AS IF WE need further proof that a president’s smirk can drive his subjects nuts, protesters in Kyrgyzstan stormed the compound of strongman Askar Akayev early today in Bishkek, the beautiful Central Asian country’s capital city.
They not only seized the White House. They also pelted the country’s defense minister with rocks and led him out of the building.
The grinning visage of Akayev was nowhere to be found, so protesters trashed the building and threw portraits of him out of the windows. As the AP’s Steve Gutterman reported, via the Guardian (U.K.):
Two protesters waved a flag from a top-floor window in the building, and others looked out of other windows as cheers erupted from demonstrators. Some furniture was cast out of windows of the seven-story structure.
“I am very happy because for 15 years we’ve been seeing the same ugly face that has been shamelessly smiling at us. We could no longer tolerate this. We want changes,” said Abdikasim Kamalov, 35, proudly holding a red Kyrgyz flag.
The storming of the compound was the culmination of the first major rally in the Kyrgyz capital since opposition supporters seized control of key cities and towns in the south to underline their demands that Akayev step down amid allegations of fraud in this year’s parliamentary vote.
Akayev reportedly offered to resign, according to reporters on the ground for the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, which added:
At 5 p.m. local time, the state-run Kyrgyz National Television announced it would from now on provide broadcast time to all political forces and promised that there would be no censorship. The broadcaster has been criticised for one-sided coverage of the recent disturbances.
This new turmoil, which has creepy ramifications for all of Central Asia, was predicted last summer by the shrewd observers of the International Crisis Group. In its August 2004 report Political Transition in Kyrgyzstan: Problems and Prospects, the ICG said:
If Akayev tries to retain power, directly or indirectly, in fraudulent elections, 2005 will mark the end of Central Asia’s democratic experiments.
If he leaves office and allows fair competition, it will be historic for Kyrgyzstan and the region. Kyrgyz political life is relatively sophisticated: both the public and much of the elite, would object to moves to undermine the democratic process. Anything less than peaceful, democratic transfer of power would severely damage Kyrgyzstan’s ties with international financial institutions.
Unlike the current generation of protesters in the U.S., the Kyrgyz small-D democrats did not apply for a government permit before gathering in a group of about 5,000 and marching down Bishkek’s main drag and then veering off toward Akayev’s HQ and invading it.
The mountainous, landlocked country (about the size of South Dakota) has plenty of meadows and green valleys, but little oil. Nevertheless, the U.S. courted Akayev so it could take over former Soviet bases as a staging area during the now-aborted hunt for Osama bin Laden in nearby Afghanistan.
The main U.S. fortress, at Manas, is now named Ganci Air Base, after Peter J. Ganci Jr., a chief in the New York City Fire Department who died during 9/11.
The country was pretty rowdy even before. Akayev is one of those old Soviet-era holdovers, ruling a country that has a core of Orthodox Muslims chafing under his secular regime—Russians are only 12.5 percent of the population of 5 million, but Russian is a co-official language. The fertile Fergana Valley, which runs through several Central Asian countries, cuts through the southwestern part of Kyrgyzstan, but Bishkek, in the far north, has different fertility rites: a booming sex trade. Eurasianet’s Abdan Shukeev filed this report in January:
The sex trade is booming in Bishkek, and authorities are struggling to respond. Prostitution is not a crime in Kyrgyzstan, and with no legal measures in place to regulate the industry, overburdened Bishkek police are proposing to either legalize prostitution or, alternatively, outlaw it once and for all.
The story added that Bishkek, where sex-ed textbooks were withdrawn in 2003 as immoral, may have as many as 7,000 hookers, in addition to 169 saunas, 177 hotels, and more than 1,000 “private apartments with sexual services.” It turns out that some of Kyrgyzstan’s cops are also pimps.
What a riot! Of course, murders and assaults of sex workers are on the rise. There’s talk of licensing prostitutes, what’s called “legalization” in Kyrgyz parlance, but the Eurasianet story notes:
Some prostitutes argue that legalization, in fact, will only allow police and public officials to make use of their services for free. “The state is unlikely to evaluate our work at our worth,” said one procurer who gave her name as Jyldyz-eje. “They can’t even provide war veterans with decent pensions, and what about us? They’d better catch real criminals and leave us alone.”
Meanwhile, the rebellion against Akayev appears leaderless, and anarchy is feared. As the AP story says:
Unlike the revolutions in Ukraine, and in Georgia in 2003, the Kyrgyz uprising does not have a central figure at its head. That raises the likelihood of a jockeying for power if Akayev were to step down.
“I am concerned that for the next two months, or maybe even for a year, there will be chaos,” said Iskander Sharshiyev, leader of the opposition Youth Movement of Kyrgyzstan.
But that’s better than putting up with a smirking, arrogant president. Read this passage from a recent official document and tell me what country it’s talking out:
The Government’s human rights record remained poor; although there were improvements in several areas, problems remained.
Citizens’ right to change their government remained limited and democratic institutions remained fragile.
Members of the security forces at times beat or otherwise mistreated persons, and prison conditions remained poor.
Impunity remained a problem, although the Government took steps to address it during the year.
There were cases of arbitrary arrest or detention.
Executive branch domination of the judiciary as well as corruption limited citizens’ right to due process.
The Government occasionally restricted freedom of speech and of the press, and individuals and companies close to the Government used financial means to control numerous media outlets.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 24, 2005