The Chinese Embassy in Bishkek has called on the Kyrgyz government to end a weeks-old protest that has blocked a strategic road and stranded over 300 trucks near Kyrgyzstan’s border with China. Protestors are demanding the release of a nationalist politician awaiting trial on embezzlement charges.
“Drivers don’t have enough food, the weather conditions threaten their vital security. The Chinese side is worried about the condition of its citizens and asks the Kyrgyz side to take the necessary measures to address the issue and assist in ensuring the safety of [Chinese] citizens,” Interfax quoted the Chinese Embassy as saying this week.
About a hundred protesters have been blocking the main road through southern Kyrgyzstan’s Alai region since May 27, demanding authorities move Kyrgyz parliamentarian Ahmatbek Keldibekov of the nationalist Ata-Jurt Party from pre-trial detention to house arrest. Keldibekov, who is charged with corruption dating to his time as head of Kyrgyzstan’s State Tax Committee, was arrested and stripped of parliamentary immunity last November. If found guilty, he faces more than 10 years in prison. He denies the charges, describing his arrest as politically motivated. Keldibekov had earlier lost his position as parliamentary speaker during a scandal that appeared to tie him to Kyrgyzstan’s most notorious mob boss.
Though Keldibekov’s supporters have rallied several times since his arrest, the ongoing roadblock is their most sustained effort yet to draw attention to his case.
The government has taken wait-and-see approach, apparently fearing a confrontation could spiral into violence. On June 16, Deputy Prime Minister Abdyrahman Mamataliev and Deputy Interior Minister Usen Asanov met protesters, though the meeting didn’t appear to end conclusively. “The road is still blocked. The protesters have declared their intention not to open the road until their demands are met,” the KyrTAG news agency quoted an Interior Ministry official as saying on June 17.
Some speculate that other politicians have been reluctant to approach the protestors, given the tendency for protests to suddenly grow violent in Kyrgyzstan. Last year, when the governor of Issyk Kul Province met protestors, they kidnapped and threatened to kill him.
Blocking roads to attract attention is a common protest strategy in Kyrgyzstan, where remote, impoverished communities often feel disempowered and disenchanted with the political struggles in far-off Bishkek. But there are also often concerns that protestors are not genuinely interested in the cause du jour, but are instead being paid to stand in the street day after day.
Government agencies and private companies are alarmed by the mounting losses caused by the ongoing roadblock. In a June 16 statement, the State Customs Agency said direct losses have totaled 92 million som (about $1.8 million).
“Currently, the number of the vehicles with goods coming from the Chinese side continues to decline due to the fact that entrepreneurs, fearing possible losses, stop them from leaving [China],” the statement said. If the roadblock continues until the end of June, losses will amount to more than 200 million som ($3.85 million), the Customs Agency said.
The severing of the densely populated Fergana Valley’s connection to China, the region’s largest trading partner, is having a detrimental impact on many sectors of the economy.
Should the roadblock continue, South-Kyrgyz Cement Factory in Kyzyl Kiya, which employs more than 1,000 people, will be forced shut in two weeks because it is running out of raw materials. “Because of the roadblock, vehicles with the necessary equipment for the factory cannot pass. The situation is critical,” local news agency 24.kg quoted factory manager Kubanych Sarybaev as saying on June 17.
The roadblock is also preventing banks from transferring money to pay pensions and benefits for the residents of the region where the roadblock is happening, Alai, one of Kyrgyzstan’s poorest, 24.kg reported on June 13.