Kyrgyzstan: President’s palace stormed by opposition

‘Tulip revolution’ declares government overthrown

The presidential palace in Kyrgyzstan was stormed by opposition forces today Thursday 24 March, forcing President Askar Akayev to flee, according to press reports. The protesters also seized the state TV station and declared that Akayev’s government had fallen.

The BBC reports the demonstration in the capital, Bishkek, quickly grew from a few hundred people to ten thousand. Protesters occupied the White House presidential buildings, as police melted away. This followed earlier street battles between pro-government forces, dressed in civilian clothing with blue armbands, and opposition protesters. Street fighters used sticks and stones and gunshots were heard.

The day’s dramatic events come after unrest in the south of Kyrgyzstan. Protests began after disputed parliamentary elections in February, and a second round of elections on 13 March, which saw Akayev’s allies win all but six of the parliament’s seventy five seats. With the election of two of Akayev’s children to parliament, opposition forces said they feared this marked an attempt to create a ruling dynasty, as is attempted in other Central Asia regimes.

As well as widespread anger over the recent rigged elections, many Kyrgyz people are angry at the terrible poverty they have to endure. Gross National Product per capita, in a country of five million people, stands at just US $330 (World Bank, 2003). On top of this, the Akayev regime is notoriously corrupt. Many factories are closed, joblessness has soared and malnutrition is widespread, particularly in the south of the country. This is the region of Kyrgyzstan where the so-called ‘Tulip revolution’ began. Last week, protesters claimed to have gained control of the second city, Osh, and created a “people’s government”.

The authoritarian Akayev regime is responsible for previous rigged elections and for harassment, imprisonment of opposition figures and for shutting down newspapers. Kyrgyzstan, a small, mountainous and largely rural country, became independent after the collapse of the Stalinist Soviet Union in 1991. More than a decade later, the majority of people live in great poverty and the country is highly unstable.

Large-scale protests against Akayev’s rule began in 2002, in opposition to a government deal that agreed to give territory to neighbouring China, and also against the jailing of an MP, Azimbek Beknazarov, and Feliks Kulov, an opposition leader. Five protesters were shot dead in the south, leading to the fall of the government.

President Akayev was a former Stalinist apparatchik in the Communist Party, who jumped over to capitalist counter revolution and became President in 1990. He was re-elected shortly after independence in 1991 and again in 1995. He promised to create a democratic state and to develop the economy but has failed abysmally on both counts.

For years, Akayev was regarded as the most “liberal” leader in former Soviet Central Asia by Western governments and the media. No doubt this accolade was won by Akayev’s generally pro-Western, pro-imperialist approach.

President Akayev has attempted to play to both the US capitalist super power and Russia, its giant neighbour. Following 9/11, US forces were allowed to use Bishek’s Manas airport base. Akayev supported Bush’s so called “war on terror” and was applauded by US for his hard-line action against “Islamic extremism”. This gave Akayev the pretext to increase his grip on power. In September 2003, the Kyrgyz government agreed to allow Russian military forces to deploy at Kant airbase, just 30 miles from US troops.

But Akayev was unable to contain the mounting anger of Kyrgyz people amid worsening economic problems, deepening corruption, and his government’s repression of the media and the opposition. Opposition candidates were barred from standing in this year’s parliamentary elections, giving rise to protests that have rapidly spread and lead to Akayev’s apparent downfall.

As an indication of his weakness and lack of a social base on which to rule any longer, Akayev took a cautious line on protests over the last few days. He claimed the protests were an attempt to have a coup d’etat and he refused to annul the election results but Akayev also ruled out imposing a state of emergency to regain control of the south, where the cities of Osh and Jalal-Abad were under opposition control.

Akayev’s remaining support seems simply to have vanished over the last days and the police appear to have melted away or gone over to the side of the protesters.

Who is behind the ‘Tulip revolution’?

The Western press is generally mystified over the character of the recent opposition movement to Akayev. The ‘Tulip revolution’ does not have the strong pro-western (pro-western capitalist and pro-US imperialist) slant as recent popular movements in two other former Soviet states, Georgia and Ukraine. The press complains that no “single leader” for the Kyrgyz opposition has yet emerged and the opposition is not organised or disciplined as the opposition during Ukraine’s ‘Orange Revolution’.

Akayev accused Washington of orchestrating opposition protests and complained about the US ambassador saying he is unable to see a difference between the Akayev regime and other regimes in Central Asia.

But it is clear that the ‘Tulip revolution’ – despite its ‘leaders’, many of whom are members of Kyrgyzstan’s ‘political class’ that have fallen out with President Akayev – is fuelled by working people’s outrage over the impoverished conditions Kyrgyz people suffer.

However, working people do not have mass independent working class organisations to lead their struggle beyond overthrowing the corrupt and brutal Akayev regime. To go forward, workers need to create a government genuinely representing the urban and rural workers and the poor.

It is reported that the protest movement is lead by opposition politicians who were barred from standing in recent elections and also by former government ministers, including former Foreign Minister Roza Otunbayeva and the former Vice President, Security Minister and Bishek mayor, Felix Kulov. These people are no friends of the Kyrgyz workers. They are pro-capitalist and pro-imperialist. They represent sections of the capitalist clans in conflict with the clans and ruling elite around Akayev. They will aim to establish a new government that gives them more power and influence at the expense of working people, who will continue to be exploited and to live in poverty for as long they live under capitalism.

The ‘democratic credentials’ of the various opposition leaders are wafer thin. Roza Otunbayeva is a former ally of President Akayev, who only became critical of the tyrant after he dismissed her from office. Another prominent opposition leader, Kurmanbek Bakiev, head of the People’s Movement of Kyrgyzstan, led recent Bishek protests. But he previously served as a prime minister until two years ago, and was forced to resign after the police shooting of protesters in the southern district of Aksy.

Ethnic divisions

Under the rule of these mafia-style capitalist politicians, ethnic divisions in Kyrgystan can grow. Different politicians will reflect different clan and ethnic based capitalist interests. In doing so, they will stoke up ethnic differences and indulge in the old ruling class tactic of divide and rule.

Tensions exist between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks over access to land and housing, and inter-ethnic relations are exacerbated by what is seen as official discrimination in favour of Kyrgyz speakers. The country is potentially a multi-ethnic time-bomb, made up of Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Russians, Ukrainians and Germans, alongside smaller populations of Uighur, Dungan (Chinese Muslims) and Koreans.

Bloody clashes between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks took place in Osh in 1990 and the tensions remain, with reports of local sporadic clashes over the last decade. Many ethnic Uzbeks say they continue to face ongoing discrimination, and one of their main demands, for the Uzbek language to be made official, was denied by Akayev.

Indicating how ethnic problems badly affected the country’s economy, Akayev was forced to make Russian an official language to try to stop the flow of Russian workers leaving the impoverished country.

Kyrgyzstan’s ethnic problems are also important in the region. The country is close to Afghanistan, an area with long-running ethnic conflicts and which is one of the world’s main drugs running routes. Kyrgyzstan shares the Fergana Valley with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, the most densely populated and poorest part of Central Asia, which is also known as a “hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism in the region”, according to Dovlat Qudrat of the BBC’s Central Asia Service.

Historically, the Kyrgyz are regarded as ‘moderate’ Muslims and ethnic Kyrgyz in Afghanistan were oppressed by the former Taliban regime. But if a workers’ party does not fill the vacuum political Islam can make headway across Central Asia, setting ethnic groups against each other.

So far, it is reported that ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, who have clashed in the past in the region, are “jointly participating in the protests” including in Osh and Jalal-Abad. But only workers’ organisations, including independent unions and a mass socialist party, can unite all the country’s ethnic groups under the banner of workers’ unity in opposition to the bigots, the rich clans, and the system of capitalism. This means a workers’ movement must oppose all discrimination and repression of ethnic groups and other minorities.

At first, the US and other western powers appeared cautious over the protest movements, but now that Akayev’s rule appears over for good, the imperialist powers are rushing to gain influence with any potential new government. The Bush Administration wants to ensure a pro-US and pro-market regime comes to power in Kyrgystan.

No doubt, Bush will claim that events in Kyrgyz show the US-sponsored “democratic wave” is spreading across the region and is a vindication of the White House’s foreign policies.

The US supported last year’s ‘Orange Revolution’ in Ukraine, just as it previously backed the ‘Rose Revolution’, in Georgia, and the popular revolt against the brutal Serb regime of Slobodan Milosevic.

But the “democratic revolution”, in the hands of imperialist powers, is a tool to force “regime change” that furthers the interests of the ruling class. In doing so, the imperialist powers and local ruling classes cynically manipulate genuine pro-democratic moods. The only ‘democracy’ the US wants is where the main parties support capitalism and imperialism.

The mass movements in Georgia and Ukraine against autocratic rule and poverty were misled by right wing forces. The US financed and organised much of the opposition, to make way for pliable, pro-US governments in a region rich with natural resources and vital militarily and strategically.

When in power, the pro-US, neo-liberal regimes soon show they do not represent the interests of working people. In Serbia, Georgia, and Ukraine, the new governments are far from Western-style liberal democracies and their economic and social policies cause more hardships. The masses will have to struggle again to keep and to extend democratic rights.

Socialists have always fought for democratic rights, including the right to assembly, to form unions, to strike, and to vote. It was mass workers’ struggles, or the threat of them, that forced the ruling class to give democratic reforms. With basic democratic rights, workers can organise and agitate in much better conditions than under a dictatorship, strengthening the fight against capitalist policies and the capitalist system. Today, under pretext of the “war on terror”, many of these rights are under attack in Western countries.

Workers and the poor in Kyrgystan will not win decent living standards and permanent democratic rights on the basis of capitalism, no matter which section of the rich clans are in power. In conditions of poverty and joblessness, and consequent unrest and social conflict, new pro-market regimes will attack democratic rights and become more authoritarian, to stay in power and to protect the interests of rich, just as Akayev did previously.

Just as workers in Kyrgyzstan must reject the influence of US imperialism, it is also in their class interests to reject the meddling of Russian imperialism. Russian Foreign Minister, Mikhail Fradkov “urged calm” after protesters occupied the presidential palace, saying: “We wouldn’t like to see force prevail as a method of resolving conflict” (clearly not referring to Russian army involvement in Chechnya!).

Earlier this week, right wing Russian nationalists called on Russian President, Vladimir Putin, to “intervene” to support Akayev.

Just as with the ‘Rose Revolution’ in Georgia and the ‘Orange Revolution’ in Ukraine, the Russia and the US back different politicians and sections of the rich, as part of a fierce struggle in many parts of the former Soviet Union for control over natural resources and for strategic and military dominance.

Working people in Kyrgyzstan and everywhere can only rely on their own strength, and the solidarity of the international working class, to bring down dictatorships and to win democratic rights. A struggle for democratic rights needs to be linked to a struggle for far-reaching social and economic change – for socialism – if all rights are to be permanent and living standards drastically improved.

In Kyrgystan this means creating mass workers’ organisations with a socialist programme that will struggle for a workers’ government, overthrow capitalism, and take the economy into the hands of working people, under democratic control. A socialist government in Kyrgystan would appeal to the working people of Central Asia and Russia to come to their aid and to overthrow their own regimes. A socialist confederation of states in the region, on a voluntary and equal basis, would transform living standards and lay the basis for ending ethnic divisions.

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March 2005