Formerly known as the Kara [black] Kyrgyz to distinguish them from the Kazakhs (at one time called Kirghiz or Kyrgyz), the Kyrgyz migrated to Kyrgyzstan from the region of the upper Yenisei, where they had lived from the 7th to the 17th cent. The area came under the rule of the Kokand khanate in the 19th cent. and was gradually annexed by Russia between 1855 and 1876 as part of Russian Turkistan. The nomadic Kyrgyz resisted conscription into the czarist army in 1916, leading to an uprising, the Urkun, in which 100,000 and perhaps many more died and many fled to China. The Kyrgyz also fought the establishment of Bolshevik control from 1917 to 1921. As a result of war devastation, there was a famine in 1921–22 in which over 500,000 Kyrgyz died. The area was formed into the Kara-Kirghiz Autonomous Region within the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic in 1924, becoming an autonomous republic in 1926 and a constituent republic in 1936.
In 1990, Askar Akayev, president of the republic's Academy of Sciences, was elected president as a compromise candidate by the legislature. After fighting off an attempted coup in 1991, the government declared Kyrgyzstan independent of the Soviet Union. Kyrgyzstan subsequently became a member of the Russian-dominated Commonwealth of Independent States, and a new consitutution was approved.
Akayev, who remained president, fostered ties with China and other neighboring nations and initiated an ambitious program of free-market reforms. He retained his post in the 1995 elections, which were denounced by opposition leaders but given guarded support by UN observers. Also in 1995, Kyrgyzstan, along with Belarus and Kazakhstan, signed a pact with Russia providing for close economic cooperation. In 1996, Akayev won a referendum on amending the constitution to increase the presidency's powers. Islamic militants seized several towns near the border with Tajikistan (where a civil war began in 1992) in 1999, and in 2000 Kyrgyzstani forces fought Uzbek guerrillas based in Tajikistan that had infiltrated into the Fergana Valley. Akayev was reelected president in Oct., 2000, in a contest that observers said was marred by intimidation and ballot fraud. A U.S. air base, used for operationsin Afghanistan, was established at Manas in late 2001, following the Sept. 11th attacks against the United States. A Feb., 2003, referendum approved constitutional changes and affirmed Akayev's current term in office. The vote was prompted by unrest prior to 2003, but the constitutional changes and outcome of the vote were denounced by those opposed to Akayev.
The 2005 elections for parliament ended in a lopsided victory for Akayev's supporters, a result that sparked unrest in a nation already beset by persistent poverty and corruption. In March, opposition demonstrators seized control of the southwestern cities and regions of Jalal-Abad and Osh, and the uprising spread to Bishkek. As a result of the
Tulip Revolution, Akayev fled the country for Russia (and officially resigned the following month), and Kurmanbek Bakiyev, a former prime minister who had resigned in 2002 and then opposed Akayev, was appointed prime minister and acting president. Despite the supreme court's annulment of the elections, the departing parliament decided to accept the results, and the new legislators took office.
In the months leading up to the July, 2005, presidential election, the country experienced an increased level of civil unrest as the provisional government struggled somewhat to establish its control, and the unrest continued sporadically through the rest of 2005. The July vote resulted in a landslide victory for Bakiyev, who had agreed in May to appoint his most significant political rival—Felix Kulov, the provisional government's former security services coordinator—as prime minister. Kulov was confirmed as prime minister in September.
At the end of 2005, the political situation remained somewhat tenuous, with the president seeking to consolidate his power and influence despite his pledge to reduce his powers and parliament seeking to increase the prime minister's powers. Corruption and crime, meanwhile, had become worse than it had been under Akayev; reform efforts stalled; and by 2006 interethnic tensions and violence appeared to be increasing. Increased antiterror operations in SW Kyrgyzstan, directed mainly against Uzbeks, appeared in part designed to suppress an Uzbek campaign for enlarged civil rights and aggravated ethnic strains.
Unhappiness with Bakiyev led to several large demonstrations against him in 2006, and a loss of support in parliament. In May, 13 government ministers resigned after being criticized by the parliament, but then remained in office after meeting with the president. Omurbek Tekebayev, a former parliament speaker and opposition leader, was arrested in Poland in Sept., 2006, on drug charges, then was released when the heroin was determined to have been planted. The president's brother and the deputy director of the state security service were implicated in affair, which was seen as a government effort to discredit its opponents.
The president and parliament continued to joust over constitutional reform, with each side preferring that it have the stronger powers in any new national charter. In November, however, after a week of opposition demonstrations in the capital, parliament passed a compromise constitution that reduced the president's powers, and the president signed it. In December, Prime Minister Kulov's government resigned, ostensibly to accelerate the election of a parliament under the new constitution so that the new parliament might elect the prime minister (as required under the new constitution), but parliament subsequently adopted revisions to the November constitution that restored some of the president's lost powers and also allowed the president to appoint a new cabinet until a new parliament was elected. Bakiyev then twice appointed Kulov prime minister, but parliament refused to approve the choice.
In late Jan., 2007, a compromise choice, Azim Isabekov, the agriculture minister, was appointed prime minister and confirmed, but he resigned in March after the opposition, which had become increasing critical of the government, refused to join in a coalition. Bakiyev then appointed opposition politician Almazbek Atambayev as prime minister, but many in the opposition continued to resist joining a coalition government, mounting demonstrations instead and calling for the president to resign and parliament to dissolve. In May, 2007, there was an apparent attempt to poison the prime minister, possibly over a government decision to nationalize a semiconductor plant, but he survived after treatment.
In Sept., 2007, the constitutional court ruled that the 2006 amendments to the constitution were invalid because a referendum was required. The following month, however, a referendum approved the changes, but independent observers questioned the result, saying that there was evidence of an inflated turnout and ballot stuffing. Subsequently, parliamentary elections were called for December, which were won overwhelmingly by the president's Best Path Popular (Ak-Jol Eldik) party. The largest opposition party was denied any seats and accused the government of fraud; despite winning 8% of the vote nationally, the election commission said it failed to win the .5% required in each region. Western observers said the election failed to meet international standards and were critical of the regional vote requirement. Igor Chudinov was named prime minister. The government moved in Feb., 2009, to end U.S. use of the Manas air base; although Kyrgyzstan denied it, the action appeared linked to the country's receipt of $2 billion aid package from Russia. In June, however, the government agreed to a new lease on the base in return for increased rent and other aid. Bakiyev was reelected in July, but the campaign was criticized as unfair and the vote, which was denounced by the opposition as fraudulent, was marred by widespread irregularities and criticized by OSCE observers. Chudinov and the cabinet resigned in Oct., 2009, as Bakiyev undertook a major government reorganization that placed control of foreign affairs and security forces directly under the president; Daniyar Usenov, the president's chief of staff, succeeded Chudinov as prime minister.
In early 2010 Bakiyev faced growing criticism, even from his supporters, for moves against opposition politicians and independent media outlets. In April, protests that began in Talas spread to Bishkek and other northeastern cities, and when clashes in the capital resulted in the deaths of some 80 people, Bakiyev fled to his native Jalalabad prov. in W Kyrgyzstan. Opposition politicians proclaimed an interim government, with former foreign minister Roza Otunbayeva as its leader. Bakiyev and Usenov subsequently went into exile, and were later convicted in absentia of various crimes.
The new government struggled to assert contol and reestablish order, especially in SW Kyrgyzstan, where support for the former president was stronger. When Uzbek volunteers helped the government regain control in Jalalabad in June, the move apparently sparked ethnic rioting in SW Kyrgyzstan, with the largely Kyrgyz police and the military reportedly supporting Kyrgyz mobs (though the government denied this and blamed the rioting on foreigners, some Uzbek leaders, and the Bakiyev family). An independent international inquiry estimated that 470 people were killed, and some 410,000 were displaced. The violence disproportionately affected Uzbeks, many of whom sought refuge in neighboring Uzbekistan.
A referendum later in the month approved a new constitution establishing a parliamentary republic; Otunbayeva was named to serve as interim president until the end of 2011. In the Oct., 2010, parliamentary elections, five parties won votes from more than 5% of the eligible voters (the threshold for representation in parliament); no party won more than 9%. A sixth party narrowly failed to win the necessary votes due to a change in the election commission's calculation of the number of eligible voters, leading to protests from the party and its supporters.
In Dec., 2010, three parties, including the SW-Kyrgyzstan-based Ata Jurt (Homeland) party, which opposed the creation of a parliamentary republic, formed a government; Social Democrat Atambayev became prime minister for the second time. He subsequently ran for president, handily winning in Oct., 2011, but the voting was marred by irregularities and reflected regional divisions, with most of his support coming from the northeast. In December the Social Democrats withdrew from the governing coalition, forcing the formation of a new government; a new four-party coalition was formed, with the Respublika party's Omurbek Babanov as prime minister. That government collapsed in Aug., 2012, when two of the parties withdrew from the coalition. Those parties and the Social Democrats formed a new government in September, with Jantoro Satybaldiyev, an independent, as prime minister.
In Oct., 2012, Kamchybek Tashiyev, the nationalist leader of Ata Jurt, was arrested when he led an attempt to storm the parliament complex in the capital; he was later acquitted (June, 2013) of having attempted to overthrow the government. In June, 2013, Kyrgyzstan decided to end the U.S. lease on Manas by July, 2014; the decision was apparently linked to Russia's forgiveness of some of Kyrgyzstan's debt and other aid. Most U.S. personnel left by Feb., 2014. In July, 2013, the government signed an agreement to sell control of the state natural gas distribution company to the Russian giant Gazprom for $1 in exchange for infrastructure investments in Kyrgyzstan's energy system and other considerations.
In Mar., 2014, Prime Minister Satybaldiyev resigned after the Ata Meken (Fatherland) party withdrew from the government, and then stepped down as interim government leader. Djoomart Otorbayev, an independent, became acting prime minister and then prime minister when the prior three-party governing coalition formed a new government in April, but he resigned a year later. Temir Sariyev succeeded him as prime minister. In the Oct., 2015, parliamentary elections, the Social Democrats won a plurality; five other parties secured seats. Three of the parties joined the Social Democrats in a governing coalition, and Sariyev remained prime minister. Kyrgyzstan joined the Eurasian Economic Union in 2015.
In Apr., 2016, cabinet conflicts led to Sariyev's resignation; Sooronbai Jeenbekov succeeded him as prime minister. In October, coalition disagreements over constitutional changes advocated by President Atambayev, including increased powers for the prime minister, led to the government's resignation after Atambayev's Social Democrats quit the coalition. A new Social Democrat–led three-party coalition was formed in November, with Jeenbekov as prime minister, and in December a referendum approved the constitutional amendments.
In 2016 a number of opposition politicians were arrested (March, May); each group was separately charged with plotting a coup. In 2017 Tekebayev and others associated with Ata Meken were arrested on corruption and criminal charges. The coup, corruption, and other charges and investigations were denounced as politically motivated and criticized by observers. The Oct., 2017, presidential election was won by Jeenbekov, who had resigned as prime minister in August; the vote was again marred by irregularities. Sapar Isakov, a Social Democrat, succeeded Jeenbekov as prime minister, but Isakov lost a confidence vote in Apr., 2018, and was succeeded by Mukhammedkalyi Abylgaziev.
In 2018 a number of Atambayev's allies were dismissed from their posts or arrested on corruption charges; former prime ministers Isakov and Satybaldiyev were convicted (2019) of corruption. In 2019 Atambayev rejected summonses and sought to avoid, then violently resisted, arrest before he surrendered; he was convicted on corruption-related charges in 2020. Abylgaziev resigned in June, 2020, after he was accused of involvement in the illegal government sale of radio frequencies; he denied any involvement, and had not been investigated. Kubatbek Boronov, the first deputy prime minister, succeeded him.
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