Kyrgyzstan’s opposition has reportedly nixed plans to hold a large rally in the southern city of Osh amid stewing tensions on the border with Uzbekistan and an escalating public relations war with the government.
One opposition figure, former Jalal-Abad governor Bektur Asanov, told local media the decision to call off the Kurultai, or people’s assembly, on March 24 was taken amid fears of a government “provocation.”
Prior to the announcement, the government had announced plans to bolster security in Osh for the event with a deployment of 3,000 police and 2,000 volunteers.
The show of force indicated Bishkek was taking the opposition more seriously in light of the standoff between Kyrgyz and Uzbek troops at a disputed section of the border.
That is understandable following a March 22 rally in Kerben, a Kyrgyz settlement very close to the elevated territory where both Tashkent and Bishkek have stationed troops and armored vehicles.
The rally organized by regional opposition figures targeted perceived government negligence over the border issue and gathered 700 people according to the Interior Ministry. The opposition claimed the crowd was as large as 2,500 people.
Prime Minister Temir Sariyev flew down to address the Kerben gathering, while nationalist opposition leader and all-round troublemaker Kamchibek Tashiyev, who donned military fatigues for the event, was warmly welcomed by the crowd after issuing calls to resolve the standoff with Tashkent through “people’s diplomacy.”
As explained by news website Zanoza.kg, government and opposition offered competing narratives vis-a-vis the mood at the Kerben rally. One painted Sariyev as a timely pacifier, the other as a sore loser who escaped with the microphone in his hand having been poorly received by angry locals.
The information wars do not stop there, however.
The opposition is endorsing the claims of city councillors in Kerben that the Kyrgyz government recently ceded the elevated piece of land that Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan are contesting, and correspondingly ordered the removal of a Kyrgyz television tower from the location.
The government denies the claim.
The country’s state security committee (GKNB) meanwhile, has “authenticated” recordings of telephone conversations between opposition leaders including Asanov discussing preparations for nationwide rallies followed by a coup in Bishkek.
Needless to say, Asanov and company believe that the recordings, which like so many similar files before them have wound up on the Internet, are forgeries.
Whatever the truth, news that the rally has been cancelled will be a relief to the ethnic Uzbek community in Osh, who risk becoming piggy in the middle when it comes to tensions between Kyrgyzstan and its militarily superior neighbour.
Speaking to EurasiaNet.org on condition of anonymity, the director of a local NGO focussed on conflict resolution in the South said there were “reasons to worry” about the potential the border conflict had for inter-ethnic tensions six years after clashes that left hundreds dead in the region.
“Of course, this is an issue between states, not between peoples. But there is a risk that the opposition can choose to manipulate the situation and the government will be too weak respond,” the director said.
Among the demands reportedly issued by the crowd was a call for Russia and the Collective Security Treaty Organization to get involved in the dispute.
On March 23, the CSTO released a gingerly worded statement of concern at an ongoing extraordinary session in Moscow that was called at Kyrgyzstan’s initiative, while the organization’s Deputy Secretary General Ara Badalian is due to visit the region in the near future.