KYRGYZSTAN UNDER ASKAR AKAYEV

ASKAR AKAYEV

Askar Akayev, a mathematician and physicist, was the president of Kyrgyzstan from the time Kyrgyzstan became independent in 1991 until his ouster in 2005. He was small man with a round bald head: soft-spoken, erudite and known for his impish sense of humor. Akayev was the first person without a substantial party résumé to lead a Soviet republic’s government. His support of Gorbachev at the time of the August 1991 coup and his cautious approach to independence gained international respect. He became president of Kyrgyzstan in 1990, when the country was still part of the Soviet Union. Direct elections made him the first president of an independent Kyrgyzstan in 1991, and returned him to office again in 1995 and 2000. However, the last election in 2005 was seen as less than open and honest, and protests over it led to Akayev’s ouster. [Source: School of Russian and Asian Studies (SRAS)]

Unlike other Central Asian leaders, Akayev did not rise through the ranks of the Communist Party in the Soviet era and were in control when independence came. Instead he was a physicist who at first was committed to democracy and freedoms. He was praised in the West. Some called him the Thomas Jefferson of Central Asia.

When the Kyrgyz Supreme Soviet convened in October 1990, before Kyrgyzstan became independent, deputies aligned in a democratic bloc and narrowly defeated Communist Party chief Absamat Masaliyev’s bid to become president. With none of the three presidential candidates able to gain the necessary majority, the Supreme Soviet unexpectedly selected Askar Akayev, then a 46-year-old physicist, who had been serving as head of the republic's Academy of Sciences. Although he had served for a year in a science-related post on the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and was a party member, Akayev was the first president of a Soviet republic who had not held a high party position. On October 13, 1991, Akayev was the only candidate in Kyrgyzstan's first presidential election, After being elected he pledged reform but rejected a call for early democratic elections to parliament.

Akayev ruled Kyrgyzstan for 15 years. He allowed a great deal of openness in his early years but became increasing intolerant and repressive as time wore on. According to National Geographic: “Akayev has sometimes used Soviet methods, muzzling critical newspapers and harassing and arresting political opponents or disqualifying them from seeking office. Akayev's own reelection in 2000 was tarnished by stuffed ballot boxes and voter intimidation. Despite state restrictions, an independent press and opposition parties survive.”

Akayev’s Early Life and Professional Career

Askar Akayevich Akayev is an ethnic Kyrgyz. He was born on November 10, 1944 in Kyzyl-Bairak, a small town in the Kim district of central-north Kyrgyzstan not far from the capital of Bishkek. His parents were collective farm workers. They raised five sons, the oldest of whom died young.

Akayev was an honor student. After he finished high school he moved to Bishkek. He worked for a short time as a fitter in the Frunze Machine Building Factory. In 1962, he moved to Leningrad to attend the Institute of Precision Mechanic and Optics, where the studied computer science, optical physics and mathematics. Later he taught laser physics there. Later he received a Ph.D., and acquired some distinction as a scientist and intellectual.

After spending 14 years in Leningrad as a student and researcher, Akayev returned to Kyrgyzstan in 1976 to assume a positions at the Frunze Politechnical Institute in Bishkek. He rose from associate professor to full professor to head of his department while completing his doctoral dissertation at Moscow Physical Engineering Institute.

In the mid-1980s Akayev was selected as a member of the Kyrgyz Republic’s Academy of Sciences and the Communist Party Central Committee Department on Science and Education. In 1989, he became president of the Kyrgyz Republic’s Academy of Sciences.

Akayev originally had little interest in politics. He was a great admirer of Andrei Sakharov, the Soviet H-bomb inventor and Nobel-prize-winning dissident and peace activist. Sakharov also worked at the Institute of Precision Mechanics and Optics. Akayev once called him his “spiritual mentor.”

Akayev’s Family

Akayev met his wife Mairamkul, a Kyrgyz mechanical engineer, when he was a student in Leningrad. They have four children. When he was president, Akayev lived with his family in the tree-covered, 250-acre Kyrgyz presidential estate. He worked from a downtown headquarters called the White House.

Akayev’s oldest son, Aidar, graduated from the University of Maryland and took a job in the government. He opened a restaurant called the Manchester and a nightclub called Soho in Bishkek. Bermet, another one Akayev’s daughters, married a businessman who was largely regarded as one of the most corrupt men in Kyrgyzstan. Both Aidar and Bermet held seats in the parliament.

In a “Royal Wedding” 1998, Aliya Nazarbayev’s, the youngest daughter of Kazakhstan President Nazarbayev married the Aidar Akayev, son of Kyrgyz president Akayev. The bride was only 18. A few years later they were divorced.

Some said Akayev had a propensity to be manipulated and influenced by those around him. There were rumors that the country was run by the president’s wife and she wanted the job. Many Kyrgyz were offended that Akayev’s family enriched itself while the majority of the population lived in poverty.

Rise of Akayev in Pre-Independence Kyrgyzstan

Akayev joined the Kyrgyz Communist party and entered politics in 1986. He was recruited into politics during the Gorbachev perestroika era. In 1989, he was elected to the newly created Soviet Congress of People’s deputies and subsequently selected to serve in the Supreme Soviet. Akayev won praise for his work and Gorbachev offered him the position of vice-president in the Soviet Union. Akayev turned him down so he said he could devote his attention to a “silk revolution” in Kyrgyzstan.

Akayev rose to power after ethnic riots led to the ouster of his predecessor. Unlike the men who became the leaders of the other Central Asian nations, Akayev was never a Communist party boss and he did not inherit the position of president because he was Communist Party first secretary of his Soviet republic before the Soviet Union break up as was the case in the other Central Asian nations.

Akayev resolutely opposed the August 1991 Soviet coup attempt against Gorbachev, in contrast to other Central Asian leaders who actively or passively supported the coup. During the Gorbachev coup attempt, Akayev resigned from the Kyrgyz Communist Party (KCP) and moved against it, nationalizing its headquarters and forbidding it from operating in state organizations or publishing newspapers with state support. Not longer afterwards the KCP was dissolved. The Kyrgyzstan Supreme Soviet declared independence on August 31, 1991.

Akayev Becomes President of the Kyrgyz Republic

After the bid by Masaliyev — the Moscow-appointed Communist Party chief of the Kyrgyz Republic — to become president was defeated, opposition members encouraged Akayev to abandon his legislative duties in Moscow and return home. After several ballots he was elected by the Kyrgyz Supreme Soviet as a compromise candidate and became the first president of the Kyrgyz Republic — then still a part of the Soviet Union — on October 29, 1990.

With none of the three presidential candidates able to gain the necessary majority in the 1990 election, the Supreme Soviet unexpectedly selected Akayev, the a a 46-year-old physicist serving as head of the republic's Academy of Sciences. Although he had served for a year in a science-related post on the Central Committee of the CPSU and was a party member, Akayev was the first president of a Soviet republic who had not held a high party position.

Akayev was the first person without a substantial party résumé to lead a Soviet republic’s government. His support of Gorbachev at the time of the August 1991 coup and his cautious approach to independence gained international respect for independent Kyrgyzstan. Unlike the leaders of the other four Central Asian republics, who temporized for a day about their course following the coup, Akayev condemned the plot almost immediately and began preparations to repel the airborne forces rumored to be on the way to Kyrgyzstan from Moscow. The quick collapse of the coup made the preparations unnecessary, but Akayev's declaration of support for Gorbachev and for the maintenance of legitimate authority gained the Kyrgyz leader enormous respect among the Kyrgyz people and among world leaders. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Akayev Becomes President of Kyrgyzstan

At the time independence was declared, in August 1991, the republic's Supreme Soviet scheduled direct presidential elections for October 1991. Running unopposed, Akayev received 95 percent of the popular vote, and thus became Kyrgyzstan’s first popularly elected president.

When Kyrgyzstan became independent many wanted the Kyrgyz writer Chinghiz Aitmatov to be president. But he declined and suggested that Akayev be leader. Since independence Aitmatov has served as an ambassador for Kyrgyzstan. In the early years after independence he played a major role guiding Kyrgyzstan through difficult times.

Akayev as President

Akayev started off as a democrat. Elections were fair. Opponents could speak their mind. There was a free press. U.S. president Bill Clinton called him courageous for making political and economic reforms and described his initiatives as a model that other former Soviet republic should follow. U.S. Vice President Al Gore called Akayev a “democrat to the bone as far as we can tell” in 1993. Akayev made a number of political reforms. Referendums were used to decide national issues. His commitment to reforms helped Kyrgyzstan obtain millions in foreign aid. He welcomed Western advisors and advise from the International Monetary Fund. He was also credited with avoiding ethnic bloodshed.

As time wore on Akayev became more despotic. Like other Central Asian leaders, he manipulated election and held on to power through manipulating the intelligence and security services. At the same time he was regarded by some as weak and incapable of handling a country with deep, difficult-to-solve problems.

Although internal stability has not been a serious problem during the Akayev era, events in the mid-1990s threatened to make it so. By 1995 economic hardship, to which international experts did not predict a rapid end, combined with insufficient internal security forces and the opportunity for profits from organized narcotics activities to threaten the stability of Kyrgyzstan's society, especially in the major urban centers of Bishkek and Osh. The high crime rate also interfered with plans to attract Western tourist trade. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

In the 1990s, external security came almost exclusively from Russia, a situation that Kyrgyzstan officially welcomed in the absence of domestic resources to build a credible military force for its very small and isolated nation. As in the economic field, however, policy makers were not sure how long Russia would view strong support of Kyrgyzstan's national security as an important element of Russian foreign policy. Although no major regional threat loomed in the mid-1990s, major policy questions remained unanswered. *

Akayev's Early Years

Despite initial euphoria over the possibilities of independence and membership in the CIS, Akayev recognized that his country's economic position was extremely vulnerable and that the ethnic situation exacerbated that vulnerability. Thus, the Akayev administration devoted much attention to creating a legal basis of governance while struggling to keep the economy afloat. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

In the first two years of his presidency, Akayev seemed to work effectively with the Supreme Soviet that had put him in office. By 1992, however, Akayev's good relations with the legislature had fallen victim to the rapidly declining economy, the failure of the CIS to become a functioning body, and the country's inability to attract substantial assistance or investment from any of the potential foreign partners whom he had courted so assiduously. *

In 1992 and 1993, the public perception grew that Akayev himself had provided a model for the tendency of local leaders to put family and clan interests above those of the nation. Indeed, several prominent national government officials, including the head of the internal security agency, the heads of the national bank and the national radio administration, the minister of foreign affairs, and the ambassador to Russia, came from Akayev's home area and from Talas, the home district of his wife.

In January 1993, Akayev made an unusually harsh statement to the effect that he had been misled by his economic advisers and that Kyrgyzstan's overtures to the outside world had only raised false hopes. The continuing outflow of ethnic Russians (who constitute the greater part of Kyrgyzstan's technicians), the war in Tajikistan (which has driven refugees and "freedom fighters" into Kyrgyzstan), the growing evidence of wide-scale official corruption and incompetence, rising crime, and — more than anything else — the spectacular collapse of the economy increasingly charged the country's political atmosphere in the first half of the 1990s.

Problems Creating a Kyrgyzstan Constitution

A new constitution was adopted on May 5, 1993 that got rid of Communist structures that remained from the Soviet period. But Akayev's loss of momentum was reflected in the debate over the national constitution, a first draft of which was passed by the Supreme Soviet in December 1992. Although draft versions had begun to circulate as early as the summer of 1992, the commission itself agreed on a definitive version only after prolonged debate. An umbrella group of opposition figures from the DDK also began drawing up constitutional proposals in 1992, two variations of which they put forward for public consideration. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Although broad agreement existed on the outlines of the constitution, several specific points were difficult to resolve. One concerned the status of religion. Although it was agreed that the state would be secular, there was strong pressure for some constitutional recognition of the primacy of Islam. Another much-debated issue was the role of the Russian language. Kyrgyz had been declared the official state language, but non-Kyrgyz citizens exerted pressure to have Russian assigned near-equal status, as was the case in neighboring Kazakstan, where Russian had been declared the "official language of interethnic communication." The issue of property ownership was warmly debated, with strong sentiment expressed against permitting land to be owned or sold. Another important question was the role of the president within the new state structure. *

The proposed constitution was supposed to be debated by the full Supreme Soviet (as the new nation's parliament continued to call itself after independence) and by a specially convened body of prominent citizens before its acceptance as law. However, some members of the democratic opposition argued that a special assembly of Kyrgyz elders, called a kuraltai , should be convened to consider the document. A final draft of the constitution was passed by the Supreme Soviet in May 1993, apparently without involvement of a kuraltai. *

In drafting a final document, the Supreme Soviet addressed some of the most controversial issues that had arisen in predraft discussions. Specific passages dealt with transfer and ownership of property, the role of religion in the government, the powers of the president, and the official language of the country. *

Akayev had spoken of the need to have a presidential system of government--and, indeed, the constitution sets the presidency outside the three branches of government, to act as a sort of overseer ensuring the smooth functioning of all three. However, by the mid-1990s dissatisfaction with the strong presidential model of government and with the president himself was growing. With economic resources diminished, political infighting became commonplace. Although the prime minister and others received blame for controversial or unsuccessful policy initiatives, President Akayev nonetheless found himself increasingly isolated politically amid growing opposition forces. *

Akayev’s Political Problems

After taking office Akayev had to contend with a hostile parliament packed with former Communists who bitterly opposed reforms. At the same time the "democratic" opposition that had helped bring Akayev to power had grown disenchanted, its constituent factions were unable to exert serious pressure on the president because they could not agree on ideology or strategy. In October 1992, the main democratic opposition party Erk (Freedom) fractured into two new parties, Erkin and Ata-Meken (Fatherland). More serious opposition originated within the ranks of the former communist elite. Some of this opposition came directly from the ranks of the reconstituted and still legal CPK. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

In advancing his reform programs, Akayev experienced particular difficulties in gaining the cooperation of entrenched local politicians remaining from the communist government apparatus. To gain control of local administration, Akayev imitated the 1992 strategy of Russia's president Boris N. Yeltsin by appointing individuals to leadership positions at the province, district, and city levels. Akayev filled about seventy such positions, the occupants of which were supposed to combine direct loyalty and responsibility to the president with a zeal to improve conditions for their immediate locales. The system became a source of constant scandal and embarrassment for Akayev, however. The most flagrant abuses came in Jalal-Abad Province (which had been split from neighboring Osh in spring 1991 to dilute political power in the south), where the new akim, the provincial governor, appointed members of his own family to the majority of the positions under his control and used state funds to acquire personal property. The situation in Jalal-Abad aroused strong resentment and demonstrations that continued even after the governor had been forced to resign. *

Akayev decided that if any reforms were going to be made the Communists had to go. In January 1994, Akayev decided to break the impasse by taking the issue to the voters with a referendum to decide who should go him or the parliament. With 95 percent of the country’s voters participating, over 96 percent of voters supported Akayev. Parliament was dissolved.

See Legislature

Akayev and Economic Reforms

In the 1990s, Kyrgyzstan President Askar Akayev introduced economic reforms such as privatizing state-run businesses, introducing a new national currency, and liberalizing trade and investment laws. Kyrgyzstan tried to attract foreign investors with relaxed taxes, tariffs and export-import regulations. Reforms were difficult to implement on a local scale because the Soviet way of thinking was so entrenched.

As elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, one of the most significant reforms was privatization. The goal of privatization, a high priority in the early 1990s, was to create new productive enterprises with efficient management systems while involving the population in the reform program at a fundamental level. The process began in December 1991 with the adoption of the Privatization and Denationalization Law and the creation of the State Property Fund as the agency to design and implement the program. In late 1992, a new parliamentary "Concept Note" reoriented the program toward rapid sale of small enterprises and ownership transition in larger enterprises by vouchers and other special payments. By the end of 1993, about 4,450 state enterprises, including 33 percent of total fixed enterprise assets, were fully or partially privatized. By mid-1994, nearly all services and 82 percent of assets in trade enterprises, 40 percent of assets in industry, and 68 percent of construction assets were in private hands. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

However, the practical results of those statistics have not been nearly so positive. Most privatization (and almost all privatization in industry) was accomplished by creation of joint-stock companies, transferring enterprise shares to labor groups within them. Almost no public bidding for enterprise shares occurred, and the state maintained significant shares in enterprises after their conversion to joint-stock companies. Also, because the sale of shares was prohibited, shareholders wishing to leave the company had to return their holdings to the labor collective. The 1994 Law on Privatization remedied this situation by providing for competitive bidding for shares in small enterprises (with fewer than 100 employees) as well as long-term privatization of medium-sized (with 100 to 1,000 employees) and large enterprises by competitive cash bidding among individuals. The new law also provided for the auctioning of all enterprise shares remaining in state hands, over an undetermined period of time. In 1994 and early 1995, voucher privatization moved toward its goals quickly; by the end of 1994, an estimated 65 percent of industrial output came from non-state enterprises. *

Kyrgyzstan won praise from the IMF and World Bank for pro-reformist policies. As a reward for following an economic program proposed by the IMF, Kyrgyzstan was the first Soviet republic to be selected as a member of the World Trade Organization, in 1998, and received heaps of economic aid. But not much positive came from the reforms. Not many foreign investors came. The economy didn’t improve.

The economy and the standard of living or ordinary Kyrgyz declined in the years after independence. The monthly income of people in Bishkek was about $55. In the countryside most people earned less than half that. Formally subsidized industries collapsed, poverty increased and there was a widespread belief that Kyrgyzstan would become an economic backwater.

Kyrgyzstan fell seriously in debt and was unable to pay back loans and keep the economy stable without foreign assistance. Some experts believed it will become a permanent welfare nation, dependent on foreign aid to remain afloat. Discussing the transition to a market economy, one herder told the New York Times, “This is better. You breed your own horses, you sell your own horses. You make kumiss, You sell kumiss. But you have to pay taxes.” Privatization ended up placing assets in the hands of family members of people connected with Akayev.

Akayev and Foreign Policy

In 1993, Akayev became the first head of a Muslim nation to visit Israel since Anwar Sadat of Egypt did it 1977. That same year he sent troops to Tajikistan as part of a CIS peacekeeping force there after Muslim extremists were said to have entered Kyrgyzstan territory in February 1993.

In 2001 Kyrgyzstan offered the United States an air base at Manas Airport in support of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, reinforcing relations with the United States but increasing tension with Russia. See Military

In September 2002, Akayev visited U.S. President George Bush at the White House in Washington. Before the trip, a government minster said, “This is a unique chance for us to appear on the maps of the world. We have free advertising.

In October, 2003 Russian President Vladimir Putin opened an airbase in Kyrgyzstan, Russia's first post-Soviet military outpost abroad and a springboard for reviving its clout in volatile Central Asia.

Akayev and Elections

Akayev was easily reelected in 1995 in Central Asia’s first genuine multi-party elections. He also easily won the presidential election in October 2000 with 73.4 percent of the vote against five relatively unknown candidates. In second place was Omurbek Tekebayev, a deputy speaker of the upper house with 13.9 percent, and in third was industrialist Almazbek Atambaev with 6 percent. The victory gave Akayev his third 5-year term. Akayev said that time he would retire in 2004 even though it seemed that he was positioning himself to be leader for life.

Akayev defied predictions that he would seek referendum approval of an extension of his term rather than stand for reelection in 1996 as mandated in the constitution. (The presidents of Kazakstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan had followed the former course in 1994 and 1995.) In the presidential election of December 1995, Akayev gained 71.6 percent of the vote against two communist challengers. Several other political figures protested that they had been prevented illegally from participating. International observers found the election free and fair. Earlier, newly elected deputies of the 1995 parliament had proposed that presidential elections be postponed until at least the year 2000, with Akayev to remain president in the interim. According to rumors, Akayev favored using a referendum to extend his own term of office, but he found acceptance of parliament's proposal unwise. Kyrgyzstan depends heavily on the loans of Western banks and governments, who objected strenuously to the cancellation of elections as a "step back from democracy." [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

In the 2000 presidential election, 14 candidates were excluded for political reasons. Akayev’s main rival Felix Kulov, was arrested a few months before the election, then released and finally disqualified for refusing to take the mandatory Kyrgyz language tests. There were also reports of ballot stuffing and voter intimidation. One polling station in Bishkek had 700 ballots marked in favor of Akayev before the polls had even opened.

Kulov was a former vice president and was originally an Akayev supporter. A former KGB man, he served as a police chief and the mayor of Bishkek and had a reputation for being a hot-tempered enforcer. Kulov was arrested and imprisoned with the understanding that he would be released after the election was over. But ultimately he was sentenced to seven years in prison on embezzlement and abuse of power charges, which his supporters said were politically motivated.

In parliamentary elections in February 2000, the Communists won 26.4 percent of the vote, followed by the pro-Akayev Union of Democratic Forces, with 16.3 percent of the vote, and the Democratic Party of Women, with 13 percent. This election was marred by the exclusion of most opposition parties. Only 11 of the 27 political parties in Kyrgyzstan were allowed to compete. Many candidates were not allowed to compte due to minor technicalities. There were also some irregularities. At some polling stations voters were allowed to vote twice.

Akayev, Authoritarianism and Human Rights

Over time, the Akayev government became more repressive and less democratic despite claims to the contrary. The Akayev government said it needed authoritarian measures to bring about stability. American diplomats argued that the opposite is true. They said the governments needed to adopt democratic reforms and tolerate opposition to give the government legitimacy and genuine grassroots support. In the meantime the West was pouring tens of million of dollars into developing democratic institutions

Beginning in the mid-1990s, Akayev took several steps to increase presidential power vis-à-vis the legislative branch, including questionable referenda and suppression of opposition groups. Before the 2000 presidential election, Feliks Kulov, Akayev’s chief rival for the presidency, was imprisoned.

The Akayev government tolerated ballot stuffing, intimidated voters, prevented political rivals from running for office, jailed opposition politicians, harassed journalists and humans rights activists, muzzled critical newspapers and intimidated independent television stations. .

Problems with Islamic Groups in Southern Kyrgyzstan

Garth Willis of alpinefund.org wrote: In the summers of 1999 and 2000, localized skirmishes erupted along the southern borders. The well-publicized kidnapping and subsequent escape of four American climbers in Karavshin projected the image that all of Kyrgyzstan was a dangerous place. These events, followed by the attacks of September 11 and then SARS in 2003, almost ended tourism. During these years the few expeditions in the region never saw a soul. <> [Source: Garth Willis, alpinefund.org, July 2004 <>]

“In 1999 when Islamic fundamentalists crossed the border over an unguarded mountain pass and kidnapped a large group of Japanese geologists. This event was followed in 2000 by more kidnappings of Americans, Germans, and Ukrainians. The government dispatched troops to rescue the remaining hostages and turn back the incursion, but during the ensuing battles and rescue of the hostages, 32 Kyrgyz soldiers were killed. All hostages were released or escaped unharmed. The government removed the local shepherds who inhabited the high pastures and prohibited outsiders from entering. To prevent further incursions the governments of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have placed land mines in the high mountain passes in border areas. Due to border disputes, there is debate where the borders are drawn, creating confusion as to where these mines were laid.” <>

“ The U.S. government recommends not traveling to this area due to the political instability and the existence of land mines. For these reasons potential climbers should go only to the area with reputable local companies and be accompanied at all times by local guides. The specific climbing area described here has no reports of mines, but climbers should be aware of potential dangers in the region. Independent travel to this region is strongly discouraged, but a well-organized expedition can safely visit the granite walls of the Karavshin. In 2003 Czech climbers visited the region and had no problems.” <>

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2016

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