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Kyrgyzstan: Recent History
Country Study > Chapter 1 > Historical Background > Recent History


In the late 1980s, the Kyrgyz were jolted into a state of national consciousness by the reforms of Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev and by ethnic conflict much closer to home. As democratic activism stirred in Kyrgyzstan's cities, events in Moscow pushed the republic toward unavoidable independence.

Ethnic Conflict

The most important single event leading to independence grew from an outburst of ethnic friction. From the perspective of the Kyrgyz, the most acute nationality problem long had been posed by the Uzbeks living in and around the city of Osh, in the republic's southwest. Although Kyrgyzstan was only about 13 percent Uzbek according to the 1989 census, almost the entire Uzbek population was concentrated in Osh Province. Tensions very likely had existed between the Kyrgyz and the Uzbeks throughout the Soviet period, but Moscow was able to preserve the image of Soviet ethnic harmony until the reforms of Gorbachev in the mid-1980s. In the general atmosphere of glasnost, an Uzbek-rights group called Adalat began airing old grievances in 1989, demanding that Moscow grant local Uzbek autonomy in Osh and consider its annexation by nearby Uzbekistan.

The real issue behind Adalat's demand was land, which is in extremely short supply in the southernmost province of Osh. To protect their claims, some Osh Kyrgyz also had formed an opposing ethnic association, called Osh-aimagy (Osh-land). In early June 1990, the Kyrgyz-dominated Osh City Council announced plans to build a cotton processing plant on a parcel of land under the control of an Uzbek-dominated collective farm in Osh Province.

The confrontation that erupted over control of that land brought several days of bloody riots between crowds led by the respective associations, killing at least 320 Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in Osh. The precise cause and sequence of events in early June 1990 is disputed between Uzbek and Kyrgyz accounts. Scores of families were left homeless when their houses were burned out. The government finally stopped the rioting by imposing a military curfew.

Because the telephone lines remained open in the otherwise blockaded city, news of the violence spread immediately to Frunze. In the capital, a large group of students marched on the headquarters of the Communist Party of Kyrgyzia (CPK), which also served as the seat of government, in the center of the city. In the violent confrontation that ensued, personal injuries were minimized by effective crowd control, and the riotous crowd eventually was transformed into a mass meeting.

Democratic Activism

The Osh riots and the subsequent events in Frunze quickly brought to the surface an undercurrent of political discontent that had been forming among both the intelligentsia and middle-level party officials. A loose affiliation of activists calling themselves the Democratic Movement of Kyrgyzstan (DDK) began to organize public opinion, calling among other things for the resignation of Absamat Masaliyev, who was president of the republic's parliament, the Supreme Soviet, as well as a member of the Soviet Union's Politburo and the head of the CPK. The DDK called for Masaliyev's resignation because he was widely viewed as having mishandled the Osh riots.

Democratic activists erected tents in front of the party headquarters, maintaining pressure with a series of hunger strikes and highly visible public demonstrations. The continuing atmosphere of crisis emboldened CPK members, who also wished to get rid of the reactionary Masaliyev. Four months later, in a presidential election prescribed by Gorbachev's reform policies, Masaliyev failed to win the majority of Supreme Soviet votes required to remain in power.

The Rise of Akayev

With none of the three presidential candidates able to gain the necessary majority in the 1990 election, the Supreme Soviet unexpectedly selected Askar Akayev, a forty-six-year-old physicist, who had been serving as head of the republic's Academy of Sciences. Although he had served for a year in a science-related post on the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and was a party member, Akayev was the first president of a Soviet republic who had not held a high party position.

At the same meeting of the Supreme Soviet, the deputies changed the name of the republic to Kyrgyzstan. They also began to speak seriously of seeking greater national sovereignty (which was formally declared on November 20, 1990) and of attaining political domination of the republic by the Kyrgyz, including the establishment of Kyrgyz as the official language.

By mid-summer 1991, the Kyrgyz were beginning to make serious moves to uncouple the government from the CPSU and its Kyrgyzstan branch. In early August, the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Kyrgyzstan, which governs the police and the internal security forces, announced a ban of all CPSU affiliation or activity within the ministry. Events elsewhere precluded a seemingly inevitable conflict with Moscow over that decision; in August 1991, the attention of the entire union moved to Moscow when reactionaries in Gorbachev's government attempted to remove him from power.

Unlike the leaders of the other four Central Asian republics, who temporized for a day about their course following the coup, Akayev condemned the plot almost immediately and began preparations to repel the airborne forces rumored to be on the way to Kyrgyzstan from Moscow. The quick collapse of the coup made the preparations unnecessary, but Akayev's declaration of support for Gorbachev and for the maintenance of legitimate authority gained the Kyrgyz leader enormous respect among the Kyrgyz people and among world leaders. On August 30, 1991, days after the coup began, Akayev and the republic's Supreme Soviet declared Kyrgyzstan an independent nation, and the president threw the CPSU and its Kyrgyzstan branch out of the government. However, he did not go as far as officials in most of the other former Soviet republics, where the party was banned totally.

At the same time independence was declared, the republic's Supreme Soviet scheduled direct presidential elections for October 1991. Running unopposed, Akayev received 95 percent of the popular vote, thus becoming the country's first popularly elected president. The so-called Silk Revolution drew much international sympathy and attention. In December 1991, when the Belarusian, Russian, and Ukrainian republics signed the Tashkent Agreement, forming a commonwealth that heralded the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Akayev demanded that another meeting be held so that Kyrgyzstan might become a founding member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS -- see Glossary), as the new union was to be called.

The sympathy that Akayev had won for Kyrgyzstan earlier in his presidency served the country well once the world generally acknowledged the passing of the Gorbachev regime and the Soviet Union. Kyrgyzstan was recognized almost immediately by most nations, including the United States, whose secretary of state, James Baker, made an official visit in January 1992. A United States embassy was opened in the capital (which had reassumed its pre-Soviet name of Bishkek in December 1990) in February 1992. By early 1993, the new country had been recognized by 120 nations and had diplomatic relations with sixty-one of them.

Akayev's Early Years

Despite initial euphoria over the possibilities of independence and membership in the CIS, Akayev recognized that his country's economic position was extremely vulnerable and that the ethnic situation exacerbated that vulnerability. Thus, the Akayev administration devoted much attention to creating a legal basis of governance while struggling to keep the economy afloat.

In the first two years of his presidency, Akayev seemed to work effectively with the Supreme Soviet that had put him in office. By 1992, however, Akayev's good relations with the legislature had fallen victim to the rapidly declining economy, the failure of the CIS to become a functioning body, and the country's inability to attract substantial assistance or investment from any of the potential foreign partners whom he had courted so assiduously.

In advancing his reform programs, Akayev experienced particular difficulties in gaining the cooperation of entrenched local politicians remaining from the communist government apparatus. To gain control of local administration, Akayev imitated the 1992 strategy of Russia's president Boris N. Yeltsin by appointing individuals to leadership positions at the province, district, and city levels, where the new akim, the provincial governor, appointed members of his own family to the majority of the positions under his control and used state funds to acquire personal property. The situation in Jalal-Abad aroused strong resentment and demonstrations that continued even after the governor had been forced to resign.

In 1992 and 1993, the public perception grew that Akayev himself had provided a model for the tendency of local leaders to put family and clan interests above those of the nation. Indeed, several prominent national government officials, including the head of the internal security agency, the heads of the national bank and the national radio administration, the minister of foreign affairs, and the ambassador to Russia, came from Akayev's home area and from Talas, the home district of his wife.

Akayev's loss of momentum was reflected in the debate over the national constitution, a first draft of which was passed by the Supreme Soviet in December 1992. Although draft versions had begun to circulate as early as the summer of 1992, the commission itself agreed on a definitive version only after prolonged debate. An umbrella group of opposition figures from the DDK also began drawing up constitutional proposals in 1992, two variations of which they put forward for public consideration.

Although broad agreement existed on the outlines of the constitution, several specific points were difficult to resolve. One concerned the status of religion. Although it was agreed that the state would be secular, there was strong pressure for some constitutional recognition of the primacy of Islam. Another much-debated issue was the role of the Russian language. Kyrgyz had been declared the official state language, but non-Kyrgyz citizens exerted pressure to have Russian assigned near-equal status, as was the case in neighboring Kazakhstan, where Russian had been declared the "official language of interethnic communication." The issue of property ownership was warmly debated, with strong sentiment expressed against permitting land to be owned or sold. Another important question was the role of the president within the new state structure.

The proposed constitution was supposed to be debated by the full Supreme Soviet (as the new nation's parliament continued to call itself after independence) and by a specially convened body of prominent citizens before its acceptance as law. However, some members of the democratic opposition argued that a special assembly of Kyrgyz elders, called a kuraltai , should be convened to consider the document. A final draft of the constitution was passed by the Supreme Soviet

Last Updated: March 1996

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Kyrgyzstan was first published in 1996. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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