From the get-go, the stars weren't exactly in alignment during his visit. The important guest from Moscow, President Vladimir Putin, had just arrived in Yerevan when the sky turned dark and wet snow started falling, blanketing the capital of the Caucasus republic of Armenia. In fact, the clouds were hanging so low that the mighty Ararat mountain, Armenia's national symbol, which towers 5,000 meters into the skies, was out of view.
In Yerevan that's always a bad sign.
Trying to lift the spirits and lighten the mood, Robert Kocharian, Armenia's head of state, had a solution: He took his Russian counterpart, Putin, to the finest restaurant in town, Cafe Poplavok ("The Swimmer"). With classical jazz in the background and the two men sipping red Armenian wine, Kocharian tried his best to alleviate some of Putin's concerns and cheer him up.
It was Friday, March 25.
Some 2,500 kilometers east, in Bishkek, the situation was far from casual. Indeed, the streets of the Kyrgyz capital had grown rowdy. An angry mob of demonstrators was about to take control of more than just Bishkek's streets. Armed with clubs, they stormed supermarkets and luxury goods stores. Looters temporarily took control of the capital of Kyrgyzstan.
The day before, the regime's opposition had initiated a surprise coup and taken control of the White House, seat of Kyrgyzstan's government. President Askar Akayev surrendered his power without resistance. The toppled head of this tiny country of 5 million located at the base of the Tien Shan mountains, fled to Russia in a helicopter with his family.
Kyrgyzstan was the latest country in the region whose government was chased out of office. The Georgians needed several months in 2003 to unseat Eduard Shevardnadze, and the Ukrainians took eight weeks last fall to overthrow their government in Kiev. But the former nomad people of Kyrgyzstan broke all previous records: in Bishkek, the revolution was a done deal after two hours, and it was the first such event in a former member of the Soviet Union that is dominated by the Muslim religion.
Of course, East and West had totally different takes on the kind of coup which happened in this republic, which shares its border with China. While the Americans celebrated Kyrgyzstan's "dawn of a better, democratic future" (Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice), a confidante of Putin had a different take. Referring to Kyrgyzstan's traditional role as a hub for drug trafficking and the looting in the capital's streets, he painted a grim picture: This, he said, was a revolution that "tastes like opium and shows the color of the darkest night." It sounded all-too similar: When the authoritarian Ukrainian regime in Kiev was overthrown by Victor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko, Moscow called it an "anti-Russian coup."
But the upheaval in Kyrgyzstan wasn't exactly any old uprising of local shepherds. Instead, it was no less than a break with tradition, especially for Putin.
Emancipation from Moscow
That the reports from Bishkek reached him during his visit to Yerevan must have been symbolic for the Russian leader in a very bitter way: Following Akayev's toppling, a leader known to be loyal to Moscow, Armenia is now the last remaining truly pro-Russian republic in the post-Soviet region.
After the coup in Bishkek, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) -- the alliance of former Soviet republics whose support Russia had hoped to harness in its bid to regain its former superpower status -- is as good as dead, just like the corpses that the highly controversial German pathologist Gunther von Hagens had prepared in Kyrgyzstan year after year.
In the end, the generally tight-lipped Putin beat out the Armenian press in writing CIS's obituary. "The only reason it was founded," Putin said, was to enable the "civilized divorce" of all republics after the Soviet Union fell apart. This task, the Russian president said, had now been completed.
But as a matter of fact, the CIS alliance was originally intended to be something very different. It was supposed to prevent precisely what is actually unraveling now: "an erosion of this geopolitical region," as Putin called as recently as last July. But Moscow's relations with the young new republics are in shambles, and they are characterized by fear and contempt -- or by financial dependence.
After the fall of Bishkek, the man often called Russia's new czar, merely looks like a politician who has run out of luck. Indeed, it seems Paris and Berlin are the only places where he still has a good reputation.
Back on the home front, though, Putin comes across as a unlucky politician. And that hasn't been limited to his presidency: the former senior KGB officer has also accomplished little as head of the Kremlin. Viktor Cherkashin, also a former KGB officer, recently criticized the president as being a mere "bureaucrat." Cherkashin worked for the KGB for 40 years, most recently as chief of counter-espionage at the Russian embassy in Washington. Further fanning the flames, a Kremlin adviser close to the president was quoted as saying that Putin had lost his "decision-making drive," that "he is panicking." And Lilia Shevtsova of the Carnegie Moscow Center pinpointed what is currently moving Russia's political elite: their home country was increasingly finding itself encircled because amateurish foreign policy had fueled the creation of a cordon sanitaire, or "protective barrier," between Russia and the West.
The Moscow establishment sees a dark omen in American President George W. Bush's plans for honoring and celebrating the end of World War II. A few weeks from now, before Bush is set to visit Putin on May 9, the anniversary of the war, the US president will head to Latvia and Georgia. By visiting Moscow's most troublesome neighbors, Washington is indirectly pouring salt on Russia's open wounds, signaling that its sphere of power as it existed in 1945 with all the conquered regions, has now dwindled and shrunk to the country's own national borders.
With a sense of satisfaction, former US national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski talks about "self-isolation" these days when he analyzes Moscow's current foreign policy. The Russian government, he argues, automatically interprets every success in the West as a loss for Russia. There have been plenty of reasons to alter this course, in the Ukraine and in central Asia. But instead of redefining its long-term goals, the Kremlin decided to function as a sort of patron saint of the despot regimes. Moscow's strategy, said Brzezinski, called for "completing the past."
Surely, Russia's government could not have overlooked the fact that plenty of social dynamite had piled up in Kyrgyzstan as well. Still, the Kremlin kept backing its old crony, Askar Akayev.
The regime, led by the engineer and scientist Akayev, had always been weak. A well-read aesthete -- he admires former German Chancellor Ludwig Erhard, poet Heinrich Heine and composer Robert Schuman -- Akayev was viewed as a liberal when he took office in 1990. Kyrgyzstan was praised as an "island of democracy," especially compared to its authoritarian neighbor states.
However, before long, Akayev's power developed into an authoritarian, family clan-dominated rule that subjugated mass media and the economy. Akayev banned insubordinate newspapers and disempowered his former vice president, Felix Kulov. Kulov subsequently established himself as the opposition leader, emerged as a rival to the president, and was then sent to prison for an "abuse of his authority."
Under Akayev, the economic situation in Kyrgyzstan was miserable, and the country was the poorest among the former CIS states. The average per capita income decreased to 20 ($26) per month, with little hope of improvement.
In late February, the ruler went a step too far, when he had his son, Aidar, his daughter, Bermet, and other relatives elected to parliament. In addition, Akayev used legislative tricks and even forgery to put the brakes on the opposition. It worked: in the end, they only got five seats in parliament.
By then, the Kyrgyz population had had enough and its anger erupted. In the poorer southern part of the country, opposition groups organized road blocks, and before long, the situation got out of hand in the entire region. The rebels marched to Bishkek, led by former regime functionaries who'd switched sides. Joining them were urban academics, bazaar vendors, and many rural workers. When Akayev fled the country, the wave of looting broke loose. Many of the rebels wanted to solve the social problems right away, but through robbery instead of long-term reforms. After the mob freed him from prison, it took "Security Forces Coordinator" Felix Kulov two days to stop the upheaval in the streets.
Originally, the opposition had planned to topple Akayev in legitimate elections in the autumn, but under pressure from the people, it had to move faster. The new acting president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who already had served in that same capacity under Akayev between 2002 and 2002, admitted to having mixed feelings. "I wouldn't wish for anyone to rise to power this way," he said.
A persisting Soviet legacy
Kyrgyzstan's biggest problem is its internal division and the glaring discrepancies between regions. On the one hand, there's a developed north with a strong Russian influence and character, and then there's an impoverished rural south dominated by clans. The new powerful men in Bishkek -- former Gen. Felix Kulov, 56, a representative of the north, and interim leader Bakiyev, 55, a man of the south -- are all part of a cadre that has been shaped by the old Soviet system. As such, they are part of a national problem that will take decades to solve.
It is quite reasonable to doubt the revolution's success because the corrupt system still works, even without former leader Akayev. After all, the country's parliament was hand-picked by Akayev and is comprised of old regime cronies and shady businessmen. Even Foreign Minister Rosa Otunbayeva said it was "a mistake" that she was allowed to govern following the coup. Meanwhile, the head of the domestic secret service, who under Akayev recruited numerous spies from within the opposition circles, is also still in office. There are currently no plans to unveil the files on that matter.
This type of continuity made it easy for Vladimir Putin to publicly sacrifice his old ally Akayev. He knew the new people in Bishkek "quite well," Putin said in Yerevan, they "had contributed a lot to developing the relations with Russia."
However, it will be difficult for Moscow to take Kyrgyzstan under its wings again. Foreign Minister Otunbayeva, for example, a former diplomat in Washington and in Tiblisi (where she experienced first hand Georgia's "Rose Revolution") wants to establish closer ties to the United States. Kyrgyzstan is very important geo-strategically, and she also wants to make sure that the 1,000 American soldiers who have been stationed near Bishkek since the Afghanistan war remain in her country.
As early as February, Otunbayeva pledged allegiance to a small group of partners and sponsors of the Kyrgyz revolution, to "our American friends" at Freedom House (who donated a printing press in Bishkek to the opposition), and to George Soros, a speculator who previously helped unseat Edward Shevardnadze's government in Georgia. Trying to help the democratic process, the Americans poured some $12 million into Kyrgyzstan in the form of scholarships and donations -- and that was last year alone. Washington's State Department even funded TV station equipment in the rebellious southern province town of Osh.
The revolution: coming to a former Soviet republic near you
The "bacillus of revolution," or "bacteria of revolution," could now spread to the neighboring central Asian republics in a similar way. Take, for example, the populous country of Uzbekistan, where despot Islam Karimov (who many believe is suffering from cancer) has exploited all the possibilities of an iron-fist rule: some 10,000 opposition members and Islamic rebels are languishing in prisons, mosques are being monitored and controlled and imams can only be appointed by the state.
Things are also on shaky ground in Kazakhstan, a country with vast oil reserves. President Nursultan Nazarbayev rules Kazakhstan with his family clan. In December, Nazarbayev will run for re-election, and he will have to square off with a very serious opposition candidate, the former state prosecutor general, Zharmakhan Tuyakbai. For several months now, former ministers and leading officials are changing ranks and joining the opposition. Like others, the leadership of this country was "also worried," wrote Moscow's Nesawissimaja gaseta newspaper. But Nazarbayev will hardly make the same mistake as his neighbor Akayev, who didn't want to employ force against the opposition.
Following the events in Bishkek, the heads of two government-loyal parties in Kazakhstan stressed that "we are ready to defend the sovereignty of our country with weapons." This clear, unmistakable message had Nazarbayev's backing, so much was clear.
Last week, Akayev himself came to the conclusion that democracy (or whatever he views as democracy) must "be defended with force if necessary." That these words came from his place of exile, Moscow, gave some people cause for concern. After all, a Kremlin adviser used nearly the same rhetoric to back Akayev. The unwillingness of the rulers to "use force" had allowed opposition groups to take over power in several former CIS countries, he said.
And what little is left if CIS could soon crumble. Trouble is also brewing in Minsk, the Belarusian capital, where the next opposition march is set for April 26, the anniversary of the Chernobyl catastrophe.
Meanwhile, Russia's Putin will have to carefully ponder his next move. TV images from Tiblisi, Kiev, and Bishkek have clearly left their mark. In the Muslim constituent republic of Bashkortostan, some 15,000 demonstrators recently threatened to storm the government. At the same time protestors in the Caucasian republic of Ingushetia urged the regional sovereign to step down. To make matters worse, across Russia, Putin's poorly implemented social reforms have caused hundreds of thousands of Russians to hit the streets for the first time in years.
After the fall of Bishkek, a Moscow newspaper recently asked domestic politicians what color the revolution would be once it reached Russia?
"In our country, where aggression is deeply ingrained in each and every one of us, it could be the color of blood," one member of Duma, the Russian parliament, said.