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It Could Only Happen In Kyrgyzstan

  • Bruce Pannier

Topchubek Turgunaliev (right) and Jypar Jeksheev, two of the five co-chairmen of the Kyrgyzstan Democratic Movement, address a protest rally demanding democratic reforms in central Bishkek on June 5, 1990.

Topchubek Turgunaliev (right) and Jypar Jeksheev, two of the five co-chairmen of the Kyrgyzstan Democratic Movement, address a protest rally demanding democratic reforms in central Bishkek on June 5, 1990.

Kyrgyzstan has faced some rough times since 2005, with revolutions and ethnic violence among the myriad problems that have beset the country.

But it also remains ahead of its Central Asia neighbors when it comes to democracy. I know that is a very relative statement, but I want to draw attention to a recent event that could only happen in Kyrgyzstan. It shows that the small, mountainous country of 5.5 million people continues to stand apart from the other countries in the region.

At the end of May, members of the Democratic Movement of Kyrgyzstan (DDK) met at the Kyrgyz National Drama Theater in the capital, Bishkek. It was the same theater where the DDK was founded in 1990.

The story of the DDK in 1990 resembles events in many former Soviet republics. Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika had loosened some of the restrictions on forming political groups, and young people -- and some not so young people -- were testing the boundaries of this newfound opportunity. Kyrgyzstan was no exception, but events in Kyrgyzstan in the first months of the DDK's existence were, in hindsight, an example of what was to come.

In June 1990, ethnic violence broke out in southern Kyrgyzstan in the first Osh riots, and Soviet troops were needed to stop the fighting. In October 1990, it was Kyrgyzstan's turn to "elect" a republican president -- the same process that had seen Nursultan Nazarbaev become president of Kazakhstan, Islam Karimov become president of Uzbekistan, and, at the end of October 1990, Saparmurat Niyazov become president of Turkmenistan. Each was the first secretary of the Communist Party in his respective Soviet republic. The paradigm was established, and it seemed the first secretary of the Communist Party of the Kyrgyz Soviet Republic, Absamat Masaliev, would assume that same role.

But neither he nor his opponent in the election, the president of the Council of Ministers of Kyrgyz S.S.R., Apas Jumagulov, received a majority of votes in the Supreme Soviet, and eventually an alternative candidate was chosen: Askar Akaev.

Leading up to May 1990, some of the more ambitious political activists of the time decided the anticommunist parties and movements that already existed were insufficient to influence politics in "Kirghizia," and unity was needed if new views and ideas would have any chance of being at least heard, if not necessarily realized.

The DDK elected five co-chairmen: the leader of the Asaba (Flag) party, Kadyr Matkaziev; a co-leader of the Ashar movement, Jypar Jeksheev; Topchubek Turgunaliev, who was a mainstay in Kyrgyzstan's opposition for much of the 1990s; Tolon Dyikanbaev; and writer Kazat Akmatov. The list of members and supporters of the DDK reads like a "who's who" of politics in independent Kyrgyzstan, but I'll limit myself to mentioning Abdygani Erkebaev, later a speaker of parliament; Kubanychbek Jumaliev, later a prime minister; and Tursunbek Akun and Tursubai Bakir Uulu, both of whom later served as Kyrgyz ombudsmen. Various ethnic groups were represented in the DDK, the movement's draft program was drawn up by Kamilya Kenenbaeva from the Women's Pedagogical Institute in Bishkek, and the draft regulations were prepared by my friend, the former director of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, known locally as Azattyk, Tynchtykbek Tchoroev.

Returning to May 2015, the DDK held a reunion. That might not sound like much, but consider what my colleagues at Azattyk asked me: In what other Central Asia state could you hold a reunion of opposition activists from 1990?

In every other Central Asian state, opposition leaders of that era (those who are still alive) have either fled the country or are in jail. The systems of government in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan are designed, to varying degrees, to quash government opponents. Yet in Kyrgyzstan such people were just honored for their contributions in helping the country start down a different, more hopeful, path.

None of this means Kyrgyzstan does not have a long list of issues to confront, and certainly pressure from the Kremlin has led the Kyrgyz government to consider some odious legislation recently. For instance, the antigay and foreign-agent laws.

But Kyrgyzstan is still ahead of its neighbors regarding rights for its citizens.

For those who doubt that, I would recommend watching parliamentary elections in Kyrgyzstan later this year and then comparing what you see with parliamentary elections in any other Central Asian state.

-- RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report

*For those who would like to know more about the DDK and events in Kyrgyzstan just prior to and after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, you can download a relevant text in Russian here.

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change. Content will draw on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad. The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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