Government of “people’s confidence” declares it has taken power
Report compiled by Rob Jones, Ainur Kurmanov and Zhenya Otto, and eyewitness from Bishkek
In a remarkable 24 hours, mass protests broke out in Talaz, in northern Kyrgyzstan, quickly spreading throughout the country. The capital, Bishkek, was quickly rocked by a mass uprising, which the authorities tried to put down using snipers and armored personnel carriers. Despite dozens shot dead, the masses just surged forward, attacking government buildings, seizing weapons to resist the riot police, before the latter came over to support the uprising. By the evening, the government had resigned and the President, Bakayev had reportedly fled the capital, with his Air Force Jet No 1 taking off from the US airbase Manas at the edge of the city. His destination was rumored to be either his home city of Osh, in the South, nearby Almaty, in Kazakhstan, or even Prague. These events act as a sharp warning to all the other dictatorial leaders in Central Asia and the CIS, who, faced with growing opposition, are stepping up repression. The British daily, The Financial Times, quoted exiled opposition leader, Edil Baisalov, “What we are seeing is a classic popular uprising. This is a revolution, and it is bloody.” Blaming government authoritarianism for the unrest he added: “This is what happens when you hold the lid on the cooking pot too tightly – it explodes” (FT Aril 8 2010).
President Bakayev came to power just 5 years ago as a result of the “Tulip revolution”, when the pro-capitalist opposition, resting on the huge discontent of the Kyrghiz masses over the results of neo-liberal policies, organized a mass protest movement to overthrow the then President Akiyev. (See ‘Mass protests clear out corrupt neo-liberals’, on socialistworld.net, 31/03/2005).
Commenting on the events at that time, the CWI said: “whilst the ‘power of the street’ is enough to topple governments, in itself it is not enough to establish an alternative government that will be capable of ending the corruption and poverty which grips this region. In Kyrghizia, all that has happened is that Akayev has been forced to flee whilst his former loyal lieutenants have returned to power”.
This prediction has been borne out. Bakayev soon fell out with his allies. Many of today’s opposition leaders were originally in his government.
Amongst the main complaints of the masses is the fact that corruption and family cronyism have grown even stronger under Bakayev. The country is now amongst the top 20 in the world for corruption. Bakayev excuses this with comments such as “It’s very difficult to tear oneself away from one’s roots and upbringing”. His brother, for example, is Head of the Security Police and his son is now Head of the Central Agency for Development, Investment and Innovation, which has recently taken control of the main shareholding in the ‘Kyrgyzalten’ gold mine – this company accounts for 40% of the country’s industrial production! Now a new amendment to the constitution has been passed which, in effect, makes the presidency a hereditary position.
Until Bakayev came to power, Kyrghizia had the reputation of being relatively democratic – surrounded by China, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Tadjikistan, it was not difficult to appear relatively free. But the truth is not so much that the neo-liberal regime that came to power after 1991 was not repressive, but that the state apparatus was too weak and divided to take effective measures. Since Bakayev’s victory, however, the state machine has steadily become more centralized, with the President taking on more dictatorial powers.
This is against the background of intense poverty for the masses. The average monthly wage is still around $30-50 and yet this year the government has announced a doubling of electricity prices and a 5-10 times increase in heating costs. Endemic poverty is the driving force behind the current protests.
The protests started in the northern city of Talas. In a return to feudal traditions, the president once a year holds a ‘Kurultaya’ - audiences with people to explain his policies and actions. This “dialogue with the people” takes the form of mass meetings in the central squares of cities throughout the country. This year, Bakayev was due to explain the need for the price hikes. He was even forced, by popular pressure, to agree to guarantee freedom of speech and to remove his brothers from their positions of power.
The opposition however decided to organize an alternative Kurultaya. During their meetings, they presented the government with an ultimatum: “The price increases should be annulled, Kyrghyzantel and the electricity company should be taken back into state ownership and the President’s relatives should be removed from their positions”. The release of all political prisoners was demanded. In addition to this we would add the need for a struggle for all democratic rights including: the right to form free independent trades union, the right to free assembly, a democratically controlled free press and the convening of a genuinely representative assembly of all the people including workers, young people, students, small traders and the rural masses.
Bakayev decided to meet the ultimatum with repression. On 6 April, Bolot Sherniyazov, leader of the opposition party ‘Ata Meken’ (Motherland) was arrested to prevent him attending another street meeting. The city exploded in revolt.
Thousands of protesters gathered around the police headquarters, demanding Bolot Sherniyazov’s release. The police quickly succumbed, claiming they had only wanted to interview him. But the masses appetite grew, they then marched on the Regional Governor’s office, demanding he “come over to the side of the people”. Addressing the crowds, the the Regional Governor’s failed to convince them of his position and a group charged police lines, breaking through to occupy the Governor’s building, and announcing that an alternative governor had been elected.
Bakayev and his supporters tried to pretend that everything was under control. They shut the telephone lines to the city, the mobile networks closed down and even the internet was badly affected. Nationally it was reported that the protest had been successfully put down using tear gas and rubber bullets.
However our correspondent from Bishkek tells a different story. He says that the demonstrators then fought the riot police and managed to occupy several government buildings. The City Council building was torched, as were several police cars. They occupied the local airport. By the evening of the 6 April, the city was paralysed by barricades, defended by youth holding Molotov cocktails. Incidentally, our correspondent points out, the riot police had been recently re-equipped with money from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe(OSCE) – the organization supposed to be the guarantor of democracy on the continent. “Special thanks to the OSCE for that!” he comments.
While these events were unfolding, the government announced that the alternative meetings scheduled to take place throughout the country on 7 April were illegal. Leaders of the ‘United People’s Movement’ (union of main opposition parties) were arrested – 7 key figures and dozens of activists were detained in Bishkek alone.
There should be no illusions about who these opposition leaders represent. A Atambaev, leader of the ‘Social Democratic Party’, was Bakayev’s Prime Minister until 2007. He gained notoriety during the crushing of a protest demonstration by riot police, claiming the protests were “sheep led into battle by a goat!” He is one of the richest people in Kazakhstan. The new Head of government is Roza Otunbayeva, Foreign Minister under Akayev, an ally of Bakiyev during the Tulip Revolution and the country’s most experienced ambassador. They talk about Bakiyev conducting an economic and social policy against the interests of the people, but, in reality, these opposition leaders are angry because, following the struggle for power that took place following the victory of the Tulip Revolution, they lost out.
But the attempt to repress the opposition protests in Talas, not only led to an uprising there, but it quickly spread to other cities. There are reports of government buildings being seized and torched in Naryn, Isykkul and Batken. Clashes between the riot police and protesters have reportedly left many people killed.
Protests quickly spread to Bishkek, the capital. In the absence of the opposition leaders, the protests were spontaneous, reflecting the anger of the population at the increase in housing costs, food costs, and the privatization of key industries. The mood was fuelled by the repressive measures of the government, which has shut down internet sites, the Stan TV internet portal (see recent report on Kazakhstan on socialistworld.net with reference to Stan TV and Stan TV video), and, of course, the ban on protests and the arrests of opposition leaders.