Christopher RICKLETON and Tolkun NAMATBAYEVA - Kylychbek Beksariyev lost two friends to a bloody revolution he hoped would transform ex-Soviet Kyrgyzstan, but five years after the ouster of a reviled leader he says his Central Asian homeland remains mired in poverty and corruption.

“Officials still steal,” the sports instructor, 27, said. “I work the same job I worked in 2010. The pay increased 20 percent and the price of bread by 30 percent.” “Is that progress?” he asked.

A landlocked nation of some six million people, Kyrgyzstan has suffered periodic bouts of political instability and ethnic strife since shortly before its independence from the USSR in 1991.

The uprising of April 2010 - when scores of protestors were killed as they seized government offices - turfed out authoritarian leader Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who himself came to power on the back of a popular uprising five years earlier.

The ouster of Bakiyev - now in exile in Belarus - sparked hope of a rare democratic breakthrough in a region dominated by ageing Soviet-era autocrats.

Since then the country under current leader Almazbek Atambayev has made vital strides towards cementing a multi-party system and faces genuinely competitive parliamentary polls this fall.

Speaking Tuesday in the capital Bishkek at a ceremony to remember the people who died during the April 7 revolution, Atambayev insisted progress has been made. “We are creating a country of free people. We are building a secular, democratic state,” said Atambayev, whose legally-permitted single term ends in 2017.

But some say the expectations of the uprising have not been met. “We cannot say the revolution’s aims were fulfilled,” says Osunbek Jamansariyev, who runs an organisation representing relatives of over 80 protesters who died in the violence. “Our police force and courts are still vehicles for injustice. People are poor. There is a danger the situation could become revolutionary again,” he told AFP.

Tricky international ties

On the international stage the strategically located country struggles to tread a line between its former Soviet master Russia, vast neighbour China and the West.

Last year, following Ukraine’s Maidan revolution Kyrgyzstan’s government released a statement sympathetic to the movement and critical of Russian-backed fugitive president Viktor Yanukovych.

But when residents of Crimea voted to join Russia in a widely criticised referendum months later, the Central Asian country was among the first to recognise the results, reflecting a dependence on Russia, where up to a million Kyrgyz work as migrant labourers.

The country is due next month to become the fifth member of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union, a pet project of Russian strongman Vladimir Putin that the West fears is an attempt to rebuild the USSR. During a recent 10-day tour of Europe that saw him meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel President Atambayev, however, presented his republic as a “bridge” between Moscow and the West. But such statements do not reflect the reality of a state still trying to define its place in the international system, says political scientist Marat Kazakpaev. “To call Kyrgyzstan a bridge is ridiculous. This is not a well-known country with a big economy to exert leverage on international affairs,” Kazakpaev told AFP.

Corruption also remains a major problem with Kyrgyzstan ranked 136th out of 175 countries in Transparency International’s 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index.

And there are fears that Atambayev’s government has struggled to deal with ethnic tensions between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in the south of the country that left hundreds dead in 2010. Last month an American journalist investigating inter-ethnic issues, as well as reports that Kyrgyz citizens are fighting with Islamic radicals in Syria, was detained and deported. A raid on a prominent rights organisation also sparked fears of a crackdown on civic organisations. But the government insists there is no backsliding on democracy following the first democratic transition of power that saw Atambayev take over from interim leader Rosa Otunbayeva in 2011.

“We tried family-clan dictatorship twice and it did not work out either time,” said Isa Omurkulov, a politician who served as Bishkek’s mayor.–AFP