The two losers in Kyrgyzstan’s presidential poll last October are using upcoming municipal elections in the troubled southern city of Osh to make a political comeback by throwing their support behind a volatile but popular local strongman. The southerners’ united front offers fresh evidence that the central government in Bishkek has only limited influence in the country’s second-largest city.
At a rally in central Osh on March 1, nationalists led by Kamchybek Tashiev, leader of the Ata-Jurt Party, and Adakhan Madumarov united to demand the resignation of the newly installed government in Bishkek. The rally was timed to support the combative and independent-minded mayor of Osh, Melisbek Myrzakmatov, who is hoping his supporters can retain control of the 45-seat Osh city council (kenesh) in March 4 municipal elections. The kenesh has the power to approve or reject the president’s nominee for mayor. Organizers are also hoping to build momentum heading into spring, Kyrgyzstan’s traditional protest season.
Since the June 2010 ethnic bloodletting in and around Osh that left about 450 dead, most of them minority Uzbeks, Myrzakmatov has withstood Bishkek’s attempts to unseat him, rallying his supporters and declaring that northern decisions have no force in the south. Suspected by some of playing a role in the violence, Myrzakmatov has been accused by the Kyrgyzstan Inquiry Commission, at the very least, of indulging in “nationalist rhetoric … not conducive to the calming of the inter-ethnic tensions."
Organizers claimed 25,000 protestors turned out in central Osh for the March 1 demonstration, while some local press reports counted 7,000. Attendees said they saw few Uzbeks present.
“I think there won't be any consequences in Osh from the protest, but it does destabilize the situation somewhat. Ata-Jurt is the opposition, and bona fide opposition at that. In the south, trust for the authorities has been lost and Ata-Jurt wants to take advantage of that and show its influence,” Bishkek-based analyst Marat Kazakbayev told Knews.kg.
Tashiev and Madumarov’s is a marriage of convenience. As candidates in last fall’s presidential race, they split the ethnic Kyrgyz vote in the south, both taking just shy of 15 percent of the national total. Had they somehow joined forces, they would have had a greater chance of pushing the contest into a second round.
Since being driven into the opposition after the vote, Tashiev, who leads the Ata-Jurt faction in parliament, has spent much of his time calling for the new government, comprised predominantly northern-based politicians, to resign. He recently caused a stir by announcing that only a “thoroughbred Kyrgyz” should be prime minister, a jab at Premier Omurbek Babanov, who is reportedly only half Kyrgyz.
The gathering of the country’s most notorious nationalists in central Osh set local Uzbeks on edge, sparking fears they could be drawn into a conflict between northern and southern Kyrgyz. One Osh Uzbek who works with international relief agencies said he is concerned that southern Kyrgyz “talk about the north as if it’s ‘us’ and ‘them,’” and worries that if a conflict erupts, southern Uzbeks could be caught in the middle.
But one prominent analyst cautioned against placing too much emphasis on regional divisions. “Regionalism, just like nationalism, is often used as a tool of mobilization, but this does not mean the political struggle is actually about regional groups,” said Shairbek Juraev, director of the Central Asian Studies Institute at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek. Instead, Juraev said, the current political struggle is more about business interests than regional affiliation.
Osh is widely believed to be a major transit point for narcotics being trafficked out of Afghanistan. Previously, the local kenesh was a rubberstamp body that could be expected to approve the president’s choice for mayor. But in the wake of the April 2010 ouster of former president Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who had appointed the mayor in January 2009, the local legislature has appeared to come under Myrzakmatov’s influence.
The mayor has suggested he is bracing for a fight, warning Bishkek against deploying “administrative resources” to affect the voting results. He added that such “actions could lead to destabilization of the situation in society.” Tashiev and Madumarov tried to use the same arguments to contest the presidential vote in October.
“The excessive use of administrative resources by the central authorities and the poorly thought-through actions of their overzealous envoys sow panic among the public, disrupt the peaceful life of citizens, forcing them over and over to live in fear and anticipation of possible unrest,” Myrzakmatov said in a statement posted on the Osh city website before the rally.
Fearful that the nationalist triumvirate will not accept any result that tips the local kenesh away from the mayor’s favor, the Uzbek aid worker said he and his neighbors are stocking up on food. He also revealed that he had sent his children to stay with relatives near the border with Uzbekistan, in case they need to be evacuated.
Myrzakmatov is well prepared for the vote. While he also has administrative resources at his disposal, he is genuinely popular with local Kyrgyz, says Nadezhda Dobretsova, director of the Development Policy Institute, a Bishkek-based NGO working on local governance.
Since Bakiyev’s ouster “no other politicians or political leaders have stayed in Osh. Meanwhile, Myrzakmatov demonstrated his leadership and charisma and consolidated power,” making his office into something stronger than it ever has been, she said.
David Trilling is EurasiaNet's Central Asia editor.