Thousands of protesters gathered in Bishkek's main square on November 2 to call for the resignation of Kyrgyzstan's President Kurmanbek Bakiyev and Prime Minister Feliks Kulov. Led by the political opposition, the demonstrators vowed to remain in place until Bakiyev's ouster or the creation of a new constitution, claiming the Kyrgyz leader had reneged on an earlier promise to submit a compromise draft constitution to parliament that day.
Estimates of the number of protesters varied widely. The organizers -- a coalition of opposition politicians and civil society activists called For Reforms! -- claimed they had met their goal of 50,000 participants. Local news agencies put the number closer to 20,000, whereas the police said no more than 6,000 had attended. City police, reinforced by units from outside Bishkek and trainees, kept their distance.
As an antidote to the Bakiyev administration's alleged abuse of executive power, the opposition is calling for a new constitution that strengthens parliament's authority relative to the presidential branch of government. On November 1, a flurry of negotiations suggested that a tentative agreement with Bakiyev on constitutional reform could be in the works. But in a speech to parliament on the morning of November 2, President Bakiyev said that he would not rush to take action on the strength of the opposition's demands alone.
The Kyrgyz leader has pledged to submit his own constitutional draft to parliament on November 6 in response to opposition demands.
"The whole world heard him promise to deliver a new constitutional draft this morning," said Edil Baisalov, head of the non-governmental organization For Democracy and Civil Society, who served as the moderator for speeches at the demonstration. "He should have kept his promise, found a compromise, but instead he chose confrontation."
While some of the day's speakers focused exclusively on the calls for Bakiyev's resignation, others seemed more open to negotiation. Many referred to a list of demands drawn up by For Reforms! which, in addition to constitutional reform, includes calls for a cabinet shakeup and the transformation of the state-owned broadcasting company into a publicly managed television and radio service. In early September, President Bakiyev vetoed a bill passed by parliament that approved the transformation.
Member of Parliament Melis Eshimkanov had suggested that Prime Minister Kulov, a former member of the opposition himself, and Deputy Prime Minister Daniyar Usenov might address the crowd. A handful of delegates, led by Eshimkanov, met with Kulov and Usenov during the demonstration, but, in the end, no one from the government appeared.
With the exception of a few drunken shoving matches, the protest passed without violence. The closure of many shops and businesses in Bishkek's normally bustling center, however, reflected fears that the looting and disorder of Kyrgyzstan's March 2005 uprising might be repeated.
Similar fears have preceded earlier opposition demonstrations this year that came with demands not far different from those voiced at Thursday's rally. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive.] But this time, protestors say they intend to stay in the city center until their demands are met. Organizers had planned to set up 300 tents for protesters to remain overnight, but were forbidden to do so by the police. Food and other facilities were also to be provided.
"We gathered the people to make [Bakiev's government] take action," opposition MP Temir Sariyev told reporters. "We plan to stay here until the passing of a constitution or until Bakiyev's resignation."
In response, on the evening of November 2, the government was urging calm and reflection. "If they expected us to eliminate corruption in one year, after 15 years of it, they expected a miracle," Prime Minister Kulov said on KTR television while defending the government's record.
Daniel Sershen is a freelance journalist based in Bishkek.