THE Communist Party of Kirghizia rules this Soviet republic from
the marble fortress of the House of Soviets in Frunze's central
But not 20 minutes drive away, the ugly Soviet apartment blocks
disappear. In their place, Kirghiz sheepherders on horseback wearing
peaked felt caps guide their flocks across the foothills of the
jagged, snow-capped peaks.
Before the revolution, this city was called Pishpek, a tiny
outpost of Russian and Ukrainian settlers at the edge of the empire
in Inner Asia. They lived amid the nomadic Kirghiz, a Turkic people
who have herded across the mighty Tian Shan mountains since at least
the second millennium BC.
Although democratization and reform have swept the Soviet Union
since 1985, change has come slowly to this Central Asian republic.
The combination of Communist Party orthodoxy and deep-rooted culture
has earned it the reputation as the most conservative corner of the
But perestroika (restructuring) has finally arrived in this
mountainous land, personified by the surprising October election of
Askar Akayev, a gentle 46-year-old Kirghiz physicist, to the
presidency of the republic. Against all odds, and all expectations,
he took the job from party leader and government boss Absamat
Masaliyev, who had kept Kirghizia as the only republic not to join
the wave of nationalism and sovereignty declarations.
"The democrats won over the conservatives," Mr. Akayev says
simply, referring to the block of 114 democratic deputies which
emerged, seemingly out of nowhere, to spearhead his victory.
Much of the credit for this goes to the fledgling Democratic
Movement of Kirghizstan, which was born only this past year, on May
26. It is modeled on the "popular fronts" that have led nationalist
revolts in many Soviet republics.
"We were influenced first of all by the Baltic republics, who
started to resist the central totalitarian system," says Kazat
Akhmatov, the writer and former Communist official who co-chairs the
The movement has its origins in several small groups of activists
who began organizing in 1988, Akhmatov explains. The May conference
united 22 groups, the most important of which were Ashar, an
organization of mostly young people demanding land to build housing;
Asaba, a Frunze youth organization; and the Association of Young
The program set at the May meeting called for a struggle against
party rule and the command economy, for complete economic and
political sovereignty within a confederation, and for "restoration
of national language, history, and culture."
Economic independence, in the view of many Kirghiz, means an end
to being virtually a semicolonial dependency of Moscow. In
neighboring Uzbekistan, that status means giving over most of
agriculture to cotton, which is shipped out raw at fixed low prices.
In Kirghizia, cotton, wool, and tobacco are produced, almost none of
which is processed here.
"All Central Asian republics are now a source of raw materials,"
says economist and Deputy Premier Turar Koichuyevich, who heads the
commission on economic reform.
Kirghizia, like other Central Asian republics, suffers from a
combination of economic backwardness, high population growth, and a
shortage of land. The population of 4,260,000 is growing by 100,000
a year, while only 5 to 6 percent of its land is arable, the rest
consisting of mountains. According to the latest Soviet census
figures, the republic is 52.3 percent Kirghiz, 21.5 percent Russian,
12.9 percent Uzbek, and the rest other nationalities.
These conditions led to the tragic clash between Kirghiz and
Uzbeks in the Osh region, where the eastern end of the fertile
Fergana Valley extends into Kirghizia. …