The detention of three opposition politicians for attempting to storm Kyrgyzstan’s parliament sparked rallies October 4 in Bishkek and in southern Kyrgyzstan. While the immediate fallout has not been as intense as feared, observers still worry the arrests could trigger instability.
Kamchybek Tashiev and two other members of the nationalist Ata-Jurt party, the largest party in parliament, were detained on October 3 after leading an attack on the White House in central Bishkek. Tashiev, Sadyr Japarov and Talant Mamytov are suspected of calling for and attempting the violent overthrow of Kyrgyzstan’s government. Prosecutors have 48 hours to decide whether to charge the men. This week’s events are the worst violence in Bishkek since President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was toppled in bloody street riots in April 2010.
The October 3 demonstration preceding the attack, attended by about 1,000 people, was purportedly in favor of nationalizing the strategic Kumtor gold mine. Two days previously, the prime minister announced nationalization was out of the question.
Kumtor, which produced 12 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s GDP last year and is run by a Toronto-based company, is a divisive issue. Many Kyrgyzstanis fear the mine is polluting Lake Issyk-Kul, and feel they are not getting a fair share of the revenue that mining operations generate.
But few believe the rally was genuinely about the mine. Analyst Mars Sariev says Kumtor was “just a cover-up,” a uniting cry for the combative politicians to deflect attention from other troubles. In mid-September, Japarov was charged with misappropriating state property. “They wanted to turn a purely criminal case into political persecution. And they have reached their aim,” Sariev told EurasiaNet.org. “Now they have political weight in order to bargain with the government.”
Turat Akimov, editor of the magazine Dengi i Vlast (Money and Power), says the rally, which he calls poorly planned, highlights fatigue in Kyrgyz society with the post-Bakiyev government’s failure to live up to its promises. For the vast majority, especially for rural residents in the impoverished south – Ata-Jurt’s base – life has not gotten easier. Akimov expects more protests.
“Even the oligarchy is investing its money abroad. Unless the oligarchic elite brings and invests the money back to Kyrgyzstan, people will not believe that something has actually changed,” Akimov said. “People, due to their naive simplicity, make naive attempts to change the situation.”
Videos posted online show Tashiev at the October 3 rally, first vowing to “replace this government” and “occupy” the White House, and then leading dozens of protestors over a fence surrounding the building and appearing to chase frightened armed soldiers across the yard. Security forces cleared the area with the help of dogs, tear gas, and rubber bullets. At least 12 were injured, including law-enforcement officials.
Later, Tashiev told the AKIpress news agency that only a few people entered the territory of the White House and only to get to work. "All the leaders were invited to the peaceful demonstration, but none of them came, so the people went to them," he said. “And don't I have the right to enter my place of work? I wasn't being allowed in. I just wanted to get into my place of work. That's it." He insisted the protestors were unarmed.
Like many Kyrgyz politicians, Tashiev initially gained popularity through his personal wealth, which he distributed widely. In the early 2000s, in his home region of Jalal-Abad, Tashiev (who then owned a chain of gas stations) refurbished a school, provided drinking water in a rural area, and actively helped the poor. He also founded a boxing club in his native village of Barpy.
But he has been a divisive figure since leading his party into parliament in late 2010, particularly in terms of his virulently nationalist views. More than once he’s used his fists to resolve disputes inside the legislature, and he’s shown little interest in working with other political factions, regularly calling for the government to resign.
Earlier this year Tashiev suggested then-Prime Minister Omurbek Babanov was not fit to lead Kyrgyzstan because he was not a “thoroughbred” Kyrgyz – a reference to the ethnicity of Babanov’s mother. And he has publicly implied that ethnic Uzbeks and other minorities should enjoy fewer rights than ethnic Kyrgyz. His nationalist refrains are believed to appeal to Ata-Jurt’s base in southern Kyrgyzstan, scene of deadly ethnic clashes in 2010. The central government has consistently faced difficulty solidifying control over the region.
Sariev, the political analyst, believes Tashiev and Japarov had intended to get arrested in order to inspire widespread protests and destabilize the country. “There’s a strong possibility that what happened yesterday will continue on a larger scale. Everything is going according to Tashiev and Japarov's plan,” he said.
The October 4 rally in Jalal-Abad, near Tashiev’s home village, tempered those fears somewhat. Several hundred of his supporters reportedly demanded his release from detention, but remained peaceful, before dispersing by late afternoon. Later, up to 200 protestors blocked the main highway connecting southern and northern Kyrgyzstan, AKIpress reported.
A rally outside the headquarters of the State Committee on National Security in Bishkek, where the Ata-Jurt deputies are being held, only attracted a couple of dozen protestors.
In a development that will offer the central government some relief, a rally planned for Osh, southern Kyrgyzstan’s largest city, was called off, officially because the city would hold previously scheduled festivities instead. Osh is a stronghold of nationalist Mayor Melisbek Myrzakmatov, who has consistently defied Bishkek’s authority. Considering his overwhelming power in the city, the cancellation of the rally could be a signal he will not get involved in the latest crisis, even though Ata-Jurt would seem to be his natural ally.
Nevertheless, Sariev believes this is a make-or-break moment for the Kyrgyz government, which must be careful not to alienate Ata-Jurt supporters. If Bishkek doesn’t maintain control, he warned, there will be “chaos, a regional split and Kyrgyzstan will turn into a country of warlords, just like Afghanistan.”
David Trilling is EurasiaNet's Central Asia editor.