SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today issue 94, September 2005

Central Asia on fire

THE ‘TULIP’ revolution that took place in Kirghizia in the spring of this year, and the uprising and massacre that shook Uzbekistan, followed the earlier ‘orange’ and ‘rose’ revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia. Although they had similar political and social causes, there are also important differences.

Kirghizia, which was ruled by Askar Akayev from the early 1990s until his overthrow, had been at the forefront of the neo-liberal onslaught, implementing the dictates of the IMF, World Bank and other institutions. The result has been de-industrialision and the collapse of the agricultural sector, the mainstay of the economy of this mountainous country. Kirghizia joining the WTO amounted to little more than plunder. Its GDP is now only $2.3 billion, external debt is $1.6 billion. Economists warn that servicing the debt will absorb the lion’s share of resources and leave no money for the social sphere, let alone development. The average monthly wage can buy 2.5 kilos of meat and 16 loaves of bread. Rural youth have flooded into the cities, where they either push up the already dramatic level of unemployment or wait to emigrate. Of a population of five million, 700,000 Kyrgyz live abroad, mainly in Russia and Kazakhstan.

The introduction of capitalism worsened the struggle between northern and southern clans, activated Uzbek national struggle around the city of Osh, and strengthened the corruption of the ruling clique around Akayev. There has been a huge redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich.

February’s elections to the Kenesh (parliament) acted as the detonator of the uprising. Manipulation by the ruling clique saw the parliament packed by relatives and hangers-on of the hated Akayev. This led to an explosion of protest across the country. In the southern cities of Osh, Talas, Tash, Kumyre and Naryne protesters, including peasants, youth, pensioners and workers, seized government buildings. The demonstrators included many young women, partly because males from 20-40 years old were abroad trying to earn enough money to support their families. When buildings were seized in Zhalal-Bade in mid-March, a Council for People’s Rule in the region was formed. This encouraged further seizures throughout the country. Courtrooms, police stations and airports were occupied. Main roads were blockaded. As the movement spread, the army began to come out in support of the uprising.

Soon protests reached the capital, Bishkek. Initially, a demonstration mainly of university students was broken up by riot police, hundreds of youth arrested. But their parents laid siege to police headquarters. The following day, even more assembled, including large numbers of school students. They occupied the central square outside parliament. A group of 500 ‘sportsmen’ had been armed with wooden clubs and stones by the regime. A bloody conflict broke out, which was only resolved when thousands of opposition supporters arrived from other areas. Opposition leaders did everything they could to prevent the crowd from occupying the parliament, but protesters broke through the chain of riot police and Akayev’s armed supporters. That day, Akayev fled the country.

During the night, the masses organised the armed defence of the parliament building and held a meeting of regional representatives in the government’s cabinet office. They elected leaders, afraid that ‘the official opposition would betray them’. The following day, they prevented the parliament from meeting. They also condemned the overnight looting of supermarkets as a provocation organised by pro-Akayev forces to justify the use of the army.

Despite these tremendous initiatives, they had no alternative of their own. They literally forced petrified members of the so-called opposition to take power. When the new acting premier, Kurmanbek Bakiev, leader of the People’s Movement, tried to recognise the parliament, demonstrators said: ‘If he wanted, he could go and join Akayev’.

The new authorities did all they could to calm and disarm the masses, while trying to defend the interests of the financiers and clan leaders. They did nothing to change in any significant way the economic and social policies that had led to the uprising in the first place. However, the street had spoken. Pickets, demonstrations, strikes of energy and transport workers, have become part of everyday life. The tulip revolution has not been completed. As class and social divisions become sharper, and new political forces develop, there will be new revolutionary convulsions.

Bakiev’s government is weak, finding itself between the hammer and the anvil. The conservative and counter-revolutionary clans are unhappy as they see him as a barrier to their revenge. The masses are still demanding changes. There have been seizures of land from landowners, occupations of workplaces, opencast mines and markets. In the middle of June, there was an attempted pro-Akayev armed coup. This was supported by the Kazakh secret police, petrified the tulips will spread to neighbouring Kazakhstan. Even Bakiev’s victory in July’s presidential election does not indicate his popularity. It only demonstrates the absence of a genuine political alternative capable of offering the masses a solution to their numerous problems. Unfortunately, the two ‘communist’ parties have demonstrated their bankruptcy by supporting Bakiev.

The events in the Uzbek part of the Fergana Valley in May are linked to those in Kirghizia. The Osh region is home to thousands of ethnic Uzbeks and is only a short distance from Andizhan, where Uzbek authorities opened fire on demonstrators, killing between 700 and 1,000 people. The same root causes – social and economic catastrophe, the collapse of industry, corruption and vicious political repression – are behind the uprising.

There are over 10,000 political prisoners in Uzbekistan. Many of these are from secular, pro-US organisations, such as Erk, Birlik, and Sun Opposition. Organisations such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Hizbut-Tahrir are underground. The country had already been shaken by a series of protests by market traders and even strikes in the second half of 2004. In March of this year there were explosions outside the US and Israeli embassies in Tashkent. In May, hundreds of women and children set up a tent protest outside the US embassy, with placards demanding an end to poverty, unemployment, repression and police arbitrariness. Many of those who participated were fed up at losing their husbands and sons, who were working in Russia. This protest was broken up by riot police using live rounds. There was an attempted coup by Islamists at the end of June.

The events in Andizhan were provoked by the trial of 23 small businessmen, accused of anti-constitutional activities and supporting the underground Islamist organisation, Akramiya. Relatives organised a sit-down protest for four months outside the court. On the day when the sentence was due to be read, they organised a demonstration with thousands of participants. Overnight, the local prison was attacked, prisoners released and a police battalion disarmed. Local government buildings were seized. The next day, over 50,000 demonstrated, demanding the resignation of president Islam Karimov, and for jobs and freedom. Women cried out: ‘Better to die than live like this’.

Troops opened fire and between 500 and 1,000 peaceful protesters were brutally massacred. Several hundred managed to cross the Kyrgyz border where they claimed asylum. Karimov claims – and, in the immediate aftermath of the massacre, was supported by the US State Department – that this was an Islamic uprising. But this is not so. It was an explosion of mass discontent at poverty, hunger, injustice and state violence.

Uzbekistan’s neighbours (except Kirghizia) rushed to assist Karimov, refusing the right to asylum and handing over opposition supporters. The leadership of Kazakhstan was initially shocked and took steps to strengthen the police and army. It began to train and arm groups of unaccountable ‘sportsmen’ and security guards, controlled by the country’s oligarchs. The first joint Chinese-Russian military exercises in August practised the invasion of a small, unnamed country, ‘wracked by ethnic and social conflict’. Imperialist powers have been confused by these events. They even express doubts about how pro-western the new Kyrgyz regime is.

What conclusions can be drawn? The restoration of capitalism has caused social and economic disaster. A new phase in the struggle between different clan and economic interests has opened up. Multi-national companies and imperialist powers are actively intervening in this process. The ruling regimes and their state structures are so rotten that even the slightest push by the masses sees them collapse in piles of dust.

For the first time since the mid-1990s, there has been a wave of social protests. This will lead to the emergence of a new layer of political and worker activists. This offers the opportunity of establishing a genuine workers’ alternative that can provide a solution to the problems faced by the masses. Kirghizia and Andizhan are only the first shots in what will be a protracted period of instability in the region.

Ainur Kurmanov


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