Bishkek: Downfall of a Dictator

Whilst travelling through Kyrgyzstan, our correspondent found himself witness to a brutal and bloodsoaked coup

Ben Judah

Late morning in Bishkek is as silent as midnight, because the darkness has crackled with gunfire. People will not take to these streets. The looters have been pillaging. The casinos have been shredded, spewing out singed playing cards and snapped roulette boards on to the pavement. The air smells of gunpowder and burnt plastic. The police have disappeared — and with them the law. 

Affluent suburbs have been gutted. Thieves have even stolen the floorboards. The ministries are smouldering. Looters are making off with clumps of wiring yanked from every socket. Supermarkets have been ripped apart. They have carted away everything from the checkout tills to the ceramic tiling. Neon mandarin characters lie cracked on the pavement. The looters tore them off Chinese shop-fronts and stamped them underfoot. The twisted metal cadavers of buses imported from China are beached on the roadside. 

Everything that they say belongs to the family of the fugitive President Kurmanbek Bakiyev is under assault. People are digging up the garden plants from their mansions, chopping his official portrait into tiny pieces, then daubing “Death to Bakiyev” on the walls of their homes. There is a revolution in this remote Central Asian republic. This is a bloodstained and hooliganish affair with no heroes. Leather-jacketed youths are breaking the crockery in a kebab house, tearing apart the outdoor seating area as they make off with the oven. 

Information is absent. Bishkek has fallen back on rumours. Businesses are painting “We are with the people” over their locked grilles and glass-fronts to keep the looters away. “If order is not restored then Russian peacekeepers will come,” says a teenage girl sweeping rubble away from her kiosk. More than 80 are dead and 1,000 are wounded. A violent takeover has turned into anarchy. “Stay indoors, they will steal everything they can.” There is no romanticism or utopianism. An anti-Semitic placard hangs over the smashed railing of the devastated government headquarters. Vigilantes wrapped in the flag wave down cars and shout orders. Vodka tangs their breath.

Confusion is mixed with cynicism. “There was a revolution that brought Bakiyev to power in 2005, five years later there was one that tore him away, the people have become lawless,” says my driver as we round the kerb by the charred wreck that used to be the Prosecutor’s office. Every window is shattered. Slices of glass catch the morning light. It is a wasteland of shredded papers, fallen tiles and blackened cabinets. The traffic has forgotten every rule in the Highway Code. Outside the pastel Soviet-baroque front of the Ministry of Health a pin-board affixed with fluttering A4s catalogues the casualties. This is a random sample of their dates of birth: 

1989, 1988, 1993, 1985, 1978, 1990, 1987, 1961, 1984, 1991, 1986.

On 7 April, an armed mob stormed the seat of power. The president’s cortège broke out of his besieged headquarters, firing live rounds on the rebels as they attempted to smash through the back windows of his luxury car. 

“Freedom or death!” they shouted. A makeshift field hospital was set up amid the shuddering machine-gun fire. Sleep-deprived doctors did the best they could, but when battling the trademark shots of sniper-fire they were helpless. Bullets had been fired into buttocks. This technique causes internal bleeding and a swift death. The morgue filled with unidentified corpses. 

The following day megaphones are placed on the mosque. Arabic wailing echoes along Soviet boulevards as the imams chant for the dead. Today is a day to stay indoors. “Kyrgyzstan is lost,” says an old man in a tattered jacket watching the anarchy played out on the television. “Kyrgyzstan is lost.” 

You can hear the Bishkek morgue as the car pulls up outside the drab concrete block in a leafy suburb — the unmistakeable primal wail of the bereaved. There is a family on the driveway. Three girls are choking from hacking sobs. A hooded young man clasps his puffy, reddened face in his hands. “They murdered my brother on the square. He had gone there because the people were suffering.” 

A woman in a floral headscarf curses incomprehensibly. “They shot my brother, the snipers shot him. He died for the people.” 

I can hardly bear to look at their faces. The wailing mother is being supported by her daughters. The brother of the murdered protester buries his head in the crook of his sister’s neck. 

“Bakiyev must come to Bishkek for a people’s trial,” she shouts. “We can show you how he was killed. We can show you he was shot by sniper fire from the front, not from behind like his people claim.” The men are moving briskly down the driveway to the metal doors of the subterranean morgue. They pull their shirts over their mouths and clasp their hands there — to keep out that smell, that taste. Grim-faced pathologists unlock the gate. They have been working overtime. A freshly printed notice is pinned next to the doorknob. 


I cannot describe the smell of a dozen rotting bodies. My throat clams, then I gag. On iron dissecting tables lay the naked bodies of four men punctured by neat black holes. Their eyes are open but the liquid inside has all gone. Skin has contracted into a greening taut pallor, pulling onto the jut and ridge of every bone. That was a teenager, turned into a middle-aged corpse. 

They still have their faces, mouths frozen in the final howl. My mind freezes. I am trying not to breathe this in. A man touches the dead meat that was the brother he loved. I turn my head but the nightmare is everywhere. Burying their mouths in their arms, the family are pushing for the exit, heads craned forward to get that extra inch away. We are trying not to vomit. These are the last 13 unidentified victims of Bakiyev’s order to fire into the crowds. 

Freedom or death: Youthful victims of the revolution 

“We waited for days and he didn’t come back, we saw him on the TV.” 

The metal door of the morgue slams shut. Like drowning men grasping for a plank of wood, they are mouthing words of prayer. So am I. 

“They fired on the people, Bakiyev’s men fired on the people. He must be tried in a people’s court.” 

Chainsmoking cannot get the taste out of my mouth. Trying to swill it away with bottles of Coca-Cola or fizzy water doesn’t work. Death has knotted itself into every crevice of my clothes and into every pore. I have to throw away my trousers and buy a fake Puma tracksuit from the nearest bazaar. I try and distance myself from the consequences of revolution, the piles of bodies. As Mao said: “A revolution is not a dinner party, not an essay, nor a painting, nor a piece of embroidery.” 

Bakiyev has fled to his heartland in southern Kyrgyzstan, a strictly Islamic and agrarian part of this mountainous realm, traditionally hostile to the Russified industrial north. The threat of civil war looms. The new authorities in Bishkek do not yet control the night. I have set out after the fugitive president. My Russian driver shakes his head. “It didn’t have to happen this way. It didn’t have to be so violent.” We are leaving a city that has become a free-trade zone for score-settling, mobsters and theft. “Before this, people were leaving to work in Russia, now I am drawing up plans to go.” 

Bishkek used to be a sleepy city, laid out on a utopian socialist grid, built on five-year plans with just a hint of the Orient, which hides a peasant village of dirt tracks, corrugated iron roofs and unemployment, a slum for thousands. Night belonged to the profiteering policemen, an orchestra of howling guard dogs and malevolent drunks. But daylight showed you who was in charge. Intellectuals were too frightened to meet in public. Journalists showed you the bruises where they had been roughed up by Bakiyev’s security thugs. His family drove sleek black SUVs while the rest made do with clapped-out Soviet-era vehicles with serious suspension problems. When Bakiyev seized power in the “Tulip Revolution” after weeks of street protests in 2005, Kyrgyzstan was supposed to be the democratic success story of Central Asia. There were hopes for an island of democracy in the hinterland of the ex-USSR, but by 2009 the opposition leader Bakyt Beshimov had made his mind up: “The island of democracy has sunk to the bottom of the sea.” 

Bakiyev ruled from an imposing socialist-era edifice known as the White House. Flowerbeds of pansies were planted out front, then ringed by ornate gold-leafed grilles and protected by an elite detachment of armed police. This was a dictator that liked nothing better than to place billboard posters of his face along the highways, at crossroads and roundabouts, places where you couldn’t avoid him. 

The most recent hoarding was a group photo of Central Asian dictators, hands placed one on top of the other, a grinning band of despotic brothers. Bakiyev wanted to be one of them. He craved the totalitarianism of Uzbekistan, the authoritarian efficiency of Kazakhstan or the sealed system of Turkmenistan. Step by step, he forgot his Tulip Revolution. 

The security services were handed over to his brother, economic life was placed in the hands of his son as the clan portioned off the wealth of the nation. Demonstrations were increasingly banned, or exiled to a derelict spot in the suburbs of Bishkek. Ministers were murdered, journalists and human rights activists began to disappear. Metal signposts announcing Bakiyev’s goals were placed on the potholed north-south artery across Kyrgyzstan.

“Today is the national year of Agriculture.” ”Serving in the Army is serving the Motherland.” 

He got the red-carpet treatment when he landed in Moscow or Washington. But his ex-Soviet backwater had no black gold. Bakiyev failed to realise that without oil, the one overwhelming financial trump-card in the pockets of his fellow Soviet bureaucrats-cum-dictators throughout Central Asia, he could never crudely consolidate power into the bank accounts and portfolios of his family. 

His delusions began to build a coalition against him. Systemically his corruption and oppressive edicts alienated each segment of society. Then this year the regime took a decisively sinister turn. Allegedly with the help of Chinese “aid”, it began to block portions of the internet and censor reports of the mass protests in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad that frightened Putin’s regime. That news reverberated across the Russian-speaking world. There were whispers in the universities, and opposition factions across Stalin’s splintered empire took heart. If you could challenge Putin and get away with it, you might be able to topple a tinpot imitation. 

Bakiyev’s greatest mistake was that he forgot how politics worked in his own country. He spat on the delicate coalition that had swept him to power. Kyrgyzstan is a clan society where regional and family ties drive economic and political life. Last summer the Kyrgyz analyst Mars Sariyev warned: “By placing all power in the hands of his clan from Jalal-Abad, he is angering the other clans that might rise against him.” As we talked he insisted we move tables twice. Is that man in sunglasses an informer? More than 50 per cent of the Kyrgyz economy is estimated to be black or illicit. The country sits smack bang on the heroin road to Europe north from Afghanistan. There are those who argued that it was only with the grace and favour of gangsters that Bakiyev managed to grease the wheels of the Tulip Revolution. When he let his son Maxim monopolise the shadow world, the aspiring despot turned the powerful, armed Kyrgyz gangs against him. 

The final nail in his political coffin was the arrogant assumption that he could play the US off against Putin’s Russia as they scrambled for bases in these strategic crossroads. Bakiyev launched a bidding war between the great powers, letting the US open a base to Moscow’s ire, before closing it in exchange for vast sums of Russian money, only to reopen it when Washington stumped up even more greenbacks. The Kremlin felt he had stolen from them. The White House decided it couldn’t rely on him to be “our son of a bitch”. 

Bakiyev then hit the people where it hurts, raising utility bills by 400 per cent. Simmering disgruntlement at creeping authoritarianism began to boil. 

A week before blood splattered the streets of Bishkek, my jeep entered the country from Tajikistan via a mountain-pass border post. Faint from altitude sickness, I asked a guard for his views as we watched his guard dog chase its own tail in the snow. His reply was curt: “The president’s a prick.”

Hours later in the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh, I dined with a family of eight. Our meal was stale bread and recycled tea. His face haggard from mountain truck-driving, a father of three small children despaired at the country they would grow up in. He ate only the smallest morsel of bread, leaving the rest for his toddlers. “There are no jobs here. Nothing. When the Russians were here we had schools, hospitals and factories. Nobody gets jobs here unless they are Bakiyev’s family.” 

Sharing a taxi to Bishkek I heard the same complaints. “Look at this road. Nobody has repaired it since Gorbachev.”

But the soft jazz was still droning in the luxury bars of Bakiyev’s capital. Smartly-suited profiteers turned what they had milked from the system into dizzyingly expensive cocktails. If you mentioned the disgruntlement in the countryside, or that in the villages donkeys were the most common form of transport, not to mention the fact that for most people living standards had been declining relentlessly since the mid-Eighties, you were abruptly brushed away. “Kyrgyzstan had the highest growth rate in the ex-USSR last year,” smiled one hotelier. This tatty parade failed to see it coming. Not one diplomat or analyst predicted the anarchic insurrection. 

If on 6 April you had suggested to the staff at the Da Vinci lounge bar, haunted by slippery investers and money-launderers, that the following day they would be raiding the stocks and sheltering from rifle fire outside, or that the day after that the bar would be razed to the ground, they would have laughed at you.

The Bakiyevs raided the national development fund. Then the economic councils were stitched up into rackets for the presidential dauphin. Nepotism was no longer a crime. To quote Kurmanbek Bakiyev himself: “Why should I appoint a stranger to a key government position when I can appoint my own son, as I trust my son more than a stranger?” Money-laundering, murder, front companies, drug-deals, tax hikes and sales of sovereign land to the Chinese — the Bakiyevs behaved as if nobody was watching. Yet the powerless kept a detailed log of their transgressions. 

America was allowed to open an “anti-terror centre” near the Tadjik border. The Kremlin retaliated by ordering its state-controlled media to attack Bakiyev. Corruption and illegality in Kyrgyzstan were feature stories on the daily news. Last August the opposition leader Timur Sariyev told me: “Russia’s influence is enormous because people can go freely to Russia and 95 per cent of people speak Russian. Russia has an excellent policy of beaming their broadcasts into Central Asia and as a consequence 50 per cent of all information the Kyrgyz have is Russian. Kyrgyz know more about Russia than their own country. When all you watch is Russian TV the majority just accept Russia’s point of view. I think this is very good for Kyrgyzstan.” (On 7 April, Sariyev would be gesturing to the mob to storm the headquarters of the security services.) 

But Bakiyev didn’t get the message and denied Russia’s requests for further bases. Putin responded on 1 April by imposing heavy duties on energy exports to Kyrgyzstan, pushing up gasoline prices by 30 per cent. After a winter of rolling blackouts and soaring utility bills, this was a Russian bullet aimed at Bakiyev’s head. On 6 April texts and phones began to buzz with the news that these price rises had triggered mass protests in the provincial city of Talas. Bishkek went to bed thinking nothing of it. 

Today is Revolution.” 

“What are you talking about?” 

I am trying to persuade a taxi to drive me to a bar with wi-fi. 

“The other drivers called us. They are marching into the city. The Talas people have come to the city.” 

The security guards are evacuating the department stores. Store managers are trying to pull iron shuttering down before it’s too late. The pavement is filing with onlookers. Work is ceasing. 

“Freedom or Death!” 

A mobs runs like a river because people get caught up in its flow, then swept along in it. Workers slip into the crowd and lose themselves, shop assistants wade in and pick up rocks to hurl at the police, offices are emptying. Nothing matters now but the surging mob, ripping up paving stones and grabbing planks of wood, metal bars, anything they can use as weapons. 

“Down with the dictator!” 

Endgame: President Kumanbek Bakiyev tried to rally his forces, then fled

Three armour-plated trucks lead the way. Dozens of men have clambered aboard. They are shrieking with excitement, banging the iron surfaces with sticks and fists. A leather-jacketed thug is waving the national flag, roaring, his eyes fixed ahead, drugged by the audacity of insurrection. A man in a gas-mask waves an AK-47. 

The armoured trucks have been commandeered from riot police dispatched to quell the unrest when it was on the outskirts. They were overwhelmed by the mob, which is now carrying their metal shields and waving their batons. There can be no turning back now — to retreat would send the spectators fleeing and invite the army to bet on the regime again. Society is dissolving. People are rushing to the central square to see their political future decided. The avenues belong to the rioters. 

“Storm the White House!” 

The armoured personnel carriers are accelerating towards the railings of the seat of power. Rumours swirl that Russia is funding the demonstrations. The crowd erupts and applauds with the sudden overwhelming roar of a rainstorm. The trucks have pushed through the railings. I am 20 metres away. I can see a line of armed police standing to attention. For a split second they seem to do nothing. Then the shooting and the screaming start. Are those live or blank? You cannot tell. I am running because the crowd is running, what one man does a dozen thoughtlessly follow. The live rounds start. A stampede rushes along the edge of the square. A wounded man is being hauled by his hands and feet into a passing car. I am trying to catch my breath behind a street corner. There is blood in the gutter. 

“They are shooting!” 

“Freedom or Death!”

They are whistling. The tipping point has flicked. The mob has lost its fear of the bullets. There are men with machine-guns running forward among the crowd. A tractor is speeding towards the White House, followed by a fork-lift and a pick-up truck. Thousands are watching from the corners of the square. There is more cynicism than excitement, as if this is a deadly election campaign. A core of about 500 armed men are attacking relentlessly, joined by overexcited boys. 

Thick red pools splatter the tarmac. The guard of honour have fled their sentry duty beside the statue commemorating independence from the Soviet imperium. Hooligans in hoods are smashing up their glass-windowed posts. The flash from stun guns, then the clouds of tear-gas. My eyes are burning and the vapour is choking. But I haven’t got the time to be tear-gassed — I am being shot at. 

As dozens rush back, scores surge forward. The volume of confrontation rises through the evening into the night. The shuddering of machine-guns, explosions, the howl of the mob. Television and radio go dead. Will the army move in? An image of three revolutionaries in blue scarves appears on TV, then disappears. At 2am, cheering and the honking or cars, the blaring of megaphones. The Kyrgyz Bastille has fallen to the rebels. 

In the cramped cockpit of the first plane to Jalal-Abad, the southern stronghold of the ousted leader, the smartly-uniformed young pilot wants to talk. Does he support the revolution? “This has been a disaster for the country. They were not revolutionaries. They were boys on the square. The blame lies with their parents. Why did they let them go? My neighbour was shot. When I first heard this I started to feel very cold, then faint. I had to sit down. For five minutes I couldn’t say anything. Then I got up and shouted. I think I waved my fist in the air.” 

The second pilot says: “We flew Bakiyev’s troops to the south. We felt so nervous when we were doing it. We were just doing our jobs. He is hiding in his native village outside Jalal-Abad.”

We have dipped below the clouds. Rolling fields of green. This is the Fergana Valley, one of the most delicate ethnic puzzles in the world. Here an overlapping patchwork of Tadjik enclaves, Kyrgyz exiles and Uzbek diasporas are knotted into absurd borders drawn by Stalin’s own hand to render autonomy unimaginable. 

President Medvedev of Russia is warning that Kyrgyzstan is on the brink of civil war. Bakiyev has placed makeshift roadblocks around the village of Teyyit. Peasant boys are manning checkpoints made of rocks and outdoor tables. 

Gormless-looking locals are milling around the gates of the Bakiyev family compound. The fugitive leader receives journalists in a yurt-like summer house. He and his brother are garbed in the finely-tailored silk suits of investment bankers, trappings of the luxury they enjoyed just a week earlier. “The president will now receive you.” It seems to me that neither Bakiyev nor his family has quite understood what has happened. 

“How did you feel in the car speeding away from the White House?”

“Feelings? What feelings?” 

He seems a little thrown. “I felt…I felt…bitterness and a pain in my soul.” 

“Earlier today I was in a morgue, Mr President. What is your message to those I met there?”

“The opposition fired on the crowds into their backs because they wanted blood.”

Does he really believe this? 

“The president would never give the order to fire on the people.” 

I spend the night in the crude home of an Uzbek farmer, amid barking dogs and braying herds. There are rumours of war. The Bakiyevs rally the following day in Jalal-Abad. Nervous vigilante teenagers cower in the municipal headquarters. They have little red cloths tied round their arms. “We will defend the building with clubs if necessary.” Thousands of Uzbeks are marching towards their university. “We don’t need a civil war. We can’t have this,” says an elderly Uzbek man, putting his head in his thick worker’s hands. 

“We are being provoked by the Bakiyevs but we must not let a civil war begin,” exclaims the Uzbek leader of Jalal-Abad. Applause, then hoots of support. You cannot drive on the main roads today. Jalal-Abad is marching. Encircled by their supporters, opposition activists boom through loudspeakers, “Go home, think of tomorrow, think of your children, think of the future, the meeting is cancelled.” 

Bakiyev is coming to town. Thugs with AK-47s guard the compound doors. My driver follows his high-speed cortege. The police salute. 

“Bakiyev, Bakiyev!”

But the gathering is in the hundreds. They are mostly old. The women are said to have been paid to scream accusations against his opponents. The clan has reinforced its roadblocks. Thick slabs block the tracks into Teyyit. 

Posing as a Russian and doling out cigarettes, I slip into the compound and run into Bakiyev’s brother Kanabek. Misty-eyed and confused, he contradicts himself as we speak. His voice is tinged with fear. He is wearing the same clothes as when I spotted him walking alongside the fugitive president the previous day. 

“My brother will resign.”  

“My brother will not resign.” 

There is a sombre mood in the courtyard, as though the Bakiyevs have only just realised what has happened. Kanabek continues. “We are driving to Osh tomorrow to hold a rally.” 

 The following day I drive to Osh. A call comes in. “There is shooting in Osh.” Fifteen minutes later we see the fugitive president’s cortege of shiny blacked-out SUVs hurtling in the other direction, towards Jalal-Abad. 

Witnesses say that Bakiyev’s supporters gathered in front of the theatre. Placards were raised announcing “HANDS OFF THE LEGITIMATE PRESIDENT.” The gathering was in the hundreds but thousands of angry opposition marchers began to surround them. 

“Do not run away, do not run away,” Bakiyev shouted. Then his guards fired into the air. People screamed and ran away. Bakiyev was thrown into his SUV and whisked away.

It is raining. I am shouting at the driver to go faster, back after Bakiyev to Jalal-Abad. As we race into town we see a grey unmarked military plane soaring overhead. 

“That’s him, he’s fled,” I shout. 

The compound is in disarray. The guards mutter: “Yes, he’s gone. He’s left for Kazakhstan.”

I walk into the summer house where Bakiyev received me earlier in the week. The dictator has run away without even switching off the lights.

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