The mountainous country of Kyrgyzstan got a jump on the Arab world when its people overthrew their tyrannical leader one year ago today.
If you know the Kyrgyz, you know that patience is not one of their leading virtues. Perhaps that is why the Kyrgyz forced their despotic president, Kurmanbek Bakiev, to scurry out of Bishkek after just one day of hard-core protesting and rabble rousing (hang tough Yemeni and Libyan opposition activists!).
To realize the full significance of Kyrgyzstan’s 2010 April Revolution, it is important to remember what the country was like one year and one day ago, on the eve of the uprising.
Kyrgyzstan then was under the repressive, authoritarian rule of Bakiev and his family — specifically, his power-hungry son Maksim and a host of the president’s brothers and other relatives. Together, they redefined the term nepotism.
Bakiev’s Ak-Jol (Bright Path) political party dominated the government and parliament (71 of the 90 seats after 2007’s rigged elections).
Bakiev and his family controlled much of the country’s economy and many of its largest companies. If you owned a successful firm, there was a good chance someone would soon come knocking on your door to get a piece of it or even take it from you.
Kurmanbek Bakiev soon repeated the sins of his predecessor as president.Bakiev even created for son Maksim something called the Agency for Investment and Economic Development — an omnipotent entity that handled all foreign investment and loans as well as the country’s state pension funds.
Bakiev’s heavy-handed style meant that security forces were sent swiftly to crush all public protests and to arrest and prosecute opposition leaders. The Bakiev family did not tolerate dissent, and “disloyal” former officials were jailed on trumped-up charges — as former Foreign Minister Alikbek Jekshenkulov was after he joined the opposition.
Bakiev’s chief of staff, Medet Sadyrkulov, who later split with the president, was not fortunate enough to go to jail. He was instead found incinerated in a car on a mountain road in March 2009, although officials claimed it was a routine car accident.
Silencing Critics In Media, Politics
Bakiev, of course, also had a firm grip on the media. Independent newspapers and broadcasters were either co-opted, persecuted, or shut down (which was the fate of the highly popular “De facto”). Three newspapers were closed just in Bakiev’s last month in office.
Likewise, RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service broadcasts were taken off state frequencies and forced to go on tiny regional frequencies, making it difficult to reach its audiences.
Many nonstate journalists were harassed, beaten, and had threats made against their families. Several of the country’s best writers and reporters fled Kyrgyzstan and received political asylum in various European countries. Three journalists were killed during Bakiev’s five-year reign, including Gennady Pavlyuk, who was thrown with his arms and legs bound from a high-rise building in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
Maksim Bakiev was appointed to head an all-powerful economic agency.In addition, six parliament deputies were slain during the Bakiev era, when there was a fusion of politicians and organized criminal groups.
Bakiev and his family also dominated Kyrgyzstan’s foreign policy. Father and son Bakiev’s ham-fisted management of external relations eventually played a key role in the regime’s downfall.
In five years, Bakiev created a society not nearly as terrifying and hopeless as those found in Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan, but something approaching Nazarbaevism in Kazakhstan and the lunacy often found in Tajikistan.
Worst of all, he had certainly set a level of tyranny and intolerance akin to that found in the latter years of his predecessor, Askar Akaev, the leader who once promised to make Kyrgyzstan “the Switzerland of Central Asia” but was ousted in 2005 for corruption, nepotism, repression, and the curtailing of freedoms — all problems that also led to Bakiev’s downfall.
And then suddenly, with a chant of “Today or never!” breaking out one year ago today, thousands of brave protesters and curious office workers in Bishkek and several other towns and cities rose up to demand that Bakiev and his kin leave power.
The more than 80 people who were killed — most by snipers’ bullets — while pushing Bakiev from the capital on April 7 are considered national heroes and were buried at the country’s sacred Ata Beyit memorial at the foot of the mountains outside Bishkek.
Fast forward to today.
Kyrgyz President Roza Otunbaeva — Central Asia’s first female president — has kept the country steady over the past year despite the horrific ethnic killings in Osh and Jalal-Abad and a host of other problems.
Roza Otunbaeva became Central Asia’s first female president.Defying predictions of her government’s imminent collapse, Otunbaeva still faces many perils: the dangerous tensions between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz, a near penniless treasury, high unemployment, a serious north-south divide, an Islamic militant threat from Tajikistan, and the gravitational tensions of Moscow and Washington.
Otunbaeva is also fulfilling the promise she made upon taking power last year to not run for president in the election due this year and to voluntarily give up power — another historical precedent in Central Asia that one can only hope will be repeated by her successor.
The new Kyrgyz government is run by a three-party coalition led by Almazbek Atambaev, who was in a Bakiev jail one year ago but now heads the first parliamentary democracy in Central Asia.
In parliament, where fluid debate (and the occasional punch) prevails, there are five almost equal parties in place of Bakiev’s legion of Bright Path disciples.
The constitution — which Bakiev had rejiggered to maximize his power — was rewritten by committees made up largely of rights activists and NGO representatives before it was put to a national referendum and overwhelmingly approved by voters in July.
The Return Of Civil Society
Corruption and criminality are also being confronted. Deputy Interior Minister Melis Turganbaev has said 56 members of organized crime gangs have been arrested since January.
Civil society is flourishing. With more than 15,000 NGOs registered in Kyrgyzstan, some people joke there are more NGOs in the country than jobs.
A robust media landscape is being revived and journalists and other political refugees continue to return.
Protests of all shapes and sizes are taking place unimpeded again, and Kyrgyzstan can boast of allowing broad religious freedom, something not found in any of its neighbors.
But Kyrgyzstan’s level of democratic institutions and basic freedoms has long since surpassed “the neighbors.”
In fact, among the (non-Baltic) former Soviet republics, Kyrgyzstan has put itself in a league with Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova.
Though still not Akaev’s dream Switzerland, Kyrgyzstan has undertaken changes in the past year that are a huge leap forward for a country sandwiched between the freedom- and democracy-impaired countries of China and Uzbekistan.
Pete Baumgartner is an editor at RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL