RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service director Tyntchtykbek Tchoroev reflects on his involvement in a key anti-Communist rally held on May 1, 1990 in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
Kyrgyz marked the 1st of May, Labor Day, in different ways. While the local Communists celebrated the international day of workers' unity, I remembered this day for a different reason -- as the twentieth anniversary of the anti-Communist rally held in Bishkek on May 1, 1990.
I was one of the organizers of that rally, which was intended as an alternative demonstration against the Communist regime in Kyrgyzstan. At the time, I was a 31 year-old teacher and one of the leaders of the Association of Young Historians of Kyrgyzstan, a non-governmental organization. The main political organization in charge of the rally was an underground political movement known as "Asaba" (Flag).
The rally was the first signal to the establishment that a movement against the one-party Communist system existed. Common opposition practices today, like holding a press conference or publishing an article in a newspaper, were virtually unknown at that time.
If the Kyrgyz youth had not been active twenty years ago, the social and political life of Kyrgyzstan would likely be much more similar to some of Kyrgyzstan’s authoritarian neighbors today
Secretly, members of the Asaba movement and their supporters collected money and prepared banners with slogans demanding democracy in Kyrgyzstan.
The 1st of May was designated as the day of the pro-Kremlin rally, so workers, students and intellectuals were instructed to march through the Central "Ala-Too" Square. Our plan was to follow the formally accepted rally with our own, carrying banners with democratization slogans. In order to attract people's attention, we prepared blue flags and banners. Blue was regarded as the color of the historically independent medieval Kyrgyz Khanate, which ruled in South Siberia during the 6th-12th centuries.
The day started wonderfully -- it was sunny and warm. As our group, made up of young students, workers, teachers and engineers moved towards the centre of the city, some residents of the capital watched us with wonder -- and suspicion -- but others joined us.
Less than a kilometer from the main square we were stopped by a police squad. Abdybek Sutalinov, the police commander, called his superiors for permission to allow us to continue our march or to disperse the unarmed protesters by force. The rally participants demanded that they be allowed to proceed after the Communists' columns. The tension was palpable.
After a standoff that lasted for more than an hour, the police finally opened the way for our blue-bannered columns.
We learned afterwards that the order to allow us to proceed was given by Feliks Kulov, then head of the Bishkek city police. (Kulov also indirectly supported the protesters during the anti-Communist hunger strike in October 1990 by not arresting its participants.)
I was amazed to learn that the bulk of the democratic protesters in Kyrgyzstan this April were young people, born on the eve of the Soviet Union's collapse or afterwards. The May 1, 1990 rally was also organized mostly by youths.
If the Kyrgyz youth had not been active twenty years ago, the social and political life of Kyrgyzstan would likely be much more similar to some of Kyrgyzstan’s authoritarian neighbors today.--Tyntchtykbek Tchoroev is the director of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service