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1989 Kyrgyz Protests Verged On Ethnic Conflict

One nation? Thankfully not.
One nation? Thankfully not.
I was a real Kyrgyz nationalist in 1989.

During a class at the Kyrgyz National University in June 1989, a classmate approached me and said, "Hey, let's go this afternoon to the Kyrgyz youth protests outside Frunze [as Bishkek was called at the time]. They're going to demand that the city authorities give Kyrgyz people land to build houses."

I was surprised and asked who was organizing these protests. He said he'd heard that very senior officials in the parliament had told student leaders to demand some land in the capital because Moscow had ordered authorities to provide housing for Meskhetian Turks arriving from Uzbekistan, where there had been fierce ethnic clashes and many people had been displaced.

According to my classmate, some Kyrgyz Soviet leaders were agitating local youths to protest Moscow's decision (since they were apparently not brave enough to do it themselves, I suppose).

In any case, we all left the lecture hall that day and went together to a large field outside the city where several hundred students and teachers had already gathered. It was my very first experience at such a protest, and it was exciting. As a student of world history, I felt like we were making history at that very moment!

We arrived at around 3 p.m. and hundreds more students and youths kept arriving. We held a small gathering that day, at which we were all told to come to back everyday until the leadership agreed to allocate land for houses for needy young Kyrgyz families.

The next day -- and the day after that -- thousands of us went there to protest. And nobody could stop us. Even though our deans and professors at the universities threatened us, it was clear that there were too many of us for them to expel or arrest us all.

Airing Grievances

I'm not sure what inspired me and my fellow students to go to those protests. Maybe a nationalistic mood was awakened in us by some of the speeches we heard at the rallies -- invoking the sad plights of impoverished Kyrgyz families.

One man in his 40s with a head of completely gray hair told the crowd that he was a university professor and that he, his wife, and their three children were living in one room at a student dormitory because he could not get an apartment from the state or improve his living conditions because he was not a registered resident of the city (the old Soviet "propiska" system).

At that time, only those who were officially registered could apply for state apartments, which was the only housing option for most people. And since most Kyrgyz had no relatives living permanently in the capital, there was no one who would allow them to be registered at their homes. As a result, they were forced either to return to their home regions or live for years in dormitory rooms or rented apartments.

But they had no hope for an apartment of their own. This was a policy of the Soviet government directed at pushing local people (i.e., us ethnic Kyrgyz) out of major cities, which could then be occupied by new settlers from Russia and the other Soviet republics, the speakers at the demonstrations told us.

(According to the last Soviet census in 1989, ethnic Kyrgyz made up some 22 percent of the residents of Frunze [Bishkek], while more than 60 percent were Russians, Ukrainians, and people from other Slavic nations. Kyrgyzstan was the most Russified republic in the Soviet Union, according to the census, as more than 36 percent of all Kyrgyz citizens said Russian was their first language.)

I heard many sad stories during those days, some of which made me cry. It was the first time in my life that I realized the authorities were imposing a discriminatory policy against the Kyrgyz people in the Soviet Republic of Kirghizia. One young woman lived with her two children in a room that she rented in a house owned by Russians. She told us that both of her kids were sick because of a permanent dampness in their room.

And then some young graduate students told us how they were slowly getting old in the crowded dormitories with their growing children and no hope for a better future. And some Kyrgyz teachers described how they had moved from one room to another for 15 years or more with their families -- paying almost half of their monthly income in rent in houses owned mostly by non-Kyrgyz families.

At the same time, as other speakers said at those demonstrations, whenever Moscow decided to open a new factory or plant in the republic, hundreds of ordinary workers, engineers, and other specialists were hired in Russia and other "central" republics and were given Soviet-standard apartments or even houses in the capital or other Kyrgyz cities soon after arriving. It was depressing to hear such things.

Times Change

While these young and not-so-young leaders and organizers of the rallies were delivering their nationalistic speeches -- in Kyrgyz! -- to thousands of Kyrgyz youth, officials from the local branch of the Communist Party and city authorities would often stand nearby and listen silently. They didn't deny the accusations against Moscow's policies. Maybe they had nothing to say against them, or maybe the Communist Party was too old and weak to react. KGB agents would mill among the demonstrators, listening to us discuss plans for the coming days.

Such nationalistic gatherings became a nearly constant activity for us students at that time. We would come to those fields as if we were going to work everyday, to support our leaders.

After almost a month of sometimes tough confrontations with officials -- at the peak of our nationalistic sentiments -- the authorities acquiesced and started making lists of young people with families who would be eligible to apply for land in or near the city.

They did so, of course, only after getting permission from Moscow. I guess they were afraid of any real ethnic clashes in the streets, which at the time was a very possible scenario. Hundreds, and then thousands, of young Kyrgyz families were given small parcels of land in empty spaces near the city -- which wasn't the best solution either for these families nor for the aesthetic or architectural look of the city. But nationalistic pressure and our constant protests made this happen.

I've long since recovered from my deeply nationalistic mood of those eventful days. Not long afterward, in fact, many of my non-Kyrgyz friends from school and some great teachers and their families started to emigrate to the West, Russia, and other countries; and it made me feel very sad. I even started calling them and begging them: "Please, don't leave. You have a future in this country; it's your home too. I don't want to live in a one-nation country. I really don't."

But they kept leaving.

Not all of them, fortunately. Kyrgyzstan today is still a place where people of different ethnicity live together peacefully. But in the summer and fall of 1989, it really seemed as if things could turn out far worse. I don't think we realized the danger of the fire we were playing with.

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