Marcus Tanner: Patience of a long-suffering people was bound to run out

Few foreigners who have lived in Kyrgyzstan can honestly say they always knew this was coming. Far from being a seething cauldron, what most struck the average visitor was the silence and air of decay – a feeling that the clock had stopped about 20 years previously, on the eve of un-sought independence.

Bishkek was a post-Soviet ruin where the potholed avenues were reverting to the muddy tracks they had once been. The city's greatest landmark, the national museum, was another run-down shrine.

Old people associated the Soviet era with electricity, buildings that remained standing, steady wages and holidays in the Baltic or Crimea. They took little pride in being "free" to run a poor, landlocked state with few resources. When I worked there, polls showed the overwhelming majority wanted Russia's Vladimir Putin as their leader, not some local fellow. Countless families survived on money relatives earned on Russian building sites. Being cut off from Russia was the big fear – and the fall-off in blue-collar construction jobs in Russia over the past year has triggered desperation.

Anxious that Russia might forget them entirely, fearful of their big neighbour Uzbekistan, and jealous of their oil-rich northern neighbour, Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz had hoped their strategic position on the crossroads between China and Central Asia might reap big benefits – but it never quite worked out as they imagined. The US opened an airbase to supply Afghan operations and a university in Bishkek, but its interest in Central Asia has declined since it became clear the region was going to remain Russia's backyard.

Without a feeling of nationalism to appeal to, Kyrgyzstan's ineffectual and corrupt leaders have been deprived of the ace so many hopeless dictators can play to keep mob anger at bay. What they have been able to rely on until now is apathy. But even among the easygoing Kyrgyz, patience has limits.