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Kyrgyzstan: Questions Remain About 24 March 'Revolution' (Part I)

President Askar Akaev is ousted but just how did it happen? The dust has settled in Bishkek following last month’s ouster of Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev and his offer to resign. But it’s not yet clear what really happened. The answer is important to more than just historians. Pro-democracy groups, both inside and outside the country, have a strong stake in seeing Akaev's ouster as legitimate. This first part of a three-part series on Kyrgyzstan’s "revolution," looks at some of the things we still don't know about 24 March.

Prague, 8 April 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The version much of the world got from Kyrgyzstan last month was that -- yet again --"people power" had triumphed.

In this version, similar to Georgia and Ukraine, a nationwide protest movement arose amid allegations the government cheated on elections. Those protests gathered pace until one day pro-democracy demonstrators defied the police and occupied the seat of government. Power was restored to the people.
It's an irresistible storyline for anyone rooting for democracy in the repressed countries of the former Soviet Union. But is it what really happened?

It's an irresistible storyline for anyone rooting for democracy in the repressed countries of the former Soviet Union. But is it what really happened?

RFE/RL correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch was an eyewitness to the events in Bishkek.

Peuch says it may not be that simple.

To be sure, Akaev had become unpopular and many people held democratic aspirations. But Peuch says one of the main protest groups in Bishkek on 24 March appeared to have little connection with the pro-democracy demonstrators.

He says this was a smaller group of hard-core activists -- carrying sticks and shields and obviously looking for a fight. It was this group -- not the pro-democracy supporters -- who first engaged the police and later led the storming of the main government building.

"Clearly you could see on [March] 24th there was this big rally and there was a huge gap and a small [group of] hard-core [activists], I mean 500 to 600, people armed with wooden sticks and wooden shields. You could feel that they were really eager to confront the police forces. And those are the guys who actually assaulted the police first," says Peuch.

Peuch says it is n-o-t clear who -- if anyone -- might be behind this group. He describes its members as mean-looking and poor -- and probably not residents of Bishkek.

Peuch says there was another mystery group that emerged that day -- this one apparently on the side of the police. In the minutes before the government building was stormed, these "agents provocateurs" -- as they were later described -- appeared suddenly and began assaulting the protesters.

Whether this band, wearing signature white baseball caps, was ordered out by Akaev’s side to defend the government or by another group to stir up the demonstrators is not known. If the purpose was to defend the White House, it failed badly. The demonstrators fought back and the group quickly fled.

Peuch rejects the theory by some that opposition leaders were pulling the strings that day. He says, for one thing, the opposition appeared surprisingly unprepared for Akaev’s fall once it happened.

"If you remember everything -- I mean the storming of the parliament, the clashes with the police forces -- all that happened in less than 30 minutes. Obviously, the opposition leaders were not prepared for what happened. They were caught unawares. And for a couple of days we had this sense that they were improvising," Peuch says.

For RFE/RL’s regional expert Daniel Kimmage, one of the central mysteries is how the government collapsed so quickly. He points out that there were relatively few police on hand that day to defend the government, and those who were deployed were poorly equipped.

Kimmage questions whether the government made a conscious decision not to defend the building or had simply badly underestimated the demonstrators. Another possibility, he says, was that the regime had simply "rotted away" and there was no one left to defend it.

"The surprise here was that, 'boom,' in an hour and a half all of a sudden the president had fled across the border. The real lesson may be the collapse of a regime, in which case it’s not so much [a question] of was this a revolution or an uprising, but that this regime had sort of rotted through and at the first crisis had collapsed. We may never know the answers to any of these questions -- or [as] to how Akaev was able to slip away so quickly and quietly," Kimmage says.

For Kyrgyz activists like Edil Baysalov, the head of a coalition of democracy NGOs, the answers may not be that important. Baysolov says, for him at least, Akaev is gone and that’s all that matters.

"You know, I am not interested in giving names to what happened. In the future historians, politicians, and political analysts will tell us whether it was a ‘coup,’ a ‘putsch,’ or a ‘revolution.’ What happened happened. Now we should focus on what should be done and how we can resolve the situation that we are in now," says Baysalov.

Peuch adds that whether it was a "revolution" or not, the initial results would probably have been the same: Akaev out and opposition leader Kurmanbek Bakiev in.
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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.