The Land of Perpetual Revolution
What's really happening in Kyrgyzstan.
Sometime in the seventh or eighth century — the exact dates are obscure in the foggy confluence of history and myth — a warrior named Manas united the Kyrgyz tribes in a rebellion against China. The Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan hasn’t been the same ever since.
The endless battles, embroidered with monsters, magic, and, of course, fair maidens, are chronicled in the heroic epic, Manas. Part history, part foundation myth, part rumination on good and evil, part national liberation tract, the epic defines Kyrgyzstan in a way that no single work of literature dominates the collective psyche of any other country.
Befitting its stature, the epic is long, about 500,000 lines of verse. Kyrgyz students are taught that Manas is longer than other famously voluminous historical epics like Greece’s Iliad and Odyssey and India’s Mahabharata. For centuries, Manas wasn’t written down, existing only in the oral recitations performed by traditional bards. Wearing tall felt hats, these Manaschi speak the lines in a singsong rapping style, and the best are reputed to have committed the whole thing to memory. The bards often trace the origins of their talent to mystical dreams in which Manas himself or his associates offered encouragement.
In one scene, Manas exhorts his followers to reclaim lands that once belonged to their ancestors but are now in the hands of the Chinese, called the Kitai in the poem. He tells his people not to be intimidated by the stronger enemy, and not to fear death — "There’s birth, and there’s death," he says.
Trusting in their numbers alone,
How those Kitais make others groan!
You have seen this with your own eyes.
Free your feet from fetters, and rise!
Although the epic is more than a thousand years old, Manas weaves a web of immediacy over Kyrgyzstan, whose recent history has seen a staggering amount of popular rising. Twice in the space of the last five years, Kyrgyz protesters have overthrown their government by marching, seemingly oblivious to rocks and bullets, straight into the presidential palace in the capital city of Bishkek.
Whether guided by Manas or not, this small country of 5 million people has charted an unusual course in post-Soviet Central Asia. While its neighbors live in unchallenged autocracies, Kyrgyzstan practices occasional outbreaks of direct democracy. In a society with weak laws and institutions, these outbreaks result in abrupt regime changes with messy aftermaths. But Kyrgyzstan’s tribulations matter beyond Central Asia.
Russia, the United States, and China have all tussled for influence here, in a throwback to the Great Game, the storied 19th-century contest between the Russian and British empires for strategic dominance in the region. In the months before Kyrgyzstan’s latest tumult, a heated debate broke out over the future of the U.S. military presence here at the Manas Transit Center, a key support center for the war in Afghanistan.
Kyrgyzstan’s two revolutions have modern causes, rooted in corruption, poverty, the dictatorial bent of the regimes, and the power struggles among Kyrgyz elites. But I was curious whether the legacy of Manas offered any other clues. One afternoon in Bishkek, I went to see Sadyk Sher-Niyaz in his lime-green, Mac-studded office at Kyrgyz Film, the state movie studio. A former currency trader turned director, Sher-Niyaz launched a foundation to support the art of the bards who recite Manas and other poems and is working on producing a cartoon version of the epic. He wore a red shirt, and his cascading hair evoked an older Elvis. He reflected on the events of April 7, when 85 protesters died from gunfire and grenades while storming the presidential palace. "When Manas was born, the Kyrgyz lived under tyranny," Sher-Niyaz began. He skipped to the present. "The people who walked into a hail of bullets — that’s the spirit of Manas."
In the months before the revolt, he believed, the spirit of Manas had been very angry. The United Nations cultural arm last October inscribed Manas into something called the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. But the poem was nominated by the Chinese, the same hated Kitais that Manas had spent his life fighting. China acted on behalf of a small Kyrgyz minority living within its borders. In Kyrgyzstan the news was interpreted as theft of a national treasure by a giant neighbor. A discussion on who dropped the ball ensued on the front pages. In his office the other day, Sher-Niyaz was still furious. "Imagine if we took ethnic Germans in Kyrgyzstan and declared the works of Goethe a Kyrgyz masterpiece? Or if we found some Jews and presented the Torah as the masterpiece of Kyrgyzstan?"
Belatedly, the government tried to claw Manas back. On March 31, then0President Kurmanbek Bakiyev submitted to parliament a bill "concerning the epic Manas." Ominously, the bill would obligate Kyrgyzstan to "defend its interests in connection with the epic Manas, both at home and abroad." A week later, Bakiyev was overthrown. Sher-Niyaz sees a connection. After the U.N. fiasco, "everything went haywire," he told me. "The spirit of Manas was disturbed, and there you go, this is what happens."
A small nomadic people, the Kyrgyz have long lived in the shadow of bigger powers. The Chinese were followed by the Mongols, and in the 18th century the warriors of the feudal Kokand khanate conquered the Kyrgyz. By the end of the 19th century, the Russian Empire annexed the Kyrgyz lands. Next came the Soviet Union. The Kyrgyz rebelled against every suzerain, but independence had to wait until 1991 when the Soviet Union crumbled into 15 states, Kyrgyzstan among them.
Askar Akayev, an optical physicist, became the first president of independent Kyrgyzstan. He had a soft touch, and ran the country as a messy democracy, opening doors to nongovernmental organizations of every ilk. In a 2002 book with a perhaps not unexpected title, Kyrgyz Statehood and the People’s Epic Manas, Akayev teased out "seven lessons of Manas" key to modern governance. In lesson seven, he declared Kyrgyzstan to be "a country of human rights." Even on paper, this was a big departure from the rest of Central Asia, where the ruling style has long tended toward the dictatorial methods of the Kokand jhans infamous for their slave-owning, despotic rule.
A vibrant civil society took root in Kyrgyzstan. But Akayev himself became embroiled in accusations of nepotism and misrule, which were aired in the feisty local media and enraged the largely poor population. One day in March of 2005, while in Kyrgyzstan reporting on the country as a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, I attended yet another endless anti-Akayev rally in Bishkek. The rally took place in front of a substance-abuse clinic, and Bakiyev, then a leader of the opposition, was one of the speakers. After a while, having deemed it uneventful, I went home to take a nap.
I was woken by a phone call from a political activist I knew, and I scrambled to take a cab downtown. The storming of the presidential palace had already begun, and within hours protesters flooded into Akayev’s office. They grabbed ties out of his closet and drank French wine from his kitchenette. They took turns sitting in Akayev’s chair. Looking on was a man who identified himself as Chingiz, an employee of the presidential administration. "You see how many new leaders have piled in here?" he said to me. "Tomorrow they’ll rip each other’s throats out." The prediction would prove prescient.
This was a time of color revolutions sweeping the post-Soviet political space. First it was Georgia, with the Rose Revolution; then Ukraine with the Orange Revolution, and now Kyrgyzstan with what was quickly called the Tulip Revolution. The opposition in all three cases despaired of trying to change the status quo through the rigged elections system and resorted to street protests.
The hope was that once a bad regime was removed, a better one would follow. In Kyrgyzstan, this hope failed spectacularly. In 2005, President Bakiyev — installed by the same ragtag group of opposition leaders who would later remove him — told me corruption was a huge concern for him because it could lead to "all the investments being stolen." But during his five-year reign, nepotism and graft by all accounts surpassed the excesses of the previous regime, while government opponents began to suffer suspicious deaths. In the words of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, a master of the one-liner, Bakiyev "stepped on the same rake" that whacked his predecessor on the head.
Downtown Bishkek is a careful grid of streets, many lined with stately 1930s Soviet architecture. Sidewalks are shaded by trees, and irrigation ditches run along the side of the roads. On a clear day, you can see jagged white peaks of the Ala-Too range just outside the city. The presidential palace, a big boxy building known here as the White House though it’s closer to gray, sits on the edge of the main square. The square and the adjacent avenue merge into a vast expanse of open space flanked on one side by the big cube of the History Museum (devoted almost exclusively to the 1917 Russian Revolution). The area is a nice place for a stroll, or to shoot someone from afar.
On April 7, Azat Tolegunov, a 21-year-old security guard at a Bishkek cafe, became curious about protesters gathering downtown. "So I decided to go join the people. You see, life has become harder for everyone," he told me. By then, Kyrgyzstan was already convulsed by a chaotic protest movement. The spark that set it ablaze was the government’s decision to hike tariffs for electricity, gas, and water, in an effort to boost the perennially depleted budget. In places like Naryn, a Kyrgyz town where winter temperatures drop to negative 40 Celsius, higher tariffs meant people had to choose whether to buy bread or heat, Mars Sariyev, a political analyst, told me. All this was happening against the backdrop of a regime that seemed aloof and corrupt.
The figure who captured the crowd’s imagination as villain No. 1 was Maxim Bakiyev, the president’s 32-year-old son who once described himself as a person "removed from politics, a businessman." But when his father set up the Central Agency for Development, Investment and Innovation and gave it to his son to run, things began to look as if a successor was being groomed. It didn’t help matters that the agency’s Russian acronym sounded exactly like the word "Tsars." Among other things, the agency engineered the privatization of a big electricity utility for a price seen as artificially low — at a time when tariffs were going up.
The various strands of the protest movement exploded in Talas, a remote town locked between two mountain ranges. It happens to be the mythical birthplace of Manas and the site of his mausoleum. On April 6, crowds there swiftly captured the building of the provincial administration. When the interior minister showed up to take charge of the situation, he too was captured and beaten into a bloody pulp. In Bishkek, the Bakiyev government panicked and started snatching opposition leaders. This seems to have further irritated the crowds. When Tolegunov, the cafe guard, arrived on the Bishkek central square on April 7, a planned opposition gathering had been dispersed by police and the situation was escalating.
At some point that day, protesters charged the White House. Security forces perched on rooftops started shooting, and the open spaces around the government’s headquarters favored the shooters. Tolegunov noticed a man who went down by the ornate fence in front of the White House. "I ran toward him; I wanted to help," he said. The man was bleeding from his stomach. When Tolegunov leaned down to grab him he heard a loud bang, felt pain and fell down next to the wounded man. "He was looking at me, and I was looking at him, I wanted to help, but I couldn’t move," Tolegunov recalled. I met him in a cramped ward at the National Hospital in Bishkek. A grenade had ripped out chunks of flesh and ligament from one of his legs. He was lying in bed, wearing a blue T-shirt with the word Kyrgyzstan stitched in red letters across his chest. His father fussed over him.
The protesters’ willingness to walk into bullets spawned an array of conspiracy theories. I heard rumors of alcohol and of mysterious psychotropic drugs that removed fear from protesters’ minds and propelled them toward the White House. Even Sariyev, a respected political analyst, told me he thought "psychotropic substances had been added to vodka." I asked Tolegunov whether he felt fear at any point, and he said yes, he was scared. "They thought they’d shoot two-three people, and everyone else will run away. But quite the opposite, it makes you more aggressive."
That fence where Tolegunov got cut down by a grenade is now a memorial. Photos of those killed here are taped to the bars. One of them shows Nursultan Tabaldiyev, a first-year college student, born in 1992. A bullet-riddled truck still stands there, and people gather to light candles and pray. Flowers are everywhere. A few blocks down the street from the memorial, I was startled by a big poster showing a camouflaged soldier with a weapon. The poster invited passers-by take part in "paintball combat." A phone number was provided.
Imels Baitikov stitches arteries for a living. Kyrgyzstan’s top vascular surgeon, Baitikov, 55, is an intense man — when I dropped in on him at the hospital he was yelling at an underling. When the wounded began arriving on April 7, his staff was so short-handed that even recovering patients were enlisted to prepare wound dressings. Baitikov told me he encountered no signs of alcohol or drugs among those he treated. Video footage from April 7 shows there were some armed plainclothes men among the protesters. But Baitikov told me that no one he treated looked like a fighter. "These are just regular people dying, not military; this is hard." Baitikov paused to fight back tears, and lit a cigarette. "They are very young; it leaves a deep trace, especially for my younger surgeons."
The carnage had left him searching for a meaning to the deaths, and his speech turned into a stream-of-consciousness dialogue. "What did they achieve? I still don’t know. They liberated the White House, but what’s around it? I don’t know what’s going to happen next." He told me his surgeons could all use psychological counseling, and a vacation. "And I’m also human just like everyone else. The only difference is I can stitch arteries a little bit. That’s it."
After the revolution, an interim government pronounced itself in charge, and Bakiyev fled Bishkek. He holed up in his ancestral village outside Jalalabad in southern Kyrgyzstan. One afternoon a few days later, I took a flight from Bishkek’s Manas International Airport down south. A small turboprop plane greeted passengers with a yellow note stenciled on the fuselage: "Chop Here With Crash Axe." For most of the one-hour flight, the plane glided over an undulating expanse of mountaintops, the range that roughly bisects Kyrgyzstan into north and south.
This is more than a geographical division. One view of Kyrgyz politics is that it has never been a contest between dictatorship and democracy, but a power struggle among rival clans. The North-South division is important in this clan war. Akayev, Kyrgyzstan’s first president, is a northerner. Bakiyev is a southerner. What the West calls nepotism is nothing more that the obligation to provide for the clan. This unsentimental take gained currency after the dashed hopes of the 2005 Tulip Revolution.
An electrical engineer by training, Bakiyev climbed the ladder of Soviet factory management all the way to the post of prime minister in the Akayev government. He then fell out with his boss and recast himself as an opposition leader. "He’s our Yushchenko," one activist told me in 2005, referring to Ukraine’s Viktor Yushchenko, another leader who would not live up to his early promise.
As president, Bakiyev made a foreign-policy misstep that cost him support of a key ally. Kyrgyzstan is in the unusual position of hosting both U.S. and Russian military bases. Bakiyev tried to play the Americans and the Russians off of each other and extract more money from both. In Moscow one day, he said he would close the U.S. base at Manas. But having secured a loan from Russia, he later said the =base could stay but needed to pay a higher rent. Shortly afterwards, a persistent anti-Bakiyev campaign began on Russian state television, a staple in Kyrgyz homes.
On the day I visited Bakiyev’s ancestral village of Teyit, the approach road was guarded by huddles of young men with wooden sticks of varying shapes and sizes. Jittery, they frisked cars and asked questions. In the middle of the village, down Bakiyev Street (named after the clan patriarch, not the president), guards and visitors hovered next to a blue metal gate, behind which the local boy who made good and then lost it all was temporarily stationed. Things were not going well for Bakiyev that day.
In the morning, he set off in a motorcade for Osh, a big southern city where he intended to give a speech to a rally of supporters. Ever since the coup, Bakiyev had promoted the notion that he was popular in his native south, and even suggested he could run a southern statelet from here, while the interim government plodded in the north. But when Bakiyev arrived in Osh, he was greeted with rocks, and when he tried to speak, electricity was cut off and he couldn’t use the microphone. His guards fired warning shots into the air, and his motorcade sped back to the village.
Behind the blue gate, Bakiyev emerged from a ceremonial yurt with a turquoise roof. Dressed in a pinstriped suit and a blue shirt, his hair neatly combed, Bakiyev paced back and forth with a cell phone to his ear. Puffy pouches under his eyes betrayed lack of sleep. Bakiyev hung up the phone and stepped forward to face a crowd of supporters, mostly women, who had just been ushered through a side entrance. He was angry that his planned Osh rally was derailed. "Today’s government is a government of bandits, and they call themselves democrats," he said.
Bakiyev is one of seven brothers, and some of them were on hand. Away from the crowd, I spotted Janysh, the president’s younger brother and his feared head of security. He wore camouflage military fatigues with his name stitched on the flap of the breast pocket, and chain-smoked Marlboro cigarettes. Many in Kyrgyzstan blame Janysh for the deaths of the protesters storming the White House.
"Yes, I gave the order to shoot at people who were armed, at the cars that were being used to ram through [the perimeter fence around the presidential palace]," he told me. He disputed the notion that his soldiers killed unarmed protesters and said fire had been directed at the palace from the crowd. He also said that some protesters were shot from such an angle that it suggested they were shot by their own colleagues. "Bullets don’t fly that way," he told me, making a circular motion with his finger in the air. He said the protesters were moving like "zombies" toward the palace. Janysh told me he wanted an "independent investigation" and until then he had no plans to give himself up because he was "not stupid."
Another Bakiyev brother, Kanybek, darted in and out of the house and told me he was "very tired" and couldn’t talk. Ahmet Bakiyev, a farmer and a businessman, was sitting on a bench in the courtyard. "I’m in a foul mood," he said. He vowed the Bakiyevs would "defend themselves" if attacked by the interim government.
The president himself was grabbing at straws. With the Russians and Americans turning away from him, he was desperate for any sign of support. At one point his aides printed out a news report saying that Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko had called the revolution an unconstitutional coup and offered asylum to Bakiyev. In return, Bakiyev praised him for his "courage." Later that day, Bakiyev boarded a plane to Kazakhstan. The interim leaders in Bishkek said they received a handwritten resignation letter from him. A few days later, Bakiyev took up Lukashenko on his invitation and moved to Minsk, where he said his resignation was not valid and he still considered himself president.
This week, his supporters in the south occupied government buildings, posing a new challenge to the interim government in Bishkek, led by a woman named Roza Otunbayeva.
"These days, I sleep while walking, so if I lose my train of thought, maybe you could give me a nudge," the diminutive Otunbayeva told me one afternoon when I went to see her in her temporary office at the Defense Ministry. She was drinking strong tea to keep herself from nodding off, a red-and-gold Kyrgyzstan flag behind her. Earlier, I saw a soldier wheeling a safe into a suite of offices occupied by her staff. The Russian and the Chinese ambassadors were waiting for a meeting with her.
Five years ago, Otunbayeva and her fellow opposition leaders played a key role in the Tulip Revolution that brought Bakiyev to power. I asked her what happened. "He tricked us," she told me. "He gave all the right speeches back then." Later in the conversation, she returned to the subject: "Last time, we got tricked like little kids."
For someone who helped bring about the downfalls of two seemingly powerful regimes, Otunbayeva, 59, doesn’t look menacing. She looks like your favorite aunt — when I first met her in 2005, she served me homemade pumpkin dumplings and insisted I eat. She has pitch-black hair that sits helmet-like over a round face that often breaks into a smile.
To unwind, she does yoga, though lately she hasn’t had much time. She speaks in long ruminative sentences, as if one thought triggers another that requires explanation. In college, she specialized in German philosophy. After Kyrgyzstan acquired independence from the Soviet Union, Otunbayeva served as her country’s first ambassador to the United States., and later as foreign minister.
In 2005, Otunbayeva decided to run for parliament, but the authorities said she didn’t meet the residency requirements and knocked her off the ballot. This was a mistake. Otunbayeva pushed back and helped topple the government. Under Bakiyev, she was quickly sidelined, much like many of the other revolutionaries of ’05. This was also a mistake. On the eve of the 2010 revolt, as the government kept snatching opposition leaders from their homes and offices, Otunbayeva was hiding in another apartment and using her cell phone to coordinate the disjointed protests erupting all over the country. Once Bakiyev was thrown out, Otunbayeva was quickly picked to lead the interim government — in part because of her impeccable opposition credentials but also because she is the least contentious figure among the revolutionaries and thus broadly acceptable to all of them. At least for now.
She stands out in a political culture dominated by men, although historically women have played frontline roles in Kyrgyzstan’s nomadic society. "A woman jumps on a horse and can fly ahead of any man. A woman as a fighter, a woman as a messenger, a woman as a polemicist, all of these things are real," Otunbayeva said.
The most famous woman in the country’s history is Kurmanjan Datka, who died in 1907. She bucked tradition by refusing an arranged marriage, and wed an ambitious local chieftain instead. After Kurmanjan’s husband got killed in a palace coup, she punished the plotters and assumed his mantle as the ruler of the Kyrgyz. She fought the Russian encroaches, but eventually pledged allegiance to St. Petersburg. Then, two of her sons and two grandsons were accused of running a smuggling operation and killing customs officers. Despite her entreaties, the Russians publicly hanged one son and sentenced the rest of the accused to hard labor in Siberia. Crushed, Kurmanjan gave away her cattle and settled into a solitary life in her home village. Today, there are statues to Kurmajan Datka in Kyrgyzstan, and her face decorates the 50-som bank note.
There are questions about Otunbayeva’s own political longevity past the six-month caretaker period that the interim government gave itself. New elections will be held then. Politicians with more money, stronger clan base and infinite ambition lurk around her. The Bakiyev experience taught Kyrgyzstan’s elite that no single person can be trusted with too much power. So the plan now is to change the form of government from presidential to parliamentary in the hope of limiting the authority of the country’s next leader.
Like many small countries, Kyrgyzstan is often defined in relation to bigger countries, and often infuriated by that. "We are not a puppet; we want to succeed as a country," Otunbayeva told me. "We don’t want to be manipulated: One person opens a base; another says I also want a base. One says I’ll give you money, the other says I’ll give you more money. Yes, a destitute person may follow such logic. But we should be smart; we shouldn’t sell ourselves."
In 2005, I ran into Otunbayeva inside the presidential palace, just as protesters were looting it, breaking stuff left and right and throwing things out of windows. It was dark, and Otunbayeva was a strange sight — a small woman in a headscarf walking shell-shocked through throngs of excited young men. She said that people needed to stop and think about what they were doing, about how they were hurting the revolution. And then she wandered off. This was not a time for diplomats and professors, or for thinking. Five years later, Otunbayeva seems both intimidated and impressed by mobs — intimidated because of their destructive unruly power; impressed because they had represent the people’s right to rise up against injustice when all else fails.
One hot afternoon in Bishkek, I accompanied Otunbayeva on a visit to a hospital. She was driven in a black Mercedes down a traffic-choked street and ushered into the ward with Almazbek Akchekeyev, 31. A gaunt man, he lay under a blanket printed with yellow flowers. "Please hold on; don’t lose your spirit," Otunbayva told him. "We’ll give you housing, I promise." Akchekeyev’s wife Mahabat later told me he was a police officer who lost both legs in a grenade blast during the revolt. "The worst is behind us," Mahabat said. I wondered if that was really true in a country where even able-bodied men have trouble finding work.
One day in Bishkek, I met Baktybek Saipbayev. He’s a big, jovial man who owns a small icecream business with his wife. They make Snow Leopard-brand ice cream in a concrete bunker-like building on the outskirts of the capital. They sell it mostly through modern supermarket chains that began appearing in Bishkek a few years ago. In 2005, during the first revolution, Saipbayev lost a few thousand dollars in ice-cream and equipment during the looting of Beta Stores, a Turkish-built shop downtown. There were crushed cookies and detergent on the floor that night, as looters were stealing everything from television sets to underwear.
This year, the damage to the ice cream business was bigger. The Narodnii chain of some 40 stores was so thoroughly looted that Saipbayev estimates he lost about $20,000. He hopes to get some of it back through insurance. On a rainy Sunday, he unloaded sacks of powdered milk from the back of his minivan. A friend helped him find the milk because supplies from a factory in Talas, where he usually gets it, were disrupted by the revolt.
Still, Saipbayev seemed sympathetic to the revolution. A doctor by training, he likened a corrupt regime to an infected wound. "If there’s puss in the wound, you have to let it out; otherwise it will lead to sepsis, you have to clean the wound out," he said. "People here started to understand that you can get rid of these assholes in power. And the politicians are beginning to be scared." This was something Otunbayeva told me too: "Do you really think that in the end we want to be dealt with the same way that Bakiyev was dealt with?"
After unloading the powdered milk, the ice-cream entrepreneur climbed back into the minivan and said a new joke is making the rounds in Bishkek: "Don’t wake my inner Kyrgyz."