The president of Kyrgyzstan signed a new constitution on Wednesday to limit his power in a bid to defuse a political crisis. President Kurmanbek Bakiyev signed the document in the capital Bishkek in front of the parliamentary speaker, officials and journalists after a week of protests and tensions. Bakiyev is hoping that the move will prevent the ex-Soviet republic from descending into chaos less than two years after an uprising known as the Tulip Revolution drove long-time leader Askar Akayev from power. An opposition spokesman said “This is our victory, this is a step toward peace. We can avoid civil war, civil confrontation."
The Central Asian Islamic nation emerged as a distinct ethnic group in the 15th century. The Khanate of Kokand inherited the territory known as Kirgizia from the Mongols. Kirgizia was annexed into the Russian Empire in 1876 and quickly became assimilated. The Russians began large-scale housing, mining, and road construction projects and the construction of schools. But Kirgizia, like the other central Asian colonies, suffered from the negative effects of the Russian Empire's repressive policies. Kyrgyz nomads were used as slave labourers and had their lands confiscated for Russian settlers. In 1916, it joined a Central Asian revolt which was ruthlessly put down by the Tsar’s forces. Kyrgyzstan enjoyed a brief period of independence after the 1917 October Revolution but was eventually conquered by the Bolsheviks.
In 1926 the official name was changed to the Kyrgyz Autonomous Republic before the region achieved the status of a full republic of the Soviet Union in 1936. Although Stalin repressed local culture the Central Asian nationalist identities survived through the communist era. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, ethnic tensions erupted in Kyrgyzstan’s border Osh province between Uzbeks and Kirghiz. The majority ethnic Uzbek population were dissatisfied with what they saw as discrimination in official hiring policy and access to land and housing in favour of ethnic Kyrgyz. Despite this violence there was much optimism for the newly independent state. In 1991, Kyrgyz replaced Russian as the official language and the name of the capital, Frunze, was changed back to its pre-revolutionary name of Bishkek. Kyrgyzstan's relatively strong democratic credentials nosedived as corruption and nepotism took hold during President Akayev's years in office.
Askar Akayev ruled the country for 15 years between 1990 and 2005. He was trained as a scientist and a member of the old Supreme Soviet. He was elected leader as a compromise candidate to become the new country’s first president. Although initially seen as a libertarian, he quickly became autocratic and corrupt. Under his watch elections were flawed, opposition figures were arrested and newspapers were closed. His increasingly authoritarian regime was tolerated by the US when agreed to allow American forces to use Bishkek's Manas airport as a base for the attack on Afghanistan in 2001.
By 2005 he had made too many internal enemies. The trigger for his overthrow was yet another flawed election. Protests grew as it became apparent that election results would favour Akayev yet again. The Tulip Revolution grew from the violence that greeted those early protests. Activists seized government buildings throughout the country. The police eventually switched sides in favour of the demonstrators and a coalition united to unseat Akayev. He fled the country by helicopter as the protest movement gained unstoppable momentum. Imprisoned opposition leaders were freed and the Kyrgyz Supreme Court declared the election results invalid. The newly-elected parliament named the Southerner Kurmanbek Bakyiev as acting Prime Minister and President. Exiled in Moscow, Akayev agreed to resign. New presidential elections were held in July 2005 and Bakiyev won a landslide victory with 89% of the vote.
Bakiyev is an engineer who served with the Red Army in the 1970s. He became involved in local politics in 1990 and served as first secretary of the council in the small town of Kok-Yangak. He rose to provincial governor and eventually prime minister of his country in 2000. He was the right man in the right place to take advantage of Akeyev’s fall from power. After the usual hopes of his honeymoon period, many Kyrgyz have complained that they had seen no improvement in their standard of living since then. Bakiyev's term in office has been marred by the killing of several anti-corruption parliamentarians, prison riots, and widespread corruption. Wednesday’s constitutional changes strips his right to dissolve and parliament and limits his power in naming the prime minister. However it does not change his term of office which expires in 2010.