A standoff is developing in Osh, the scene of ethnic violence in June. The mayor, Melisbek Myrzakmatov, is said to be putting up spirited opposition to provisional President Roza Otunbayeva’s efforts to remove him from office. On August 19, Myrzakmatov was reportedly in Bishkek holding talks with provisional leaders about his fate, while back in Osh hundreds of his supporters rallied at City Hall.
Myrzakmatov has been mayor of Kyrgyzstan’s second largest city since January 2009. Appointed by former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, whose administration collapsed in April, Myrzakmatov managed to hold on to power by arranging a flamboyant show of support that prevented provisional leaders from replacing him. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].
Since then, his consistent defiance of the provisional government’s authority has vexed Otunbayeva and other top leaders. He has repeatedly said, for example, that he opposes the OSCE police advisory mission that the provisional president promoted as a means to stabilize southern Kyrgyzstan. And in a recent interview, he maintained that Bishkek’s authority does not extend to Osh. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].
Many Osh residents went home from work early on August 19, fearful that the mayor’s resistance to Bishkek’s latest effort to remove him could spark violence. The AKIpress news agency reported that 3,000 of his supporters gathered outside City Hall in the late afternoon – though witnesses say the number was far fewer. The supporters reportedly vowed to occupy government buildings if the mayor was removed. Witnesses say busloads of supporters drove into the city from surrounding villages, a popular political tactic.
As a self-declared nationalist, it is not entirely clear what role, if any, Myrzakmatov may have played in June’s ethnic violence that left at least 390 dead and thousands injured. Many of the victims were ethnic Uzbeks. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].
Some Uzbeks in Osh are openly excited about prospects of Myrzakmatov's dismissal, but worry about potentially violent repercussions.
In an interview printed on August 19, the Kommersant daily quoted Myrzakmatov as saying that the provisional government in Bishkek, 750 kilometers to the North, has no jurisdiction in the South, an area where Bakiyev still enjoys considerable support. “Provisional government directives have no legal force in the South,” Myrzakmatov told Kommersant. “I am responsible for Osh, and just let anyone try to violate our rules.”
Myrzakmatov has led opposition to the deployment of an OSCE police monitoring force, spreading the idea that a foreign presence will bring about a “Kosovo scenario” in southern Kyrgyzstan. “Most Osh residents are against a foreign presence in the region. The city council of people’s deputies definitely said ‘no.’ The people and I think that [outsider police] are guilty for the Kosovo tragedy. We will not allow them to repeat the Kosovo experience in the Ferghana Valley. They are strangers for us,” he said in the interview.
Blaming Uzbeks for starting the ethnic violence, he claimed that “Uzbeks encroached on the sovereignty of Kyrgyzstan. We offered resistance.”
Myrzakmatov has led support for controversial plans to redevelop central Osh, intending to construct apartment buildings in what were once largely Uzbek neighborhoods of single-family homes. He also wants to move Osh’s fabled central outdoor market to a new location, pitting authorities against local venders and minorities, some of whom call his plan “ethnic cleansing.” Critics also assert that the mayor has a personal stake in the move.
Unveiled on July 22, the apartment-building plan would offer owners of destroyed properties in central Osh three options: living in high-rise apartment complexes; receiving monetary compensation; or, exchanging their property for lots in other parts of the city. Myrzakmatov said he wishes to see neighborhoods become ethnically mixed. Many Uzbeks complain they are being forcibly evicted from their homes, and suggest the violence in June was planned: Myrzakmatov had already announced his desire to build apartment buildings in their neighborhoods.
The central market, known as the Osh Bazaar, suffered severe damage during the June violence and has remained closed since. Before the destruction, the bazaar was located in the heart of the city and provided employment to about 10,000 local residents. Kyrgyzstan’s relatively liberal customs regime made the Osh bazaar an attractive spot for traders from neighboring Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and China.
Speaking to local journalists on July 29, Myrzakmatov unveiled a plan to build the new market in a suburb in the western part of the city. Myrzakmatov has contended that the relocation of the bazaar would offer a number of benefits to local residents.
"We want to build a municipal market which will not have a specific owner. Our plan is to collect 300 million som annually in profits [from the new market]. Regarding the [existing] central market, we get only 200,000 soms. Meanwhile, the rental cost of one container [used by salespeople as a trading post] costs $10,000 a month. We will have a people's market and our people can trade there free of charge. And Osh residents can buy things at acceptable prices," he said.
The plan has divided Osh residents. Approximately 100 bazaar vendors protested in front of Myrzakmatov’s office on August 7, demanding the immediate reopening of the market in its present location. Protesters claimed that they have incurred immense loses due to the closure of the market and they cannot afford to relocate.