DEMONSTRATIONS AND DISPLEASURE WITH AKAYEV
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 arrest of dissident parliamentary deputy Azimbek Beknazarov in 2002 caused large-scale protests, and the harsh suppression of those protests brought about the resignation of the government. In February 2003, Akayev moved to expand his presidential powers, provoking more popular criticism. A 2003 referendum, criticized by international monitors, approved Akayev serving his full presidential term (through 2005) in the face of strong demands for his resignation. That same year, the parliament approved lifelong immunity from prosecution for Akayev and his family. [Source: Library of Congress, January 2007 **]
There were demonstrations against the Akayev government from time to time in Bishkek. In March 2002, police killed five people and wounded at least 17 others in the southern town of Aksy, where security forces fired on several hundred unarmed demonstrators who had gathered to protest the imprisonment of their parliament member, Azimbek Beknazarov, who angered Akayev because he opposed a treaty Akayev made with China.
People were shocked. Violence like this had never been used before against political protesters. Authorities said that police only opened fire after protesters became violent. Human rights produced a police video tape that they claimed showed the police blocked a peaceful march and then fired on unarmed people. In December 2002, four government officials were sentenced by a court to short prison terms for their role in the incident.
In February 2005, international monitors declared the first round of national parliamentary elections to have been unfair. In March the protests that arose in response, which came to be known as the Tulip Revolution, forced Akayev to flee into exile. Akayev resigned the presidency in April. [Source: Library of Congress, January 2007 **]
Akayev’s Family and Corruption
The Akayev family seemed to harness the few resources that Kyrgyzstan possessed for their own personal gain rather than to benefit the country as a whole. The only businesses that made any money were those that are connected with the family.
Akayev’s son-in-law Adil Toigonbayev become very wealthy. He sold the fuel used by the American and French planes at Manas airport and reportedly illegally seized control of a popular Bishkek newspaper. He and his cronies reportedly control a television and print empire, a large vodka business, a cement plant and the largest sugar refinery in Kyrgyzstan. These businesses often paid little in taxes. One businessman told the Washington Post, “If the companies controlled by his son-in-law paid taxes, our budget problems would be solved.” The Akayev government was said to be relatively corruption-free and limited the sale of official jobs until Toigonbayev married into the family in 1997.
Akayev’s oldest son, Aidar, drive around in a Hummer and opened a chain of luxury goods stores. Akayev himself reportedly had a major stake in Kyrgyzstan’s mian gold mine. In early 2005, an opposition newspaper released photographs of a new mansion that Akayev was building near his more modest home.
Kyrgyzstan’s Deeply-Flawed Parliamentary Elections in 2005
On February 27, 2005, Kyrgyzstan held the first round of parliamentary elections, in an atmosphere marked by the muzzling of independent news sources and protests. On March 13, the results in second round of the parliamentary poll showed the opposition won only a handful of seats. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which monitored the poll, said the voting had many shortcomings.
There were allegations of vote buying, disqualification of opposition candidates on the basis of technicalities, denial of access to television coverage, prevention of rallies, and harassment of the independent media. The chairman of Kazakhstan’s election commission was caught on film telling voters which candidates to vote for. A diplomat running against Akayev’s daughter Bermet was prevented from running because he had not lived in Kyrgyzstan in the previous five years. Protesters angry that several candidates were disqualified blocked two key highways for several days.
Irregularities reported by OSCE election observers included, “comments of high officials, including the president, repeatedly warning if the dangers of civil war and associating opposition calls for nonviolent protest with extremism.” Many voters voted against all candidates, which made a second round of votes necessary. OSCE observers said the mid-March, parliament run-off election was was marred by “significant shortcomings.” These the group said included, “comments of high officials, including the president, repeatedly warning if the dangers of civil war and associating opposition calls for nonviolent protest with extremism.”
Despite all this Kyrgyz government’s Central Election Commission decided that the results of 71 of the 75 districts were valid. The new parliament was filled with a lot of wealthy industrialists and businessmen and freshman politicians with business or clan ties to the Akayev family. The opposition took only seven of the 75 available seats.
Protests After the 2005 Parliamentary Elections
An outcry over the results and irregularities associated with the 2005 parliamentary sparked protests in major cities like Osh, Jalal-Abad and elsewhere. Protests turned to riots in Bishkek.
On March 21, Osh, Kyrgyzstan's second biggest city, came under opposition control as protests sweep across the country's south, demanding Akayev’s the resignation. On March 23, police violently broke up a protest in Bishkek while the interior minister said the government was prepared to use force and weapons to restore order.
The protests began after the second round of parliamentary elections, which protesters said were flawed and gave Akayev a complaint legislature, which was expected to pass legislation to allow him to seek a third term (president’s were only allowed to seek twoterm and his second term was coming to an end). The protest were also seen as a chance by people to vent their frustrations over perception of widespread corruption in Akayev government
The protest began as separate revolts in southern provinces, where clans of politicians disqualified from taking part in the elections occupied government buildings. One of the first protests took place in Chong Allay, a town near the Tajikistan border that was so remote it didn’t even have television. In another town residents blocked highways to protest the disqualification of an incumbent candidate and widespread ballot stuffing.
2005 Kyrgyzstan Protests Become the Tulip Revoltion
Discontent spread. The protests grew into a full-scale revolt to oust Akayev. Some called it the Tulip Revolution or the Lemon Revolution (after the name of student newspaper) after the Rose Revolution in Georgia and the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine which had taken place in the previous year and a half. The protest were smaller than ones in Georgia and Ukraine and in some cases more violent.
The revolt in Kyrgyzstan had a sloppy, makeshift quality to. The movement against Akayev was fragmented, with each group having its own agenda and motivations. The protesters lacked money and leaders. There were no clear platforms, ideas or strategies. It often was not really clear what the protesters even wanted. The outcome—the ouster of Akayev—occurred almost by accident. During the defining protest outside the White House, the protesters couldn’t even decide what color to wear: some wore yellow and other wore pink,
During the protest much of southern Kyrgyzstan came under the control of the opposition. Protesters held two of Kyrgyzstan’s largest cities—Osh and Jalalabad—and seized government buildings in three other cities and set up their own militias and police forces. In Osh, protesters ransacked a police station, took over the airport and television stations and attacked police with gasoline bombs and sticks. In Jalalabad, they stormed some administrative buildings and a police station and set them on fire. The number of protesters in Jalalabad was estimated to be between 10,000 and 50,000.
There were also some protests in northern towns of Talas and Kochkor. Akayev is from the north. But instead of negotiations or showing some willingness to compromise, Akayev dug in his heels, declaring, “Power structures can not show weakness when faced with color revolutions”—a reference Rose Revolution in Georgia and the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine.
Major Players in the 2005 Revolt
While the revolt was gaining steam, members of the opposition, calling themselves the People’s Movement of Kyrgyzstan, began making plan to move on the capita. A coordination council with 40 members, most of them veteran politicians, was established.
On one hand the Kyrgyz protest movement was fairly unified in their opposition to Akayev. There didn’t seem to be a particular ethnic or regional nature to the protests. Poverty and frustration were clearly motivating forces among the protesters. Foreign-financed organizations and youth groups played major roles in protests as they did in Georgia and Ukraine. One of the main youth groups was KelKel, a student movement modeled on the Serbian Otpor youth movement that played a key role in the ouster of Milosevic.
On the other hand the protest movement was factionalized. It was divided into north and south factions, with the southern factions led by opposition politician Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was allied with the judiciary; and the northern factions led by former security chief Felix Kulov, who was allied with the old Communist-led parliament. He was in prison when the protests began and organized protest from his cell using a cell phone with Internet access that had been smuggled to him.
Protester’s Storm Akayev’s Office
On March 23, 2005, protesters stormed the White House, downtown headquarters of the President. Protesters pushed past guards to enter the office. Akayev said he insisted the guards refrain from firing upon the protesters because he did not want to trigger a civil war, which he told a Russian newspaper “would have grown into an interregional and interethnic conflict, with the most dangerous consequences.”
The day the White House was overrun began when a few thousand protesters, including many students, gathered in outskirts of the capital and began marching towards the White House. It was the first large protest in Bishkek. Before that most of the political activity had been in the south. There plan was set up yurts and stage a long term vigil sort of like what was done in the Ukraine during the Orange Revolution. But the those plans changed quickly.
Thugs dressed in track suits, armed with clubs and sent by Akayev attacked the crowds. But instead of backing off the demonstrators grew angry and were joined by bystanders. A small groups of youths began throwing rocks at the unarmed security guards guarding the office compound. By some reports there were only about 40 them. They managed to breach a fence and get past the 500 police and soldiers guarding the compound and made their way inside the White House.
AP reported: “About 1,000 protesters managed to clear riot police from their positions outside the fence protecting the building, and about half that number entered the compound and went into the building through the front entrance. Others smashed windows with stones, while hundreds of police watched from outside the fence. Protesters led the defense minister out of the building, holding him by the elbows and trying to protect him, but others threw stones at the military chief and one protester kicked him. Interior Ministry troops led other officials out, and three injured people left in bandages, accompanied by a doctor. [Source: Associated Press, February 24, 2005 ]
“Protesters, who appeared to control the building, threw papers and portraits of President Askar Akayev out of windows. It was unclear where he was; he had been scheduled to meet with an envoy from the OSCE, which had made overtures to help mediate the crisis... Two protesters waved a flag from a top-floor window in the building, and others looked out of other windows as cheers erupted from demonstrators. Some furniture was cast out of windows of the seven-story structure.”
Akayev had escaped from the building. Some of the protesters took turns sitting at his desk, having their picture taken, and collected souvenirs. The whole thing was entirely unplanned and was over within a few hours. The White House raid was followed by the disappearance of the police force and wave of looting and violence in Bishkek, leaving at least three people dead: looters killed in clashes with police. There were also reports of rapes. More than 100 stores in Bishkek were emptied and burned. Among the first targets were the luxury gods stores owned by Akayev’s son. After a while local people formed local patrols to protect themselves and landmarks and shops and the looting stopped.
Akayev Flees and Resigns
After the raid on the White House, Akayev fled to Russia, allowing opposition party leader Kurmanbek Bakiyev to assume the interim presidency. On March 24, 2015, Kyrgyzstan's opposition declares itself in power after seizing key buildings as Akayev vanishes after protests. The next day Bakiyev was named acting president. Akayev confirmed reports he had left the country, but said he had not resigned. On March 28, Kyrgyzstan's new parliament took over and confirmed Bakiyev as prime minister as well as acting president.
Akayev and his family boarded a Russian-made Mi-8 military helicopter at the Presidential Palace on Bishkek and fled first to Kazakhstan and then to Russia. Opposition leaders were surprised Akayev was ousted so quickly and easily. Authoritarian rulers in other former Soviet states thought he should have put up a tougher fight. When asked why she thought he left, one woman on the streets of Bishkek told the Washington Post, “Probably he had enough money, he could afford to leave.”
In early April 2005, Akayev formally reigned at the Kyrgyz Embassy in Moscow, saying that he would give up politics and return to his work as a scientist. He made the announcement after receiving assurances that he would not face any prosecution for anything he did during his 14 years in power. His resignation cleared the way for new presidential elections.
Impact of 2005 Kyrgyzstan Revolt
Many saw the ouster of Akayev as an old-fashioned coup rather a people power democratic revolution. The storming of the White House and the aftermath was seen more as an orchestrated campaign by veteran politicians to oust Akayev than democratic movement like the one in Ukraine, Georgia or the Philippines.
Akayev allowed opposition parties to form, independent news organizations to operate, and foreign nongovernment organizations to establish themselves and plant ideas about freedom and democracy. Many have suggested that these reforms led to his ultimate downfall. By contrast the leaders of Belarus and Uzbekistan have who have suppressed political freedoms are firmly entrenched in power.
Some argued that the revolt in Kyrgyzstan along with the ones in Georgia and Ukraine would help promote real democracy in Russia and countries in the former Soviet Union, where democracy does not really exist yet. Other thought it would have the opposite impact, convincing the authoritarian leaders that allowing political freedom and opposition parties to develop could bring about their downfall and thus should be nipped at the bud.
Many ordinary Kyrgyz were disappointed or at least ambivalent by the outcome of the revolt. One man on the streets of Bishkek told the Washington Post: “On one hand we’re quite happy. But on the other hand we’re unhappy...The old power—the corrupted people, at least many of them—are gone now. But frankly, no significant changes have occurred.”
On the question of getting back ill-gotten gains taken by the Akayev family, an American businessman told the Washington Post, “The Akayev business interests are linked very much to Kazakhstan and to Russian company interests. They would definitely not be interested in losing their interests and would be working however they can to protect them” including “assassinations.”
Akayev's daughter, Bermet Akayev, returned to Kyrgyzstan and attempted to regain her position as a deputy in the Kyrgyzstan parliament, representing the Keminsky district where her father was born. Former President Akayev currently works as a professor and senior researcher at the Prigogine Institute for Mathematical Investigations of Complex Systems at Moscow State University. Kyrgyzstan's provisional government said that Akayev would be allowed to return to Kyrgyzstan after formal elections take place in October 2010. [Source: School of Russian and Asian Studies (SRAS)]
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.
Last updated April 2016