Kyrgyzstan Protests: Rehearsal for Revolution?
It may not be a Rose or Orange Revolution, but Kyrgyzstan's opposition activists say their four-day protest in defense of former diplomats' right to run for parliament is a sign that voters will hold the government to its promise of a free and fair vote in next month's parliamentary poll.
The protests have certainly made an impression on Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev, who plainly is concerned that the approaching election could spur the type of burgeoning protests that toppled the established political orders in Georgia and Ukraine. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. "We must not turn this year of elections [in Kyrgyzstan] into a year of our misfortune and discord," Akayev said during a state-of-the-nation address broadcast January 11 on state television.
Beginning January 7, about 150 people, wearing yellow and pink protest scarves, and carrying posters calling on Akayev's administration to observe voting rights, picketed parliament, and later, government buildings in downtown Bishkek. They were protesting authorities' refusal to register ex-ambassadors as candidates in the country's February 27 elections. Spurring the protests was a Bishkek electoral district committee's January 6 refusal to register Roza Otunbaeva, a onetime foreign minister, and leader of the Ata-Jurt (Fatherland) movement, one of Kyrgyzstan's five main opposition groupings.
The refusal had come just five hours after Otunbaeva had been presented with her official registration certificate and coincided with news of the nomination of Bermet Akayeva, the president's daughter, as a candidate for parliament from the same district. While opposition members cried foul play, election officials declared that Otunbaeva's candidacy was denied because, contrary to current Kyrgyzstani election law, she has not lived in Kyrgyzstan permanently for the past five years. Otunbaeva served as ambassador to the United States and United Kingdom from 1992 to 2002, and later worked as a deputy special representative of the United Nations General Secretary. She returned to Kyrgyzstan in 2004.
On January 10, opposition members called off their protests to await a parliamentary hearing on the election law that could conceivably lead to Otunbaeva's candidacy being reinstated. Candidates have until January 17 to register for the elections.
If the legislative hearing yields an undesirable result, activists say that they will make use of all available methods at their disposal to ensure opposition candidates are registered. Aside from Otunbaeva, the law has also been used to prevent the registration of other former ambassadors who sympathize with the opposition. Though the Constitutional Court later rejected a petition placed by three of them -- Medetkan Sherimkulov, Usen Sydykov and Mambetjunus Abylov to have the law declared unconstitutional, Otunbaeva's lawyer, Nurlan Sydykov, is planning to take her case before the court as well. "We have become the elections' first victims," Otunbaeva told supporters on January 7.
While outside observers have drawn parallels between the protests in Bishkek and movements in Kyiv and Tbilisi that led to regime change, some opposition members emphasize that they do not want to overthrow the government. "We live at a time when the majority of the people are ready for similar events, "Topchubek Turgunaliev, a member of the People's Movement of Kyrgyzstan's Central Council, said. "Thousands of people can come out to support their candidates. But we should keep in mind that we can act only by lawful methods."
Akayev's state-of-the-nation address was a clear attempt by the president to intimidate his opponents -- a pre-emptive strike aimed at preventing the protest movement from gaining traction. In seeking to rally public opinion around him, Akayev cast himself as the defender of "democracy and the supremacy of law," while painting his opponents as self-aggrandizing rabble-rousers who were intent on exploiting the upcoming elections for their own political ends. The early January protests served as merely the first volley in the opposition's attempt to overthrow the existing order, Akayev suggested. He went on to urge the Kyrgyz people "to stand against the actions of exporters of revolutions and instigators."
"The most dangerous thing is that our home-grown instigators now have quite skilled trainers, who have learned to make revolutions of various colors out of provocation," Akayev said, referring to Georgia's Rose Revolution, and Ukraine's Orange Revolution. "We should not let anybody trample our laws and reverse our confident forward movement."
Akayev also attempted to persuade the Kyrgyz populace that his administration was the most trustworthy steward of economic development. Akayev declared 2005 "the year of social stability and housing construction," and detailed the economic gains made over the past year, including a six-percent decrease in poverty rates. The organizers of the Bishkek protests, Akayev argued, used to tout such accomplishments as a sign of the need for social stability, but "[t]oday they're making a lot of noise and trying to whip up a crowd of picketers to put pressure on the state authorities and Central Election Commission to move things in the direction they desire," Kabar quoted Akayev as saying. "And no one sees that the ordinary citizens of Kyrgyzstan are alarmed by all these managed and paid protestors."
Unknown graffiti artists in Bishkek have sought reinforce the image of government opponents as recipients of foreign funding. In recent days they have spray-painted dollar signs in red on the houses of human rights activists, independent media and opposition members, including that of Otunbaeva. "The appearance of drawings on the houses of certain politicians is directly related to their professional activity and with critical statements they have made against the current authorities," rights campaigner Tolekan Ismailova said at a January 12 press conference in Bishkek, the Interfax news agency reported. Representatives of the Interior Ministry and Security Ministry have denied any involvement in the acts of vandalism.
Some analysts have questioned how far opposition leaders will actually be willing to go in pressing their cause. Though Kyrgyzstan's five largest opposition groups have signed an agreement that binds them to mutual support during the election season, ties between the Akayev administration and opposition groups are far from distinct, and political ambitions of opposition leaders have, in the past, prevented the organization of a broad, unified opposition movement, according to one local political analyst. "Different political groups from the opposition are trying to unite with each other," Aalybek Akunov told Vecherny Bishkek. "But as the last elections showed, the opposition will not be able to become a serious political force."
For now, though, the government is not taking any chances. While authorities took no actions against protestors themselves, an attempt to build a tent city a tactic successfully used by demonstrators in Kyiv was met with an immediate police response: authorities grabbed the tents, and drove off with them in trucks. On January 10, pro-government forces attempted their own street demonstration with a show of about 200 participants waving blue banners in support of Akayev. The opposition claimed most of the protestors were teachers and doctors who are on the state payroll, and the anti-Akayev press described participants as under government orders to attend.
Meanwhile, media outlets sympathetic to the government are conducting an information campaign of their own, organized loosely around the theme of stability. In a January 6 interview with the state news agency Kabar, for instance, Foreign Minister Askar Aitmatov stated that Kyrgyzstan would not be able to avoid violence if the opposition continues with public demonstrations or embarks on a civil disobedience initiative. "The desire for us to realize our own
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