Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kyrgyzstan Recalls the Day Justice Triumphed

Whether you view March 24 as a positive turning point or a national tragedy very much depends which side of the protest lines you were on at the time.
By Leila Saralaeva
Public holidays are supposed to bring nations together, but the forthcoming anniversary of last year’s revolution which brought the present government to power in Kyrgyzstan is proving as divisive as the momentous day itself.



President Kurmanbek Bakiev’s decision to make March 24 into a public holiday has only emphasised the faultlines that are already apparent in society.



Many participants in the months of protests that culminated in the storming of the main government building in Bishkek see the celebrations as a validation of their contribution. Supporters of former president Askar Akaev, who was ousted and fled the country almost immediately, predictably view the event as a national tragedy.



But there are others who say the hopes that fed the national rebellion have been betrayed, so that it is hypocritical to celebrate a revolution that led to little real change.



In a decree dated March 6 announcing the holiday, President Bakiev said it would “immortalise the historic importance of the Kyrgyz people’s victory”, and would also serve as “a tribute of profound respect to everyone who fought against the authoritarian regime over [many] years”.



On March 24 last year, the decree says, the people of Kyrgyzstan defeated “an authoritarian, anti-national and corrupt regime which for many years ran the country for personal goals, in the interests of a narrow circle of people”.



“It will be celebrated as the day that justice triumphed,” said Bakiev’s decree.



People’s Revolution Day, as the date is being called, was welcomed by former revolutionaries now in government.



“For Kyrgyzstan citizens, March 24 is the day they vented all their anger and discontent with Akaev’s regime,” said Prime Minister Felix Kulov, a former opposition leader who was freed from prison to become one of the leaders of the revolution. “Our people viewed these events as a true popular revolution.”



Usen Sydykov, the head of the presidential administration, stressed the grassroots feeling that led to the “tulip revolution”. “The people got sick of the family and clan leadership of the country over these 15 years. So they rose up by themselves…. It was their last hope, that their lives might somehow improve through a change of regime,” he said.



Akaev, who is still in exile in Russia, naturally disagrees with such views, and still insists the revolt was “unlawful” and “anti-constitutional”.



In a message to his former subjects, he said, “It will forever remain a sad day in Kyrgyzstan’s historical memory.”



Others play up the rioting and looting which was especially prevalent on the first night after Akaev was ousted.



“If we celebrate days when our people grew fearful of looters, when thousands of people were suddenly deprived of their means of subsistence, and which brought looting, robbery and beatings, then I do not understand the meaning of the word holiday,” said Bolot Januzakov, who was chief of Akaev’s administration at the time.



Traders who lost property in the looting have formed a pressure group which has been lobbying against the proclamation of Revolution Day, which they described in a recent statement as an “insult” to them.



They claim that over 1,300 businesses were damaged overnight on March 24-25 last year, resulting in losses of at least one billion som, around 24 million US dollars, and they allege that the government has reneged on promises to recompense them.



But perhaps the most telling reaction to the forthcoming holiday comes from once enthusiastic revolutionaries who feel the force of change is already spent.



Anvar Artykov was a leading protest organiser in Osh, in the Kyrgyz south which formed the heartland of the protests as they coalesced from localised demonstrations over election results into a nationwide anti-Akaev movement.



Appointed governor of Osh region by the incoming administration, Artykov found himself sacked by his erstwhile ally Bakiev in December. Clearly smarting at this, he said in January, “Bakiev is bringing back the people who served the previous regime, and dealing with the revolutionaries one by one.”



Looking ahead to March 24, he now says, “People have mixed feelings about this date. “I myself stood at the roots of the revolution in Osh and can say with complete certainty that the events of March 24 were brought about by nationwide anger.



“But our task was to depose not Akaev but his regime. Unfortunately, this did not happen. One year on, we can see that there are people in power who were against the revolution and who had surrounded Akaev for all those years. In other words, the revolutionary agenda was exploited by other forces who turned it into a coup.”



Almazbek Atambaev, another prominent revolutionary who is now minister of industry, trade and tourism, is not disillusioned like Artykov, but he still argues that the commemoration should serve as a warning to the government not to lose momentum and to remember who brought it to power.



“Starting from this day, the regime truly realised that the people need to be taken into account, while the people realised that they could decide their own destiny and that of the country,” said Atambaev. “We must celebrate this day so that the new regime does not get spoiled and so that it remembers that history may repeat itself.”



Some shop owners in Bishkek are planning to stay closed on March 24 less as a mark of respect than out of fear of unrest.



But President Bakiev has warned, “We will not permit any disturbances on this day. If anyone still tries to ruin the holiday, measures will be taken against them under the law and they will face charges.”



Leila Saralaeva is an IWPR contributor in Bishkek.