The symbolism of a new monument outside Kyrgyzstan’s parliament is hard to miss. Unveiled last April, three bronze-cast heroes push a block of black-clad concrete away from a larger block of white. The black, of course, represents the Kurmanbek Bakiyev era (and some other evils that preceded his administration). The figures are the heroes of an uprising in April 2010, when about 90 protestors died and scores were hurt while driving Bakiyev from power.
The monument is about the only thing that Bakiyev’s successors can agree upon. Almost three years after Bakiyev’s ouster, those April events remain a touchstone of controversy. With the mass trial of those accused in the protesters’ deaths expected to conclude in the coming months, analysts expect more political agitation, rather than closure.
Relatives of the dead, a powerful interest group, took some solace in a Bishkek court’s February 15 decision to sentence, in absentia, Bakiyev and his brother Janysh to 24 years and life respectively for their role in the 2009 murder of an opposition-minded former advisor. But frustrations remain at the snail pace of investigations into the April 7 violence, as well as what survivors and victims’ families perceive as attempts to paint the event in an unflattering light.
Attempts to critically discuss the uprising, and the ethnic violence that followed in southern Kyrgyzstan, are sidetracked by what Elmira Nogoibaeva, director of the Bishkek-based think tank Polis Asia, calls the “politics of emotion.” In this sense, the recent trial of the Bakiyev brothers – the first conviction that the Belarus-based duo have faced since their overthrow – is important because it is indicative of a “visible legal process,” Nogoibaeva maintains.
But much more attention is focused on the trial of 21 suspects from the April events – ranging from the Bakiyevs themselves to low-ranking special-forces soldiers. They will face a range of charges relating to protestor deaths.
“The trial has been drawn out. That is counter-productive because the longer it is drawn out, the more groups with a vested interest in its outcome can turn it into political capital,” says Nogoibaeva. That is “a continual risk.”
Indeed, the same week as the Bakiyev brothers' symbolic sentencing, an inconclusive parliamentary commission argued over whether key members of the provisional government that came to power on the back of the uprising were involved in a looting spree the same night. The argument spilled out into the streets.
According to the commission chair, who hails from the opposition Ata-Jurt party, three members of the Ata-Meken party, which is currently in the governing coalition, commanded robbers to raid properties owned by the Bakiyev family late on April 7, 2010. The trio allegedly included the author of the latest Kyrgyz constitution, Omurbek Tekebayev. One of the alleged prizes in the raids was a ton and a half of gold. According to an Interior Ministry staffer quoted by the Russian-language newspaper Vechernii Bishkek, of 294 incidents of looting filed with the police in the days after the uprising, only 11 cases have gone to trial. The case of the parliamentary looters is pending investigation by the general prosecutor.
Respected human rights activist Aziza Abdurasulova expects authorities to sweep the Ata-Meken looting charges under the carpet. “For what reasons are these looters not held to account? I think it is because people at the helm of government don’t have an interest in investigating and launching a criminal case [against them],” she said in comments carried by the Kyrgyz-language newspaper Alibi on February 13 (and translated into Russian by Gezitter.org).
Abdurasulova is not the only one who thinks justice in post-Bakiyev Kyrgyzstan is selectively implemented.
As opposition parties Respublika and Ata-Jurt stormed out after a heated February 13 debate on the looting commission’s findings, over 1,000 Ata-Meken supporters took to the streets to show support for their leaders, blocking one of Bishkek’s main roads in the process. At the demonstration, a young Ata-Meken supporter, who only gave his first name, Tynshtyk, complained the opposition parties were attempting to “despoil the honor of the [April] revolution.” (Many observers believe the protest gathered so quickly that it had to have been paid for by powerful interest groups, a common political strategy in Kyrgyzstan.)
In this heated atmosphere, few are willing to challenge the narrative nurtured by members of the 2010 interim government, that theirs’ was a straight-up fight of good against evil, a black-and-white version of history that is embodied in the memorial outside parliament. Any attempts to question this narrative tend to result in immediate street rallies.
The intentions of those that died in the center of Bishkek that day should not be doubted, says Osunbek Jamansariyev, chairman of Meken Sheyitteri (“Homeland’s Martyrs”), one of the movements created by families of the April dead. “Our sons weren’t politicians. They fought for the freedom and integrity of the country,” Jamansariyev told EurasiaNet.org. He believes accusations of looting against the Ata-Meken party are part of “regular political games” in the legislature.
Jamansariyev welcomed the February 15 Bakiyev verdict because it offers the “judicial basis for [the Bakiyev’s] extradition from Belarus.” (President Alexander Lukashenko has repeatedly ignored Bishkek’s requests to extradite the brothers.) Jamansariyev thinks political fallout from the April 7 trial is unlikely as long as “the innocent are proven innocent and the guilty proven guilty.”