Open Democracy, April 4 2005
Two scholars draw on experiences in Osh, Jalalabad and Bishkek to decipher central Asia’s first popular uprising
Why did Askar Akayev’s almost fifteen-year rule of Kyrgyzstan, formally concluded on 4 April with his resignation, end in the way it did? Was the people’s protest essentially negative or does it represent a new democratic wave that will impact on the country’s central Asian neighbours?
To answer these questions requires an assessment of what makes Kyrgyzstan politically distinctive within central Asia, as well as an account of events across the country in the days following the second round of parliamentary elections on 15 March 2005.
The Kyrgyz uprising began with protests in the southern cities of Jalalabad and Osh against the official announcement of the election results. These meetings initially focused on the question of why pro-government candidates defeated in the first round of elections were victors in the second, which people attributed to electoral malpractice and bribery.
For two weeks, crowds of angry people stood on the main square in front of government buildings in the two cities. On 18 March several protestors in Osh were beaten and injured in attacks by soldiers and special police forces. They were not cowed, but split into groups of 100-200 people who variously went on to storm almost all administrative buildings – the regional and city administration, the police and security service headquarters, and the prosecutor’s office. Many others roamed the streets, wielding rubber batons they had seized from the militia, and blocking traffic. They said they would unblock the traffic only when state television in Bishkek broadcast a report about events in the south.
The state was not listening. Asel Srazhidinova, from Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan, an applicant to the OSCE Academy in Bishkek wrote: “Some foreign mass media are exaggerating but government media is oversimplifying. The government is making every effort to block information about the protests.”
Sanjar Alimjanov, an Uzbek from a village in the Osh region, says that at this stage post-election anger fused with concerns about their poverty, harvest failures, the high cost of diesel and fertilisers, and the government’s lack of care for their plight. Many protestors came to focus on a single goal: the overthrow of Kyrgyzstan’s president, Askar Akayev, and his government.
Askar Akayev revealed his weakness by organising a pro-government demonstration meeting in Alatoo square, central Bishkek. Samara Turdalieva, from Jalalabad, says that its main goal was to declare to the world’s press that people in northern Kyrgyzstan support Akayev. Students and doctors were told that failure to attend would result in their being expelled or fired. Samara says: “There were lots of people just to show the mass. It is so artificial.” It was one of the regime’s final errors before it was toppled in a popular uprising that, moving from Osh and Jalalabad to Bishkek, involved only a few thousand active protestors.
In Osh and Jalalabad, people targeted government buildings, whereas in Bishkek they also looted large supermarkets and shopping centres (some of them owned by Akayev’s family and close associates). Demonstrators in both regions were clearly angry with extreme inequalities of wealth as well as with an authoritarian government...