His destination was rumored to be either his home city of Osh, in the South, nearby Almaty, in Kazakhstan, or even Prague. These events act as a sharp warning to all the other dictatorial leaders in Central Asia and the CIS, who, faced with growing opposition, are stepping up repression. The British daily, The Financial Times, quoted exiled opposition leader, Edil Baisalov, “What we are seeing is a classic popular uprising. This is a revolution, and it is bloody.” Blaming government authoritarianism for the unrest he added: “This is what happens when you hold the lid on the cooking pot too tightly – it explodes” (FT Aril 8 2010).
President Bakayev came to power just 5 years ago as a result of the “Tulip revolution”, when the pro-capitalist opposition, resting on the huge discontent of the Kyrghiz masses over the results of neo-liberal policies, organized a mass protest movement to overthrow the then President Akiyev. (See ‘Mass protests clear out corrupt neo-liberals’, on socialistworld.net, 31/03/2005).
Commenting on the events at that time, the CWI said: “whilst the ‘power of the street’ is enough to topple governments, in itself it is not enough to establish an alternative government that will be capable of ending the corruption and poverty which grips this region. In Kyrghizia, all that has happened is that Akayev has been forced to flee whilst his former loyal lieutenants have returned to power”.
This prediction has been borne out. Bakayev soon fell out with his allies. Many of today’s opposition leaders were originally in his government.
Amongst the main complaints of the masses is the fact that corruption and family cronyism have grown even stronger under Bakayev. The country is now amongst the top 20 in the world for corruption. Bakayev excuses this with comments such as “It’s very difficult to tear oneself away from one’s roots and upbringing”. His brother, for example, is Head of the Security Police and his son is now Head of the Central Agency for Development, Investment and Innovation, which has recently taken control of the main shareholding in the ‘Kyrgyzalten’ gold mine – this company accounts for 40% of the country’s industrial production! Now a new amendment to the constitution has been passed which, in effect, makes the presidency a hereditary position.
Until Bakayev came to power, Kyrghizia had the reputation of being relatively democratic – surrounded by China, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Tadjikistan, it was not difficult to appear relatively free. But the truth is not so much that the neo-liberal regime that came to power after 1991 was not repressive, but that the state apparatus was too weak and divided to take effective measures. Since Bakayev’s victory, however, the state machine has steadily become more centralized, with the President taking on more dictatorial powers.
This is against the background of intense poverty for the masses. The average monthly wage is still around $30-50 and yet this year the government has announced a doubling of electricity prices and a 5-10 times increase in heating costs. Endemic poverty is the driving force behind the current protests.
The protests started in the northern city of Talas. In a return to feudal traditions, the president once a year holds a ‘Kurultaya’ – audiences with people to explain his policies and actions. This “dialogue with the people” takes the form of mass meetings in the central squares of cities throughout the country. This year, Bakayev was due to explain the need for the price hikes. He was even forced, by popular pressure, to agree to guarantee freedom of speech and to remove his brothers from their positions of power.
The opposition however decided to organize an alternative Kurultaya. During their meetings, they presented the government with an ultimatum: “The price increases should be annulled, Kyrghyzantel and the electricity company should be taken back into state ownership and the President’s relatives should be removed from their positions”. The release of all political prisoners was demanded. In addition to this we would add the need for a struggle for all democratic rights including: the right to form free independent trades union, the right to free assembly, a democratically controlled free press and the convening of a genuinely representative assembly of all the people including workers, young people, students, small traders and the rural masses.
Bakayev decided to meet the ultimatum with repression. On 6 April, Bolot Sherniyazov, leader of the opposition party ‘Ata Meken’ (Motherland) was arrested to prevent him attending another street meeting. The city exploded in revolt.
Thousands of protesters gathered around the police headquarters, demanding Bolot Sherniyazov’s release. The police quickly succumbed, claiming they had only wanted to interview him. But the masses appetite grew, they then marched on the Regional Governor’s office, demanding he “come over to the side of the people”. Addressing the crowds, the the Regional Governor’s failed to convince them of his position and a group charged police lines, breaking through to occupy the Governor’s building, and announcing that an alternative governor had been elected.
Bakayev and his supporters tried to pretend that everything was under control. They shut the telephone lines to the city, the mobile networks closed down and even the internet was badly affected. Nationally it was reported that the protest had been successfully put down using tear gas and rubber bullets.
However our correspondent from Bishkek tells a different story. He says that the demonstrators then fought the riot police and managed to occupy several government buildings. The City Council building was torched, as were several police cars. They occupied the local airport. By the evening of the 6 April, the city was paralysed by barricades, defended by youth holding Molotov cocktails. Incidentally, our correspondent points out, the riot police had been recently re-equipped with money from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe(OSCE) – the organization supposed to be the guarantor of democracy on the continent. “Special thanks to the OSCE for that!” he comments.
While these events were unfolding, the government announced that the alternative meetings scheduled to take place throughout the country on 7 April were illegal. Leaders of the ‘United People’s Movement’ (union of main opposition parties) were arrested – 7 key figures and dozens of activists were detained in Bishkek alone.
There should be no illusions about who these opposition leaders represent. A Atambaev, leader of the ‘Social Democratic Party’, was Bakayev’s Prime Minister until 2007. He gained notoriety during the crushing of a protest demonstration by riot police, claiming the protests were “sheep led into battle by a goat!” He is one of the richest people in Kazakhstan. The new Head of government is Roza Otunbayeva, Foreign Minister under Akayev, an ally of Bakiyev during the Tulip Revolution and the country’s most experienced ambassador. They talk about Bakiyev conducting an economic and social policy against the interests of the people, but, in reality, these opposition leaders are angry because, following the struggle for power that took place following the victory of the Tulip Revolution, they lost out.
But the attempt to repress the opposition protests in Talas, not only led to an uprising there, but it quickly spread to other cities. There are reports of government buildings being seized and torched in Naryn, Isykkul and Batken. Clashes between the riot police and protesters have reportedly left many people killed.
Protests quickly spread to Bishkek, the capital. In the absence of the opposition leaders, the protests were spontaneous, reflecting the anger of the population at the increase in housing costs, food costs, and the privatization of key industries. The mood was fuelled by the repressive measures of the government, which has shut down internet sites, the Stan TV internet portal (see recent report on Kazakhstan on socialistworld.net with reference to Stan TV and Stan TV video), and, of course, the ban on protests and the arrests of opposition leaders.
Excerpts from eyewitness reports from Bishkek demonstrate how events unfolded:
7 April 15.11
A thousands strong demonstration is approaching the Parliament building. People are so angry the riot police cannot stop them.
The Kyrghiz have broken through the cordon and have started to seize the armoured personnel carriers.
The main demand of the protesters is that Kurmanbek Bakiev should resign.
All the opposition leaders have been arrested – charged with organizing a state coup. .. The protest is practically spontaneous. Now they are trying to arrest the journalists. Kirill Stepanyuk, head of Stan TV, has just been taken. People are afraid the government will announce a national emergency. “First Akayev, now Bakayev – look around you, there’s no jobs. Now they’re shooting at us. They’ll pay for blood with blood,” comments one demonstrator.
7 April 16.10
There’s a real battle taking place in Bishkek. The people are disarming the riot police and taking the shields, truncheons and gas guns from the police. The riot police are refusing to shoot – coming out with their hands up. I can see that people are now taking over a couple of police cars, two dark green lorries – there’s a grenade launcher on top of one of them. There are people with Kalashnikovs in hand. The mobile networks have been closed down. There are tanks moving down the streets, they’re bringing in the heavy artillery. We’ve heard that demonstrators are piling in from other regions.
7 April 17.03
This is war! From the roof of the White House [Government Headquarters] snipers are firing live ammunition into the crowd. I can see four dead; their heads blown off. (Socialist Resistance Kazakhstan urgently calls on all trade unions, youth groups, parties and movements to protest at these brutal actions by Kurmanbek Bakiev). We have just heard that Kirill Stanyuk (Stan TV) has just been released by the Finance Police.
7 April 17.23
The demonstrators have just found one of the snipers. He was one the roof of the White House shooting into the demonstrators’ backs. He only just managed to escape. There’s a current calm.
The government cannot get a state of emergency situation declared – there’s no quorum. The opposition is still in prison. The people are organizing themselves. The demonstrators have seized the TV building – they have broken up the station and have now left.
From human rights activists we have heard that the situation throughout Kyrgyzstan (at 17.09) is as follows:
The governor of Issykulskii Region has resigned.
The TV centre has been seized – as the TV equipment has been broken, a radio appeal is currently being prepared.
The regional government buildings have been occupied in Talas, Naryn, Issykul, Bakten (4 out of 6 regions).
City government buildings have been seized in 5 cities, police headquarters in 3 towns.
The number of demonstrators in Bishkek is growing. There are many victims. According to the western press over 100 people were killed by the snipers. The authorities don’t understand that by killing people they are just making them more angry. Bakayev – stop shooting people!
The Kochkor-Bishkek highway has been blockaded.
In Talas, the crowds are demanding that the Chief of Police withdraw his order to use arms. He has been badly beaten.
7 April 19.57
Again the riot police have opened fire from the White House. There are many wounded. Killed.The demonstrators are moving on the White House. Nearby the crowd has attacked the Prosecutor’s Office. There are rumours (later shown to be unfounded) that the Interior Minister has been captured in Talas and beaten to death. Now the opposition has seized power in 3 regions (out of 6). An Emergency Situation has been declared and in those regions still controlled by Bakiyev, a curfew has been declared.
7 April 21.20
The situation is out of control. The Bakiyev regime is still trying to hold on to power by force. But now it is rumored that Bakiyev’s family is being evacuated and is now under the protection of the Americans at the Manus airbase [the US base at Bishkek’s airport is used by US for intervention in Afghanistan]. According to human rights groups, there are at least 56 dead in the city’s hospitals. But despite the shootings, the demonstrators are not giving up. On the contrary, people are trying to arm themselves – taking shields and truncheons from the police, some have weapons from the riot police. At the current time, the White House is under siege, the buildings of the Prosecutor, Security Police, and two pro-government TV stations have been occupied. Troops and armoured vehicles are out on the streets in the big cities. It’s clear the government intend to drown the uprising in blood. But in many areas, the police and troops have given up, gone over to the side of the demonstrators, taken off their uniforms, and joined the protests. Russian TV is carrying reports about the protesters being criminals and about pogroms. But the protesters are complaining that huge chunks of state property have been taken over by the President and his family. This revolution has many elements of social protest – the mass of protesters are demanding nationalization and for the country to change its economic course. Even if the bloody dictator Bakiyev attacks again, it is clear his regime does not have long left. And if the revolution is victorious, it will open the perspective of spreading to neighbouring countries.
8 April 01.47
It is clear from all the information we are receiving that the uprising has been victorious. The masses tonight stormed the headquarters of the security police and nearby prison. The leaders of the opposition arrested earlier were released. The White House has fallen and a “Government of People’s Confidence” has been formed. Former Parliament speaker, Omurbek Tekebaev, declared on TV that power is now fully in the hands of the people. A Central executive committee of 13 people has been formed lead by the “Chief Social Democrat” Rosa Otumbaeva.
Declaring that they will take full responsibility on themselves for the running of the country, Tekebaev declared that “people’s defense squads” will be formed to restore order on the streets. The latest information is that in some areas, looting of Chinese supermarkets and the homes and property of the Bakiyev family is taking place and that the defense squads are attempting to control the situation. The regimes in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have sent extra troops to close their borders. Presumably the Chinese regime will do the same.
The CWI in Kazakhstan and Russia comments (7 April 2010):
These events are a result of the current economic crisis and the despair the population feel at the results of the previous 2005 Tulip Revolution. According to press reports the new government has now announced the withdrawal of the price increases in electricity and heating charges as well as the re-nationalisation of the gold mining industry and strategic industries. In these conditions, mass protests are the best way of standing up for your rights. But without a socialist programme and organization, capable of defending these rights over the long term, such revolutionary events can result in just another “Colored Revolution”, in which the revolutionary energy of the masses is exploited by another section of the capitalist class in their own interests. Already the new government, using the same language as used in 2005, say the priority is to ‘restore order’. The same clique will come to power only without Bakiyev. They will use the events of the last two days to demonstrate the people’s anger and to let off steam.
The replacement of one president by another will change nothing. The system has to be changed. Capitalism has to be replaced by a democratically organized planned economy – only in that way can the economic crisis be overcome.
Therefore we call for the creation of a mass left wing party, with a clear programme and strategy against repression and for the freedom of speech and organization, against price rises and unemployment, for a massive programme of investment in housing and job creation, for the banking sector, goldmines and key sectors of the economy to be nationalized, under the democratic control and management of the working class. For this, it is necessary to organize a workers’ and poor people’s ‘kurultaya’ and the formation of a workers’ government, in which all layers of the working class are represented.