As Kyrgyzstan's feeble opposition unites into a new coalition, its leaders are coming under increasing pressure from the authorities.
The state general prosecutor has launched criminal investigations involving at least four opposition leaders in recent weeks. This past weekend, opposition leader Omurbek Tekebayev, chairperson of the Ata Meken Party, was arrested on vague weapons charges as he headed for a meeting in the northwestern Talas region. He has since been released.
Analysts are calling the inquiries politically motivated.
In late December, most opposition parties -- from the left and right -- joined to form the United People's Movement (UPM). In its founding charter, the coalition seeks a new political system for Kyrgyzstan and the removal of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev from office. Complaining of widespread corruption, increasing human rights abuse, and the deterioration of living standards, the UPM is planning a series of protests for February and March. The broad movement boasts a prestigious membership roster, including two former prime ministers and two former foreign ministers.
But many observers see the union as just another attempt by rivals who have fallen out of favor with the incumbent president to seize power for themselves.
Government representatives say the union is unconstitutional. State Secretary Dosbol Nur uulu told a December 25 press conference that "[t]heir calls for the early resignation of the head of state are not only illegal, but are also groundless and are against the people."
On January 17, police detained Tekebayev and accused him of attempting to hold an illegal rally. He may also be charged with illegal weapons' possession for having allegedly modified the magazine of a hunting rifle to hold more than the customary number of bullets. The gun was reportedly found in his car. The internal affairs ministry also said his permit for the gun did not allow him to transport the weapon loaded.
The investigations into opposition members' activities increased shortly after the formation of the UPM coalition in mid-December. Tekebayev has warned such "methods of political intimidation" are on the rise. Following his own arrest, he said he carries the weapons because he fears for his life, according to the AKIpress news agency.
On December 15, the state prosecutor's office began investigating power abuse and financial misdealing linked to UPM-member Alikbek Jekshenkulov's tenure as foreign minister from late 2005 to early 2007. The authorities have also opened separate investigations into his son and brother.
Also in December, only days after UPM formed, the prosecutor general launched three criminal cases against Ismail Isakov -- general secretary of the New Kyrgyzstan Party and a member of the UPM -- for misusing public funds while he served as defense minister from 2005-2008. Isakov was secretary of Bakiyev's Security Council from May to October 2008 and resigned suddenly after expressing concerns about last fall's local council elections. He said the cases are a "political order to threaten me, the opposition, and citizens whose opinions differ from the authorities."
On January 9, the prosecutor general brought a suit against Erkin Bulekbayev, the head of the Green Party, for insulting the president's honor and dignity. In December 13, police searched his party office where they found cartoons lampooning President Bakiyev. The prosecutor's office said the cartoons contained "Bakiyev's image with unprintable words."
In response to these and other charges, the UPM set up a "committee against political repressions," to offer legal support to anyone facing political persecution. Freedom (Erkindik) Party leader Topchubek Turgunaliyev, who spent more than three years in prison for allegations that he was involved in an assassination plot against former President Askar Akayev, heads the committee.
The UPM is careful to present a united message, a member who requested anonymity told EurasiaNet. At their first executive meeting on January 12, the coalition's executive body agreed that no associate should enter into separate negotiations with Bakiyev. The source recalled the spring 2006 protests when Bakiyev appointed an opposition leader as prime minister, effectively dividing and weakening his opponents. "They also agreed to boycott any referendum or election," the source said.
The tenor of protests may depend on the weather this winter, and if Bakiyev can keep the lights on in Bishkek. Noting increasing blackouts throughout the country, analysts warn that residents sitting cold in the dark are more likely to protest, and support the UPM. So far, with January temperatures often well above freezing, conditions appear in the president's favor. But as Ata Meken Chairperson Tekebayev has frequently told the press, the weather and climate play a "crucial role" in Kyrgyz politics.
Turgunaliyev told EurasiaNet that the UPM hopes to coordinate up to 100,000 protesters around the country. That should be easy, he believes, because "90 or 95 percent of the population is unhappy with the Bakiyev regime. Part of this population is ready to act."
"The united opposition should prepare people in 10, 15, maybe 20 places and then protest simultaneously . . . 50 to 100,000 people with a single demand: President Bakiyev's resignation," he said. "This will not allow the authorities to deploy enough force to suppress us."
UPM leaders agree that if Bakiyev were to resign, they would form a coalition government to oversee a six-month transition period, followed by general elections. "The leadership in the provisional government would rotate and members would not have the right to run" for any top spot in the subsequent elections, Turgunaliyev continued.
Indeed, coalition leaders agree that diffusing power is in the interests of the state. Alikbek Jekshenkulov, the former minister of foreign affairs, told EurasiaNet that the current system has failed to work: "Our modern history proves we shouldn't rely on a single leader. The country must be governed not by a single leader or family, but jointly," he said.
Arlsan Mamatov is the pseudonym for a Kyrgyz journalist.