Into the Soviet Union
Following a brief period of independence after the 1917 Bolshevik
Revolution (see Glossary) toppled the empire, the territory of
present-day Kyrgyzstan was designated the Kara-Kyrghyz Autonomous
Region and a constituent part of the Union of Soviet Socialist
Republics (Soviet Union) in 1924. In 1926 the official name changed
to the Kyrgyz Autonomous Republic before the region achieved the
status of a full republic of the Soviet Union in 1936.
In the late 1980s, the Kyrgyz were jolted into a state of national
consciousness by the reforms of Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev
and by ethnic conflict much closer to home. As democratic activism
stirred in Kyrgyzstan's cities, events in Moscow pushed the republic
toward unavoidable independence.
The most important single event leading to independence grew
from an outburst of ethnic friction. From the perspective of the
Kyrgyz, the most acute nationality problem long had been posed
by the Uzbeks living in and around the city of Osh, in the republic's
southwest. Although Kyrgyzstan was only about 13 percent Uzbek
according to the 1989 census, almost the entire Uzbek population
was concentrated in Osh Province. Tensions very likely had existed
between the Kyrgyz and the Uzbeks throughout the Soviet period,
but Moscow was able to preserve the image of Soviet ethnic harmony
until the reforms of Gorbachev in the mid-1980s. In the general
atmosphere of glasnost (see Glossary), 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.
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.
Because the telephone lines remained open in the otherwise blockaded
city, news of the violence spread immediately to Frunze. 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.
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.
The Rise of Akayev
With none of the three presidential candidates able to gain the
necessary majority in the 1990 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.
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.
By mid-summer 1991, the Kyrgyz were beginning to make serious
moves to uncouple the government from the 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.
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. On August 30, 1991, days after the coup began, Akayev
and the republic's Supreme Soviet declared Kyrgyzstan an independent
nation, and the president 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.
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.
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--see Glossary), as the new union was to be called.
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.
Akayev's Early Years
Despite initial euphoria over the possibilities of independence
and membership in the CIS, Akayev recognized that his country's
economic position was extremely vulnerable and that the ethnic
situation exacerbated that vulnerability. Thus, the Akayev administration
devoted much attention to creating a legal basis of governance
while struggling to keep the economy afloat.
In the first two years of his presidency, Akayev seemed to work
effectively with the Supreme Soviet that had put him in office.
By 1992, however, Akayev's good relations with the legislature
had fallen victim to the rapidly declining economy, the failure
of the CIS to become a functioning body, and the country's inability
to attract substantial assistance or investment from any of the
potential foreign partners whom he had courted so assiduously.
In advancing his reform programs, Akayev experienced particular
difficulties in gaining the cooperation of entrenched local politicians
remaining from the communist government apparatus. To gain control
of local administration, Akayev imitated the 1992 strategy of
Russia's president Boris N. Yeltsin by appointing individuals
to leadership positions at the province, district, and city levels
(see Structure of Government, this ch.). Akayev filled about seventy
such positions, the occupants of which were supposed to combine
direct loyalty and responsibility to the president with a zeal
to improve conditions for their immediate locales. The system
became a source of constant scandal and embarrassment for Akayev,
however. The most flagrant abuses came in Jalal-Abad Province
(which had been split from neighboring Osh in spring 1991 to dilute
political power in the south), where the new akim, the
provincial governor, appointed members of his own family to the
majority of the positions under his control and used state funds
to acquire personal property. The situation in Jalal-Abad aroused
strong resentment and demonstrations that continued even after
the governor had been forced to resign.
In 1992 and 1993, the public perception grew that Akayev himself
had provided a model for the tendency of local leaders to put
family and clan interests above those of the nation. Indeed, several
prominent national government officials, including the head of
the internal security agency, the heads of the national bank and
the national radio administration, the minister of foreign affairs,
and the ambassador to Russia, came from Akayev's home area and
from Talas, the home district of his wife.
Akayev's loss of momentum was reflected in the debate over the
national constitution, a first draft of which was passed by the
Supreme Soviet in December 1992. Although draft versions had begun
to circulate as early as the summer of 1992, the commission itself
agreed on a definitive version only after prolonged debate. An
umbrella group of opposition figures from the DDK also began drawing
up constitutional proposals in 1992, two variations of which they
put forward for public consideration.
Although broad agreement existed on the outlines of the constitution,
several specific points were difficult to resolve. One concerned
the status of religion. Although it was agreed that the state
would be secular, there was strong pressure for some constitutional
recognition of the primacy of Islam. Another much-debated issue
was the role of the Russian language. Kyrgyz had been declared
the official state language, but non-Kyrgyz citizens exerted pressure
to have Russian assigned near-equal status, as was the case in
neighboring Kazakstan, where Russian had been declared the "official
language of interethnic communication." The issue of property
ownership was warmly debated, with strong sentiment expressed
against permitting land to be owned or sold. Another important
question was the role of the president within the new state structure.
The proposed constitution was supposed to be debated by the full
Supreme Soviet (as the new nation's parliament continued to call
itself after independence) and by a specially convened body of
prominent citizens before its acceptance as law. However, some
members of the democratic opposition argued that a special assembly
of Kyrgyz elders, called a kuraltai , should be convened
to consider the document. A final draft of the constitution was
passed by the Supreme Soviet in May 1993, apparently without involvement
of a kuraltai .
In drafting a final document, the Supreme Soviet addressed some
of the most controversial issues that had arisen in predraft discussions.
Specific passages dealt with transfer and ownership of property,
the role of religion in the government, the powers of the president,
and the official language of the country (see Constitution, this
Akayev had spoken of the need to have a presidential system of
government--and, indeed, the constitution sets the presidency
outside the three branches of government, to act as a sort of
overseer ensuring the smooth functioning of all three. However,
by the mid-1990s dissatisfaction with the strong presidential
model of government and with the president himself was growing.
With economic resources diminished, political infighting became
commonplace. Although the prime minister and others received blame
for controversial or unsuccessful policy initiatives, President
Akayev nonetheless found himself increasingly isolated politically
amid growing opposition forces.
Although the "democratic" opposition that had helped bring Akayev
to power had grown disenchanted, its constituent factions were
unable to exert serious pressure on the president because they
could not agree on ideology or strategy. In October 1992, the
main democratic opposition party Erk (Freedom) fractured into
two new parties, Erkin and Ata-Meken (Fatherland). More serious
opposition originated within the ranks of the former communist
elite. Some of this opposition came directly from the ranks of
the reconstituted and still legal CPK (see Political Parties,
In January 1993, Akayev made an unusually harsh statement to
the effect that he had been misled by his economic advisers and
that Kyrgyzstan's overtures to the outside world had only raised
false hopes. The continuing outflow of ethnic Russians (who constitute
the greater part of Kyrgyzstan's technicians), the war in Tajikistan
(which has driven refugees and "freedom fighters" into Kyrgyzstan),
the growing evidence of wide-scale official corruption and incompetence,
rising crime, and--more than anything else--the spectacular collapse
of the economy increasingly charged the country's political atmosphere
in the first half of the 1990s.
Data as of March 1996