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Last Updated: Saturday, 26 March, 2005, 14:58 GMT
Kyrgyzstan's friendly revolution
By Ian MacWilliam
BBC News, Kyrgyzstan

The pictures on the television seems to say it all - statues of Lenin, police with helmets and riot shields, angry protesters storming the president's offices after a disputed election tainted by alleged government vote-rigging.

Protesters celebrate
The Kyrgyz have taken on a mostly laid-back attitude to the protests

The confrontation had all the elements of a people's power uprising in an authoritarian post-communist state. But Kyrgyzstan is not quite what one expects.

A police spokesman told me politely that the protesters had every right to express their views. I could not help feeling that he was on their side really, along with most of the helmeted police men too.

Late last week, when the protest suddenly grew to a crowd of thousands who then decided to occupy the government's office, the policemen simply stood aside and let them in.

Elsewhere, road-blocking protests became a feature of this opposition movement. Several thousand people would block the road one day, but then they would melt away again the next.

I went to one big protest where people had blocked the main highway to China. I arrived late in the evening as the setting sun lit up a distant backdrop of the snow mountains.

Three of the round felt nomads tents, known as yurts, were set up on the road and speakers addressed the crowd of demonstrators through a megaphone.

The horses of rural protesters were tethered to the roadside poplar trees.

"We'll close the road until our demands are met", one of the organisers told me firmly, a gold tooth glinting in the sun.

Ten minutes later, there was a flurry of activity. The yurts were pulled down, the roadway was cleared and the backlog of lorries and other vehicles thundered on their way in a cloud of dust.

"Oh", said the organiser, "the drivers were complaining about us holding up their business so we've decide to picket the [government's offices] instead".

'Clean life'

In the southern town of Jalal-Abad, where the first local opposition council was chosen by a group of several thousand protesters, relations with security forces were also far from unfriendly.

It is the anger caused by pervasive corruption and the slow pace of economic change which have fuelled this movement against the president
A couple of hundred demonstrators had occupied the governor's office for more than a week, but they chatted quite happily to militiamen who were also in the grounds keeping an eye on them.

One middle-aged woman told me what in essence what the whole protest was about.

"I'm a teacher, but I haven't worked for close to 10 years. The government pays teachers next to nothing, only the rich live well here in Kyrgyzstan," she said.

"Once, when we lived as nomads in the mountains, our life was clean, we lived in our yurts and kept our horses and sheep, and there was no corruption then. We want to have a clean life again."

As I walked out of the governor's office, six yurts were set up in the square which were to serve as the rebel council's office.

Looking up to the green hillside beyond the town, where the first trees were just breaking into blossom, I noticed the silhouette of six horsemen.

I was told they were keeping watch, making sure the militia did not come to break up the protest.

Nomadic spirit

Horses and yurts are everywhere in Kyrgyzstan. The nomadic tradition lives on strongly here.

In the villages, children ride home from school on horseback with satchels slung over their shoulders.

In the spring, one can stop at a yurt in any number of green valleys to drink kumis - mildly alcoholic fermented mares' milk - which is said to cure any amount of ailments and perks up one's sex life too.

It is the nomadic sprit perhaps which sets Kyrgyzstan apart from its more authoritarian neighbours.

When you live in a tent in your own mountain valley and can up sticks at will, you develop a sense of personal freedom that even 70 years of communism cannot eradicate.

Despite the impression given by this election crisis, Kyrgyzstan is far from being a repressive Stalinist state.

The country's main problems are really economic more than political - it is the anger caused by pervasive corruption and the slow pace of economic change which have fuelled this movement against the president.

Askar Akayev began his career as a popular liberal reformer, but that was in the early 1990s.

Sitting in a cafe in Jalal-Abad, I asked a local journalist what he thought of the departed president: "Look, he said, we know Askar Akayev is a nice man, but he was in power for 15 years, it was time for him to go."

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 26 March, 2005, at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.


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