has just given protests more fuel and led to an escalation in unrest. The protests over the past few months have not been driven by one main force; there are several entities — including Russia — that stand to benefit from unrest in the Central Asian country, whose political environment is already chaotic and unstable. Current Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev came to power in the 2005 Tulip Revolution. At the time, Bakiyev's rise was seen as part of the series of color revolutions sweeping across the former Soviet states and bringing pro-Western regimes to power. However, Bakiyev did not lead his country down the pro-Western path Georgia and Ukraine followed at the time. Instead, he continually has dealt with both Russia and the West, offering deals to the highest bidder instead of depending on ideology to guide his policies. Although the United States has a military base in Kyrgyzstan to support the war in Afghanistan, with plans to build a military training center in southern Kyrgyzstan, Russia holds the upper hand in the country. Moscow has three military bases in Kyrgyzstan (a fourth is under way), control of the country's drug flow and a hold on most of the scant Kyrgyz economy, and 9 percent of the Kyrgyz population is Russian. Despite Russia's leverage in Kyrgyzstan, Bakiyev's propensity to deal with the West has been a constant irritation to Moscow at a time when Russia is expanding its influence across its former Soviet territory. Kyrgyzstan has not been at the top of Russia's priority list, but it is one of the easier countries to interfere in and control. There are reports that Temir Sariev, head of opposition party Ak Shumkar, recently met with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Sariev's party reportedly is one of the forces behind the protests. However, the other two political parties behind the demonstrations — the United People's Movement and Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan — have a very public battle with Sariev, who used to belong to the Social Democrats. It is currently unclear if Russia has been able to resolve the bitter rift among the opposition groups to create a united force in order to topple Bakiyev. It seems Russia is only backing Sariev and Ak Shumkar, which is a relatively small political group. But Ak Shumkar could benefit from the protests under way in Kyrgyzstan; though the protests are backed by other opposition forces, Ak Shumkar could use the instability to push a possible pro-Russian revolution in Kyrgyzstan. It could be that timing is everything.