Horsemen to the rescue

Observations on Kyrgyzstan

You know there's going to be trouble when vodka shacks double their stock and thousands of horsemen descend on Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, and erect yurts in the main square. Held up as central Asia's most successful attempt at democracy, the country looks about to have its second revolution in two years, as up to 50,000 gather to throw President Kurmanbek Bakiyev out of what is known as "the White House".

While oil-laden Kazakhstan and tyrannous Uzbekistan slide back further into authoritarian rule under Russia's wing, Kyrgyzstan sits out on a high-altitude limb with few resources besides gold, making the stakes just low enough to allow democracy to infiltrate.

Many of the protesters banding together are farmers lured down from mountain villages by the promise of $20 from a political activist they met the week before. Hunters and horsemen descend on their urban relatives, squeezing 25 cousins into one bedsit for as long as the action lasts. Yurts bearing the symbol of the "United Front for Worthy Future in Kyrgyzstan" are being erected in Ala-Too Square. The furore provides a grand day - or week or month - out, as men cook mutton kebabs on improvised barbecues or cruise the backstreets for hits of vodka.

Yet, unlike the Tulip revolution of 2005, the risk of bloodshed is higher now. Such was Bakiyev's support then that police stood by, smoking cigarettes while his allies breezed into the presidential palace. The embittered former prime minister-turned-opposition leader, Felix Kulov, won't be so lucky. Also gathering are Bakiyev's supporters.

The police will base their allegiance on personal connections or the size of the bribe. Bakiyev, who looks more and more like a KGB officer, has increased his powers while failing to stamp out corruption. In the past two years several MPs have been assassinated, armed prisoners have taken over jails and 12 per cent of the state's revenue has been lost to tax dodgers.

Kyrgyzstan is collapsing because it is being led by one person, rather than parliament. Whoever that is at any given point, he'd better have a good horse on which to flee.

This article first appeared in the 16 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Iran