How the Uprising Happened
Kyrgyzstan—a tiny landlocked nation between China and Uzbekistan—burst onto the world stage Wednesday, as civil unrest toppled the president. Kumar Bekbolotov reports from Bishkek on the roots of the uprising—and how the West can help.
A crowd began to gather around an old bus stop in an industrial area near downtown Bishkek. Several speakers stepped up, rousing the group of 500 with impromptu remarks about the events unfolding in Talas, a a northern region of Kyrgyzstan, where protesters had stormed a local government building and declared popular rule. As the crowd grew excited, the riot police circled the buses—wielding batons, shields, and, in some cases, angry dogs. Without warning, they moved on the crowd in a neat rectangular-shaped formation, rounding them up and pushing them toward the buses.
Click Below to View Pictures from the Day of Protest
It seemed like a routine police operation. But this was no ordinary day. Suddenly, a large group of young protesters, screaming and shouting, tore through the police ranks, raced across the street, grabbed rocks, and attacked. Several policemen lost their batons and helmets in the ensuing melee. By day’s end, the fracas had drawn crowds of 10,000-15,000, claimed the lives of scores of protesters, toppled a president—and altered a country’s destiny.
As the dust settles following Wednesday’s uprising, and an interim government takes power, the Kyrgyz people face a new reality—challenges they have not faced in the 20 TK years since Kyrgyzstan gained its independence. The civil unrest which upended the authoritarian regime of President Kumbanek Bakiyev was precipitated years of corruption, media crackdowns, infringements on the freedom to assemble, and the persecution of opposition leaders. For far too long, economic power has been concentrated in the hands of the ruling elite, anchored by the presidential family. Spikes in the costs of electricity and heating oil proved the final straw, outraging the country’s rural population and sparking the riots.
The courage of protesters, who stormed government buildings despite considerable risk and battlefield conditions, proved just how deeply their hatred of the government ran. It also opened a new dark chapter of Kyrgyz history—one in which armed insurrection can overturn governments, a development even the fiercest critics of Bakiev’s government could not have seen coming.
Dictators in the region are now on notice: people power cannot be contained, even by bullets.
The ripple effects of the uprising will be felt throughout Central Asia. Dictators in the region are now on notice: people power cannot be contained, even by bullets. Media in neighboring countries, which have largely ignored events inside Kyrgyzstan, took notice; the cheers from all over the region—even Russia—were notable.
The West may be puzzled by what has happened here—being largely unfamiliar with the country, other than the U.S. military’s base, which is of strategic importance to the war in Afghanistan. But for locals, it is a new chapter, bathed in the bloodshed of brother against brother. And they reserve some blame for the curious Westerners—whom, they believe, contributed to the authoritarian nature of the regime by militarizing the country. The Kyrgyz people need the West to step in at this decisive hour, and help the country avoid descending into all-out civil war.
Kumar Bekbolotov has served as executive director of Soros Foundation-Kyrgyzstan, part of the Open Society foundations, since 2008. Previously he was at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, as Central Asia program director, Kyrgyzstan country director, and executive editor of a Central Asia news agency project. Kumar received his BA in comparative politics from the American University-Central Asia in Bishkek, and in 2004 was awarded a master's degree in political science from the Central European University in Budapest.