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The Roots Of Kyrgyzstan's Uprising

Anger with government corruption and mismanagement spurred mass protests earlier this month.
Anger with government corruption and mismanagement spurred mass protests earlier this month.
Two months ago in Bishkek, I met an old friend on the street, an engineer who was educated in Russia and who used to run a successful small company. But he looked thin and pale, had a small beard, and in general appeared very strange. After greeting him, I jokingly asked, "Have you joined Hizb-ut Tahrir?"

"No, I've been living in the mountains for several months now, making contact with our legendary ancestors in an attempt to repair the Kyrgyz people's spirit," he said with a straight face. "We have to revive the legendary Manas's heroic spirit in us in order to be able to overthrow this corrupt regime."

He was entirely serious, but I didn't pay too much attention to what he said. I knew many people were angry at President Kurmanbek Bakiev's regime, and some were telling me that the status quo couldn't last long and that "something" was going to happen.

But I didn't believe them. I told my shamanistic friend: "Bakiev said they will shoot at people. Do you want bloodshed?" He replied: "What can we do? If that's what they do, then it's our destiny."

The Kyrgyz are officially Muslims, but Islam doesn't have a long history in our lives. For centuries, Kyrgyz practiced their shamanistic beliefs and culture, only later mixing it with Islamic customs. They were nomads, moving from one place to another with their yurts, and this existence demanded a lot of courage. They didn't recognize any strict governing structures or ideologies. The most precious thing for them was their freedom.

Maybe that's why Kyrgyzstan is the only country in Central Asia in which the public rose up against its Communist-era leader in 1990, choosing a fresh leader for the newly independent country from among the progressive people of the time. And if we consider every occasion that the Kyrgyz people have risen up and changed their leadership to be a revolution, then we have now experienced the third revolution in Kyrgyzstan since 1990.

In the early 1980s, the Soviet government introduced new rules for maternity leave for women -- a certain amount of money and 18 months off work was guaranteed (but at a reduced wage). The move sparked a huge baby boom in Soviet Kyrgyzstan, and all the maternity hospitals were overcrowded. The result became clear in the late 1990s, when the country saw the highest-ever number of school graduates. But not enough new jobs or housing were offered by the government during the long transition period that began with independence in 1991. And this was the genesis of the "social explosion" that was the engine for the so-called Tulip Revolution in 2005 and the overthrow of Bakiev's government on April 7.

Much To Be Angry About

Despite the social and economic problems already wracking the country at the end of 2009 (hundreds of thousands of young people are forced to go abroad to seek work), Bakiev's government announced multifold increases in the prices for electricity, heating, and water. At the same time, a surcharge was imposed for each mobile-phone connection.

Simple math should have prompted the government to realize that not many people would be able to cope with the new prices.

As a result of mismanagement in the energy sector, in 2006 (Bakiev's second year in power) people in Kyrgyzstan began experiencing regular blackouts, which made their lives even more miserable. Kyrgyzstan has plenty of water and hydroelectric potential, so the people could not believe that they were suddenly having electricity shortages.

Nepotism and other corruption within Bakiev's government were additional irritants. Bakiev appointed his second son, Maksim, as chief of the newly created Agency for Investment and Economic Development. This agency accumulated most of the money coming into the Kyrgyz economy -- including foreign investment and social and pension payments. Bakiev's eldest son, Marat, and several brothers were appointed to high government posts.

Maksim Bakiev's agency misused a Russian loan provided to the Kyrgyz government to bridge the state budget deficit, according to a representative of the Russian Embassy in Bishkek. And Maksim's financial adviser, Yevgeny Gurevich, was accused by an Italian judge in March of embezzling some $2.7 billion from telecom companies.

Further deep disappointment came in the form of unrelenting political and media repression. It was hard to tell whether organized criminal groups were involved in politics or whether politicians were involved in organized crime. Since Bakiev became president, about 10 well-known public figures -- including five members of parliament -- have been murdered.

An even bigger shock came when the charred body of Bakiev's former chief of staff was found in a burned-out car with two other people. On top of that, three journalists have been killed and numerous others beaten and threatened. About 20 politicians or journalists have fled the country and received political asylum in the West.

Last month alone, three independent newspapers were shut down, and RFE/RL's radio and television programs were banned from local stations.

The repression continued: Former parliament speaker and opposition leader Omurbek Tekebaev was detained in Poland after police found a Russian nesting doll in his suitcase with drugs hidden inside. A member of Bakiev's staff who had had problems with the president's brother received a human finger and ear as a New Year's present. The scandals -- for which everyone blamed Bakiev and his government -- were too much for people to take.

Fear was spreading in the country, which quickly turned into a deep anger directed against Bakiev.

Russian Fingerprints?

Even though Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin rejected all claims that the Kremlin played a role in the popular unrest in Kyrgyzstan, the facts speak for themselves.

Russia began harshly criticizing official Bishkek late last fall. Moscow was upset that Bakiev didn't keep his word about closing down the U.S. air base near Bishkek, as well as for misusing the first tranche of a $2 billion loan. In addition to that, several ethnic Russian experts and journalists were attacked, and two were killed.

The criticism intensified around the New Year when official Russian media prepared a series of programs and articles that were clearly anti-Bakiev.

At the same time, Kyrgyz opposition leaders began visiting Moscow with greater frequency. Roza Otunbaeva was in Russia in March; Almazbek Atambaev was there several times over the span of a few months; and Temir Sariev was arrested at the Bishkek airport upon his arrival from Moscow on April 7, the day of the uprising that ousted Bakiev. All three are leading members of the interim government.

Additionally, Russia did everything to make official Bishkek nervous in the last months of Bakiev's rule, imposing a new customs tax on all oil products exported to Kyrgyzstan -- which gets 95 percent of all of its oil products from Russia. It was obvious that Moscow was disappointed in Bakiev's government.

Finally, the Kremlin was the first to express its support for the new interim government in Kyrgyzstan. So the question remains: Was it just a people's uprising, or had Kyrgyzstan become the platform for another round of the "Great Game?"

Outraged Protesters

Whatever might have been planned, on April 7, when several thousand protesters stormed the government house in Bishkek, there were no opposition leaders commanding their action. Nearly all of them had been arrested the previous night.

Kyrgyz security forces literally came under the cover of night and took opposition leaders from their homes -- leaving loved ones crying and terrified much like Stalin's regime did in 1937, when Kyrgyz intellectuals were arrested and later executed.

Inspired by the demonstrations in the provincial town of Talas one day earlier, the opposition had reportedly planned to conduct peaceful, nationwide demonstrations on April 7. They were going to demand that Bakiev fulfill the promises he made in the last revolution almost exactly five years earlier: freedom of speech and media, economic stability, an end to nepotism and corruption, and releasing opposition activists from prison.

But after hearing about the overnight arrests of opposition leaders, people became aggressive. Witnesses said police appeared to panic when there was no sign of leadership or supervision of the protesters. In several cases, demonstrators wrested the security forces' weapons away from them. One man described in an e-mail what happened when protesters, some armed with weapons taken from police, reached Bishkek's main square:

"Heavily equipped police and soldiers were already waiting, and they started shooting tear gas and rubber bullets. People retreated to avoid the fumes, but pushed forward again and again. The multitude grew, in the meantime, in size and in temper. One young man drove a vehicle to try and break through the fence around the White House. But he was shot and killed by a sniper. At that moment, people started falling as the snipers unleashed their bullets.

"As I was standing there, horrified by this madness, a young man next to me jerked and he was then lying on the ground, his clothes saturated with blood. He was hit right in the heart. We quickly moved him back and the ambulance took him to the hospital.
"People started chanting: 'Today or never!' It was clear the people would not retreat in the face of death. They were firm. Yes, I said to myself, this is the day when either the people will finish this regime or this regime will finish the people and liberty. Today Kyrgyzstan will choose its fate! The people's spirit struck me and boiled my blood. People were stepping up and replacing the people who had been hit by bullets. 'Shoot us!' people shouted."

A total of 86 people died during the events that day, most of them young men between 20 and 35. One had studied in the United States; another was a deputy prosecutor; many were students. They were all shot in the head, chest, or stomach. Nobody was shot in the back, which means that everyone was running forward without fear of the snipers.

Wait And See

How could they have been so brave? Maybe my shamanistic friend and his supporters' spiritual seances helped. Or our legendary Manas awoke and the people were infused with his courage. Obviously, the protesters were not bandits, drunkards, or drug addicts, as the ousted president and his allies like to describe them.

It was a very difficult moment in the history of Kyrgyzstan, and many people are still mourning those killed and the hundreds who were injured, many severely.

Some politicians and experts abroad have already commented that Kyrgyzstan has the potential for more revolutions. Britain's "The Independent" wrote last week that the next time it will most probably be an Islamic revolution.

The new interim government in Kyrgyzstan has thus far shown and talked about creating a truly democratic system and an open society in Kyrgyzstan. They are a somewhat new generation of pragmatic politicians who seem to understand the world better than their predecessors. They also know that they don't have too much time to prove to the people of Kyrgyzstan that they are different. Let's hope they continue down a progressive path.

Venera Djumataeva is a broadcaster with RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL