Thousands of supporters of southern strongman Melisbek Myrzakmatov rallied in Kyrgyzstan’s second-largest city, Osh, on January 15 to protest his defeat in mayoral elections.
A controversial figure who has long opposed central authorities in far-off Bishkek, Myrzakmatov was fired last month after appearing to support an anti-government protest.
Over the following weeks, Myrzakmatov somehow lost his support in the Osh city legislature, which voted 25-19 against the former mayor. He alleges the vote was rigged and says his backers were intimidated. Supporters and opponents alike believe the central government engineered his removal.
“After 15 days we will begin a new struggle. It will be the beginning of the end of the current
government. There's a huge responsibility on my shoulders. I thank you all for giving me an opportunity to pursue a better life for you," Vechernii Bishkek quoted Myrzakmatov as saying.
Mayor during violent 2010 ethnic clashes in and around Osh that left over 400 dead, mostly minority Uzbeks, Myrzakmatov has a genuine following, especially among ethnic Kyrgyz drawn to his nationalistic views. But even Uzbek residents point out that he has improved municipal services since being installed by former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev – also a southerner – in 2009.
Osh lies on a major drug smuggling route for Afghan heroin and control over the city is said to offer lucrative perks, enabling incumbents to quickly muster support when they are challenged. Since Bakiyev’s 2010 ouster, Bishkek has struggled to remove Myrzakmatov on several occasions. Fearing a violent showdown, some Osh residents kept their children home from school today.
Up to 10,000 protestors attended the rally, according to some local estimates, including dozens on horseback. Some reportedly torched a portrait of President Almazbek Atambayev, a symbolic demonstration echoing events the night before Bakiyev was thrown out of office.
Myrzakmatov’s replacement, Aitmamat Kadyrbaev, also had strong ties to the former president. In May 2010, one month after Bakiyev’s overthrow, anti-government rioters in Osh seized the regional administration building and declared Kadyrbaev governor.
Meanwhile, today in Bishkek mayoral elections passed smoothly. There was only one candidate: Kubanychbek Kulmatov, a former head of the State Customs Service.