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Celebrating, Not Looting

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In 2005, revolutionaries in southern Kyrgyzstan - many of them villagers - moved swiftly and successfully to prevent a power vacuum.

by Hamid Toursunov 22 March 2010

Five years ago, protesting what many considered rigged elections, Kyrgyz demonstrators toppled Askar Akaev, the only president their country had known since its independence from the Soviet Union. The event was marked by celebrations at having swept away a ruler who seemed intent on controlling the country’s political life indefinitely. But five years later, many observers of his successor, Kurmanbek Bakiev, despair. Bakiev has repeatedly changed the constitution to consolidate his grip on power and has positioned his son to take over when he leaves office. This story originally appeared on 29 March 2005.

 

OSH, Kyrgyzstan--While police in Bishkek were trying to restore order in the looted center of the Kyrgyz capital, down in the south--the cradle of the revolution that toppled President Askar Akaev--the police in Osh had a much more peaceful task: to watch over a grand celebration of the Kyrgyz revolution put on by the city’s new authorities.

Soldiers from the local garrison, the city’s residents, and villagers who participated in the overthrow of the old authorities paraded on 26 March on the city’s main square, in front of the governor’s house, the administrative center of the province.

The entertainment was free, the food was free, and the mood was festive. “This holiday really has become a people’s holiday. Spring has come, as well as new authorities,” said Cholponbek, one of those who took part in the parade. “I came here from Uzgen [a town about 50 kilometers from Osh] because this is our holiday and victory over Akaev’s regime.”

The day before the celebrations, religious figures and the city elders blessed the new authorities, including the new city mayor and the new governor, at Friday prayers near the statue of Lenin that still dominates the city’s main square 14 years after the country gained independence.

In Bishkek, legislators were fighting over whether the outgoing parliament or the new, heavily pro-Akaev parliament was legitimate and whether the upper house should or should not disappear, as a recent constitutional change suggested. In Osh, though, there was no such sense of a political vacuum or confusion. Instead, local leaders were seeking to show that, five days after they had assumed power, the revolution was over and the Akaev era was happily past.

HOW THE VACUUM WAS FILLED

In the south, the revolution does seem to have the support of most people. That is no surprise--and it is no surprise southerners were the first to rise against Akaev. Most southerners, who make up over half the country’s population, work in agriculture and it is the south’s villagers who are the poorest people in the country. For them, Akaev’s 15 years in power (he became president in 1990, before the Soviet republic became a country) have brought little.

It is perhaps 15 years without real improvements in their lives that helps explain how, every morning for weeks, hundreds of protestors gathered in the center of Osh and another southern city, Jalal-Abad, to protest and march under banners reading “Akaev ketsin!” (“Down with Akaev!”). For almost 20 days, demonstrators in Jalal-Abad continued their protests; for 16 days, they occupied the government building. In Osh, daily protests continued for nine days before demonstrators seized the government buildings. Those who came in from the surrounding region could count on strong local support, with sympathizers in Jalal-Abad and in Osh offering food and lodgings.

When, on 20 March, the police tried to recapture government buildings, the protestors showed that days out on the streets had not weakened their resolve. Rather the contrary: they managed their support so rapidly that within hours thousands had streamed in from the villages. Ultimately, crowds of over 10,000 people in Jalal-Abad and more than 5,000 in Osh forced security forces out of government buildings and, in the process, swept the local authorities out of office.

Nor, it seemed, over the weeks of protests had the discipline of the demonstrators weakened. After the government buildings were stormed, groups of youths roamed the streets, some carrying sticks and stones, and there was more drunkenness than usual. But the violence was limited. While in Bishkek the violence spread to bazaars and shopping centers, in Jalal-Abad the only targets were administrative buildings and police stations, one of which was torched.

In general, the transfer of power was peaceful, particularly in Osh, which is often referred to as Kyrgyzstan’s southern capital. There, only three shops were looted, and all three cases were the work of locals, not the villagers who formed the majority of the protestors.

The degree of organization in the demonstrations and the subsequent swift and relatively orderly change may reflect the rural origins of the revolt.

Those who led the assault on administrative buildings Osh and Jalal-Abad were middle-aged women and old men. Together with opposition leaders, the village elders had on 18 March formed people’s councils--eldik kenesh--to assume responsibility for running the two cities. When the change came, they moved quickly to neutralize anger against the police. The police, in turn, began to cooperate with the new leaders. Together with newly created militia, they prevented any wave of violence in Osh and Jalal-Abad. The new authorities effectively established control over the Osh province within just one day.

Local television also played a role. During the protests, reporters had made their reports from the ground and largely avoided adding their own comments or self-censoring their reports. National television, by contrast, consistently portrayed the rebellious southerners as extremists. And when the local government was toppled, the media in the south began to interview representatives of the new authorities even though, in Bishkek, the Akaev government was still in place.


Hamid Toursunov is a TOL correspondent.

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