August 31, 1991, the Kyrgyzstan Supreme Soviet declared Kyrgyzstan’s independence. Kyrgyzstan was the first Central Asia republic to do so. Kyrgyzstan became an independent state when the Soviet Union was disbanded on December 26, 1991. None of the nations of Central Asia had ever existed as a true nation-state before 1991.
The so-called Silk Revolution that brought about Kyrgyzstan’s independence drew much international sympathy and attention. The Kyrgyzstan declaration of independence occurred days after the Gorbachev coup began. The country’s new president Askar Akayev threw the CPSU and its Kyrgyzstan branch out of the government. However, he did not go as far as officials in most of the other former Soviet republics, where the party was banned totally.
Independence was supposed to give way to democracy. Instead it has given way one man rule. Entrenched legislative and regional interests frustrated Akayev’s reform agenda to improve the depleted economy. As time went on Akayev became more autocratic and was eventually thrown out after massive street protests against him.
Events Before Kyrgyzstan Independence
In February 1990, elections for the Supreme Soviet were held in traditional Soviet rubber-stamp fashion with the Kyrgyz Communist Party (KCP) taking nearly all the seats. About a forth ran unopposed. The KCP First Secretary and hardline Communist Absamat Masaliev was made the chairman. The KCP largely opposed market reforms and democratic changes,
In the summer of 1990, ethnic tensions in the Osh region led to mass demonstrations in Bishkek against the Communist Party and demanded the ouster Masaliyev. When the Kyrgyz Supreme Soviet convened in October 1990, deputies aligned in a democratic bloc narrowly defeated Masaliyev’s bid to become president. At the same meeting of the Supreme Soviet, the deputies changed the name of the republic to Kyrgyzstan. They also began to speak seriously of seeking greater national sovereignty (which was formally declared on November 20, 1990) and of attaining political domination of the republic by the Kyrgyz, including the establishment of Kyrgyz as the official language. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]
In late 1990 and 1991, the Communists were discredited for opposing sovereignty, democratization, freedom of the press and market reforms and supporting the coup against Gorbachev. By mid-summer 1991, the Kyrgyz were beginning to make serious moves to uncouple the government from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and its Kyrgyzstan branch. In early August, the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Kyrgyzstan, which governs the police and the internal security forces, announced a ban of all CPSU affiliation or activity within the ministry. Events elsewhere precluded a seemingly inevitable conflict with Moscow over that decision; in August 1991, the attention of the entire union moved to Moscow when reactionaries in Gorbachev's government attempted to remove him from power.
Ethnic Violence in the Kyrgyz Republic in 1990
In June and July 1990, in Ozgen, 55 kilometers from Osh in the Fergana Valley, Uzbeks and Kyrgyz clashed for about a month after the Kyrgyzstan government tried to take land from an Uzbek state farm in a primarily Uzbek area within Kyrgyzstan and give it homeless Kyrgyz. At least 200 and maybe more than a thousand were killed. Thousands of homes were destroyed.
During some of the most intense fighting, local police and Soviet security forces were no where to be seen. Some people have argued that authorities did little to stop the ethnic violence and may have even inflamed it because the violence gave authorities an excuse to clamp down on opposition groups and religious groups.
In the general atmosphere of glasnost , an Uzbek-rights group called Adalat began airing old grievances in 1989, demanding that Moscow grant local Uzbek autonomy in Osh and consider its annexation by nearby Uzbekistan. The real issue behind Adalat's demand was land, which is in extremely short supply in the southernmost province of Osh. To protect their claims, some Osh Kyrgyz also had formed an opposing ethnic association, called Osh-aimagy (Osh-land). In early June 1990, the Kyrgyz-dominated Osh City Council announced plans to build a cotton processing plant on a parcel of land under the control of an Uzbek-dominated collective farm in Osh Province. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]
The confrontation that erupted over control of that land brought several days of bloody riots between crowds led by the respective associations, killing at least 320 Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in Osh. The precise cause and sequence of events in early June 1990 is disputed between Uzbek and Kyrgyz accounts. Scores of families were left homeless when their houses were burned out. The government finally stopped the rioting by imposing a military curfew. *
Rise of Democratic Activism in the Kyrgyz SSR
Because the telephone lines remained open in Osh the otherwise blockaded city, news of the violence spread immediately to Frunze (Bishkek) . In the capital, a large group of students marched on the headquarters of the Communist Party of Kyrgyzia (CPK), which also served as the seat of government, in the center of the city. In the violent confrontation that ensued, personal injuries were minimized by effective crowd control, and the riotous crowd eventually was transformed into a mass meeting. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]
The Osh riots and the subsequent events in Frunze quickly brought to the surface an undercurrent of political discontent that had been forming among both the intelligentsia and middle-level party officials. A loose affiliation of activists calling themselves the Democratic Movement of Kyrgyzstan (DDK) began to organize public opinion, calling among other things for the resignation of Absamat Masaliyev, who was president of the republic's parliament, the Supreme Soviet, as well as a member of the Soviet Union's Politburo and the head of the CPK. The DDK called for Masaliyev's resignation because he was widely viewed as having mishandled the Osh riots. *
Democratic activists erected tents in front of the party headquarters, maintaining pressure with a series of hunger strikes and highly visible public demonstrations. The continuing atmosphere of crisis emboldened CPK members, who also wished to get rid of the reactionary Masaliyev. Four months later, in a presidential election prescribed by Gorbachev's reform policies, Masaliyev failed to win the majority of Supreme Soviet votes required to remain in power. *
Rise of Akayev in Pre-Independence Kyrgyzstan
With none of the three presidential candidates able to gain the necessary majority in the October 1990 Kyrgyz Supreme Soviet election, the Supreme Soviet unexpectedly selected Askar Akayev, a forty-six-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.
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 *]
At the same time independence was declared, the republic's Supreme Soviet scheduled direct presidential elections for October 1991. Running unopposed, Akayev received 95 percent of the popular vote, thus becoming the country's first popularly elected president.
August 31, 1991, the Kyrgyzstan Supreme Soviet reluctantly declared independence. It was the first Central Asia republic to do so. Kyrgyzstan became an independent state when the Soviet Union was disbanded on December 26, 1991. None of the nations of Central Asia had ever existed as a true nation-state before 1991.
The Kyrgyzstan declaration of independence occurred days after the Gorbachev coup began, As president Akayev threw the CPSU and its Kyrgyzstan branch out of the government. However, he did not go as far as officials in most of the other former Soviet republics, where the party was banned totally.
The so-called Silk Revolution drew much international sympathy and attention. In December 1991, when the Belarusian, Russian, and Ukrainian republics signed the Tashkent Agreement, forming a commonwealth that heralded the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Akayev demanded that another meeting be held so that Kyrgyzstan might become a founding member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), as the new union was to be called. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]
The sympathy that Akayev had won for Kyrgyzstan earlier in his presidency served the country well once the world generally acknowledged the passing of the Gorbachev regime and the Soviet Union. Kyrgyzstan was recognized almost immediately by most nations, including the United States, whose secretary of state, James Baker, made an official visit in January 1992. A United States embassy was opened in the capital (which had reassumed its pre-Soviet name of Bishkek in December 1990) in February 1992. By early 1993, the new country had been recognized by 120 nations and had diplomatic relations with sixty-one of them.
Kyrgyzstan as an Independent Nation
At the time Kyrgyzstan became independent in August 1991 it possessed a combination of useful resources and threatening deficiencies. Geographic location fits in both categories; landlocked deep inside the Asian continent, Kyrgyzstan has minimal natural transportation routes available to serve its economic development, and its isolation has been an obstacle in the campaign to gain international attention. On the other hand, Kyrgyzstan also is isolated from most of the Asian trouble spots (excepting Tajikistan), making national security a relatively low priority. The natural resources that Kyrgyzstan possesses--primarily gold, other minerals, and abundant hydroelectric power--have not been managed well enough to make them an asset in pulling the republic up from the severe economic shock of leaving the secure, if limiting, domain of the Soviet Union. Other problems it faced in the 1990s were a serious “brain drain” of Russian technical experts, a stream of refugees into Kyrgyzstan from the civil war in neighboring Tajikistan, and instances of high- level official corruption. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996, January 2007 **]
In the mid-1990s, the most ambitious economic and political reform program in Central Asia caused more frustration than satisfaction among Kyrgyzstan's citizens, largely because the republic inherited neither an economic infrastructure nor a political tradition upon which to base the rapid transitions envisioned by President Askar Akayev's first idealistic blueprints. Although some elements of reform (privatization, for example) went into place quickly, the absence of others (credit from a commercial banking system, for example) brought the overall system to a halt, causing high unemployment and frustration. By 1995, democratic reform seemed a victim of that frustration, as Akayev increasingly sought to use personal executive power in promoting his policies for economic growth, a pattern that became typical in the Central Asian countries' first years of independence. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]
Since independence Kyrgyzstan has made impressive strides in some regards such as creating genuinely free news media and fostering an active political opposition. At the same time, the grim realities of the country's economic position, which exacerbate the clan- and family-based political tensions that have always remained beneath the surface of national life, leave long-term political and economic prospects clouded at best. Kyrgyzstan has no desire to return to Russian control, yet economic necessity has forced the government to look to Moscow for needed financial support and trade. *
Kyrgyzstan, the second-smallest of the Central Asian republics in both area and population, is located between two giants: Kazakstan to its north and China to its south and east. The rural population, already the largest by percentage in Central Asia, is growing faster than the cities. Like Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan has a minority population of Russians (22 percent in 1994) whose accelerated emigration threatens the country's technological base. The country's legal and political systems give clear priority to the Kyrgyz majority, alienating not only Russians but also the large Uzbek minority concentrated in the Osh region of southwestern Kyrgyzstan. Friction persists over control of the scarce land of the Fergana Valley, which overlaps the territory of three republics: Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. The regime of President Askar Akayev (first elected in 1990) has attempted to balance sorely needed national reform programs with the demands of ethnic groups and clans that still exercise strong influence on the country's political and social structures. *
Economic Situation in Kyrgyzstan After Independence
Kyrgyzstan, ranked as the second-poorest republic in Central Asia, possesses a more limited range of natural resources than its neighbors. In the Soviet era, Kyrgyzstan contributed a specific group of minerals--antimony, gold, and mercury--to Moscow's economic plan. Of the three, only gold is a valuable asset in the post-Soviet world; it has attracted several Western investor companies. Kyrgyzstan has only limited amounts of coal and oil. The major energy resource is water power from the republic's fast-moving rivers. However, despite a government program of increased emphasis on hydroelectric power, Kyrgyzstan must import a large proportion of its energy supply. Kyrgyzstan's industry, which had been specialized to serve the Soviet military-industrial complex, suffered heavily when that demand disappeared; conversion has proven very difficult. [Source: Glenn E. Curtis, Library of Congress, March 1996 *]
After independence, Kyrgyzstan suffered one of the worst economic declines among the CIS states (particularly in industrial output), despite a reform program that was deployed more rapidly than most others. Statistically, privatization was very effective, but because meaningful economic change did not occur after privatization, inefficient state enterprises continued to drag down the economy. Government and commercial corruption also diluted the effects of economic reform. *
In the mid-1990s, official measurements of Kyrgyzstan's economic performance were very negative; they were, however, not completely accurate. By 1996 an estimated 30 percent of real GDP came from the "black economy"--independent, unregistered entrepreneurs selling their wares on the street or in private shops--while state-owned enterprises continued to go bankrupt or failed to pay their employees. However, even official GDP bottomed out in 1995; it dropped 6.2 percent after slumping by 26 percent in the previous year. The Economist Intelligence Unit forecast GDP rises of 1 percent in 1996 and 2.5 percent in 1997, the latter spurred by the opening of the Canadian joint-venture gold mine at Kumtor. In 1995 the volume of industrial production dropped 12.5 percent, and consumer goods production dropped 25.4 percent, but agriculture improved by 38.8 percent. *
Other indicators are more positive, however. By early 1996, the inflation rate, which had reached 1,400 percent in 1993, was about 1 percent per month. The government's goal was to halve the end-of-1995 rate by the end of 1996. The exchange rate of the som (the Kyrgyzstan currency) remained stable in 1996 at eleven to US$1. The budget deficit remained high at about 12 percent of GDP, with foreign loans applied to make up the shortfall. *
Foreign investment remained very sparse in 1996. Many joint ventures with Turkey have failed, and the sale of Kyrgyzstani firms to foreign investors has provided embarrassingly little revenue for the government. International loans continue, but Kyrgyzstan already has fallen behind in repayments to Russia and Turkey. Repayment of pending international debts inevitably will raise the national debt. Debt and the failure of foreign investment have forced Kyrgyzstan to rely more heavily on Russia. The customs union that Kyrgystan joined with Belarus, Kazakstan, and Russia early in 1996 will add to Moscow's power over Kyrgyzstan's trade policy. *
Political Situation in Kyrgyzstan After Independence
Kyrgyzstan's parliament has resisted reform legislation that would modernize the tax code and privatization of large state enterprises in energy, telecommunications, mining, and aviation. According to a government estimate, as many as 70 percent of privatized enterprises were bankrupt in 1996 because, under existing economic conditions, they simply lacked customers. A limited capital market includes the Kyrgyzstan Stock Exchange, which opened in early 1995, and some independent brokerage houses, but because there is no legal framework or government regulation for capital exchange, cash transactions were few in 1996. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]
Although President Akayev began his regime with ideals of multiparty democracy, strong opposition stymied his reform programs and moved him gradually closer to the authoritarian positions of his four Central Asian colleagues. Power struggles between the legislative and executive branches of government promoted Akayev's expansion of executive power. In the mid-1990s, two elections--the first reelecting Akayev by a huge margin in December 1995 and the second giving 95 percent approval in a referendum on extending his power in February 1996--were approved by international observers as free and fair, although the opposition claimed otherwise. The referendum empowers the president to conduct domestic and foreign policy and to name and dismiss cabinet ministers and judges without consulting parliament. The parliament retains approval rights over the presidential appointment of the prime minister, Supreme Court judges, and other officials, but the president may dissolve parliament if it fails three times to approve a nominee. Akayev had argued that centralizing presidential power was necessary to speed economic, political, and legal reform and to reduce the influence of regional political centers. In March 1996, he exercised his new power by securing the resignation of the government, naming four new ministers, and redesignating the positions of five others. He also reorganized local government to reduce the power of provincial leaders and assign them direct responsibility for enactment of national reforms. *
In May 1996, a new government document described social conditions and listed goals for social programs in the ensuing years. Kyrgyzstan, which has made earnest efforts to maintain social support programs in the lean years of the 1990s, is emphasizing job creation and prevention of unemployment, reorganization of social insurance and pension systems, and reforms in education and health care. The official unemployment figure in mid-1996 was 76,600; about 60 percent of the unemployed received unemployment benefits. The government goal is to keep unemployment below 100,000 while mounting a new, long-term job creation program. In 1996 a proposal was made for a government-controlled social fund to run a uniform state insurance and pension system that would remove the severe inequities of Kyrgyzstan's current system. *
Meanwhile, nearly one-third of the population (1.257 million) are estimated to live below the poverty line, and the 14,000 refugees arriving annually from Tajikistan create additional social pressures. Kyrgyzstan became a preferred refugee destination when Kazakstan and Uzbekistan tightened their migration controls in 1993. *
Foreign Policy in Kyrgyzstan After Independence
In the 1990s, Kyrgyzstan's foreign policy has been shaped by the small country's reliance on Russia for national security. In 1996 President Akayev reiterated that Kyrgyzstan always would view Russia as a natural ally and partner. At the same time, Kyrgyzstan has appealed to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to replace the CIS force in Tajikistan and, in fact, to guarantee the security of the entire region--a position at odds with Russia's strong opposition to NATO influence anywhere in the former Warsaw Pact regions. However, in early 1997 Akayev backed Russia's opposition to NATO expansion in Europe. In 1996-97 Kyrgyzstan diversified its national security policy somewhat by participating in the Central Asian peacekeeping battalion under the aegis of the Central Asian Economic Union. [Source: Library of Congress, 1996 *]
Difficult relations with Central Asian neighbors increase the need for an outside source of security. Uzbekistan, which has a 13 percent minority population in western Kyrgyzstan, has flexed its muscles by shutting off fuel supplies. Kyrgyzstan depends heavily on the Kazakstani capital, Almaty, for air traffic in the absence of a first-class domestic airport. Unresolved border issues and a continuing flow of civil war refugees have inflamed relations with Tajikistan. Greatly expanded trade relations with China also have brought large numbers of Chinese merchants who threaten to stifle domestic commerce in some Kyrgyzstani cities. Kyrgyzstan has expressed the need to balance its policy between China and Russia, and has praised China for its relative restraint in exerting influence over Central Asia. *
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.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated April 2016