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Revolution, in a Couple of Hours

In Kyrgyzstan, Plans for Patient Organizing Dissolved as Protesters Unexpectedly Took Control

By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 27, 2005; Page A15

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan, March 26 -- The plan called for yurts, and patience.

A small army of protesters weary of the stiffening, unresponsive rule of President Askar Akayev was to assemble on a great plaza outside the presidential headquarters in the capital. The plan, according to organizers of the demonstration, was for participants to listen to speeches, chant slogans and, as the sun set, begin a vigil, reclaiming their country by sleeping in yurts, the domed, supremely portable tents made of skins and sticks popular in Central Asia.

Kyrgyz troops in the southern city of Osh march during a parade celebrating the opposition's victory over the government of President Askar Akayev, who fled when protesters took power Thursday. (Myktybek Sariyev -- AP)

The camp-out would put a Kyrgyz stamp on a rebellion that opposition leaders said was inspired in part by recent uprisings in Georgia and Ukraine, two other former Soviet republics where the populace had grown unhappy with the autocrats in power. In both countries, mass demonstrations sparked by disputed elections went on for weeks, wearing down the incumbent while opponents honed plans for an orderly transfer of power.

But nothing went quite as planned in Bishkek on Thursday.

When the first few thousand protesters arrived at the plaza, the president sent thugs to break up the demonstration. Incensed, a few dozen young protesters returned and simply broke past police guarding the presidential headquarters, known as the White House. To the cheers of thousands assembled below, the youths broke a window and chucked out a portrait of Akayev, who, after nearly 15 years in power, disappeared from the scene.

It all took a couple of hours.

"Nice words, 'coup d'etat,' 'revolution,' '' said Kurmanbek Bakiyev, an opposition figure who was installed as acting president that night. "But what happened on the 24th of March was not planned by anyone beforehand, neither by people who came to the rally nor by others.

"Nobody expected and nobody prepared for this event."

That much was clear almost immediately. As soon as darkness fell Thursday, hundreds of young men turned to looting, unleashing a spasm of destruction that emptied or burned more than 100 stores in a capital abruptly devoid of uniformed police.

The next morning, the hallways of parliament filled with the sound of workers hammering shut the front doors. Inside, two legislatures were meeting: One was elected five years ago. The other was seated this month, after disputed elections that set in motion the wave of outrage.

The rebellion sprang up almost simultaneously in several remote places, and came together in cities in the notably poorer south. When it crested in the mountains that bisect Kyrgyzstan, what shattered was the brittle government of a man whose son drove a Hummer in a country with a per capita income of about $300.

"It was a natural outcome," said Emil Aliev, a senior official in an opposition party called Dignity. "The main forces were a very severe social and economic situation, in the background of wide-scale corruption."

Akayev came to power as a reformer. Trained as a physicist, he had led the country since 1990. Kyrgyzstan became independent when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, but ties with Russia remain strong. The United States has heaped aid and praise on the little country, which, under Akayev, tolerated a free press and encouraged the proliferation of nonprofit civic groups, regarded as the cornerstone of a democratic society. Under Akayev, Kyrgyzstan also broke out of a state-controlled economy, welcoming foreign investment in a country of 5 million blessed with staggering beauty but few of the mineral resources of its neighbors.

"He did a lot for Kyrgyzstan," Bakiyev, the acting president, said of Akayev.

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