A supporter of newly appointed Prime Minister Sadyr Japarov waves a Kyrgyz flag during a rally in Bishkek, October 14, 2020. Photo: AFP/Vyacheslav Oseledko

The great game never ends, it mutates. We are witnessing this in the latest upheavals in the Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan.

The great game in Kyrgyzstan started in 2005 when the incumbent president, the Soviet physicist and academician Askar Akayev, was overthrown in a color revolution after a parliamentary election. 

Having moved into Kabul recently, Washington had somehow decided to attempt a regime change in Kyrgyzstan, where the only Russian base in Central Asia was located in Kant, near Bishkek.

Possibly, Kant was too close for comfort for the US and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Again, the US also had a base in Kyrgyzstan in Manas district, near Bishkek. 

An opportunity to stage a color revolution came after the parliamentary election in Kyrgyzstan in February 2005. It was christened the “Tulip Revolution.”

By then, the US had already mastered the zen of the color revolution. Much practical experience was gained from the 2000 “Bulldozer Revolution” in former Yugoslavia – which no one talks about any more after the country’s tragic disintegration – the 2003 “Rose Revolution” in Georgia and the 2004 “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine. 

Akayev didn’t resist. He and his family left for Moscow, where the Russian Academy of Sciences welcomed him with open arms and invited him to resume his scientific work. 

Having said that, Moscow was vigilant when the stirrings of the color revolution appeared in the Central Asian steppes. The Kant airbase was vital for Russia’s national security. Kyrgyzstan is the linchpin of the Russian security strategy in Central Asia. 

Former Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in Minsk on June 23, 2010. Photo: AFP/Alexey Gromov

Beijing may have encouraged Moscow. We may never know. Kyrgyzstan had a porous border with China’s Xinjiang province and had the biggest Uighur diaspora in the entire Central Asian region. 

At any rate, Russia maneuvered brilliantly to hijack the Tulip Revolution. As the color revolution slipped out of American hands, it assumed classic Kyrgyz traits. 

Out of the anarchical conditions, Kurmanbek Bakiyev took the reins of power in the presidential election of July 2005 amid great street violence. When he won 90% of votes, the OSCE observer team and Washington cried foul, but Moscow firmly endorsed the results and rebuked the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe for its findings. 

It was a thrilling finish. For the first time in the post-Soviet era, a color revolution had flopped. Conceivably, Russia thereupon decided that it was far too risky to allow an American military base to remain in the heart of Central Asia, which might even be a hub for advanced electronic intelligence. 

The topic apparently figured in the August 2007 summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Bishkek. Kyrgyzstan eventually evicted the US from the Manas base. 

Clearly, Kyrgyz elites were neither impressed by the United States’ self-proclaimed exceptionalism nor had any desire to be part of the so-called Western liberal international order. 

Fundamentally, politics in Kyrgyzstan revolves around clan loyalties. Bakiyev represented a powerful clan from the southern Jalal-Abad region. And he formed a tactical alliance with Felix Kulov, a Russian-speaking politician closely associated with the Kremlin hailing from the northern Bishkek region, which proved a formidable combination. 

In Kyrgyzstan, the dividing line between politics and crime is very thin, almost non-existent. Everything must be lawful, of course, but the interpretation of the constitution and the law is flexible.

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with his Kyrgyz counterpart Sooronbai Jeenbekov in Sochi on September 28, 2020. Photo: AFP/Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik

Stirring up public disorder on the road to power is nothing unusual. Power indeed is never an end in itself. Power enables control of resources, gives authority to grant privileges and practice cronyism, and, ultimately, expand business interests. 

The failure of the Tulip Revolution should have taught the US that in the Central Asian steppes, while it can plot a color revolution and a regime change may well ensue, there is no certainty that the successor regime will be to its liking. 

Second, the steppes simply do not provide fertile soil for the so-called Western liberal values. Third, Russia and China are the region’s immediate neighbors and the US, some 15,000 kilometers away, is not even a distant neighbor but belongs to another planet. 

The current upheaval in Kyrgyzstan falls into this paradigm. The chain of events since the parliamentary election in Kyrgyzstan on October 4 may lend itself to various interpretations, but at its core, this upheaval is but a manifestation of the brutal struggle between clans and regions – Kyrgyzstan also has an acute North-South divide regionally. 

President Sooronbai Jeenbekov, who hails from the strategic southern region of Osh, has been in an alliance with another powerful southern clan leader, Raimbek Matraimov, a major financier and influential figure.

They swept the polls on October 4. Incidentally, Matraimov used to be a customs officer who hit the jackpot by controlling the cargo transit via the Kyrgyz-Chinese border checkpoints.

The enraged northern clans who were routed in the election and deprived of representation in the new parliament couldn’t take it lying down. Their street fighters took over Bishkek and toppled the government. 

The fragile state structure went into meltdown. And in the chaotic conditions, President Jeenbekov, a scheming but diffident politician, went into hiding, causing a dangerous power vacuum. 

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak may be a key player. Photo: AFP/Evgeny Biyatov/Sputnik

Inevitably, a strongman appeared on the scene overnight – Sadyr Japarov – an ex-convict who was until last week serving an 11-year prison term on charges of kidnapping and much else. 

Japarov had no difficulty securing approval of the old parliament to nominate him as the new prime minister. Unsurprisingly, he has since forced a reluctant Jeenbekov out of the presidency. 

Jeenbekov formally announced his resignation on Thursday after a desperate attempt to cling to power. Possibly, he took fright as Japarov has a fierce reputation. Or, conceivably, Russia mediated an amicable settlement. 

Dmitry Kozak, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s deputy chief of staff, is known to have visited Bishkek on October 12 for a few hours and met with Jeenbekov and Japarov. 

History is repeating – Japarov is backed by the very same elements close to former president Bakiyev, who had usurped power 15 years ago after the “Tulip Revolution.” 

By a queer coincidence, Bakiyev lives in Belarus in exile as the guest of President Alexander Lukashenko, against whom the US recently plotted a color revolution, if the Kremlin is to be believed. 

The wheel has come full circle. Japarov is the new strongman in Bishkek. Another color revolution has failed in the steppes. And this is happening even as the “forever war” in Afghanistan is ending. It could have profound implications for regional security. 

M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.

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