Maybe the protesters had lost faith in Kyrgyzstan’s justice system and figured they had a better chance of being heard if they took their anger into the street: On March 3, a group of 40 tried to storm the Bishkek office of noted human rights activist Toktaiym Umetalieva. Her offense? Invoking the principle that people are innocent until proven guilty.
The crowd, held back by police, was reportedly made up of relatives of four police officers shot dead in early January. Umetalieva had sparked her detractors’ anger by doubting the official account of the standoff, which identified the suspects, arrested soon after the shootout, as Islamic radicals. She has pointed out that, after two months, no one has produced proof and said, as other independent analysts have, that Kyrgyzstan’s security forces are exaggerating the threat of radical Islam.
“By defending killers, Toktaiym Umetalieva becomes a killer herself!" read a banner held by one of the protesters, according to 24.kg. Someone in the crowd demanded she be prosecuted, “otherwise we will pull her out and perform our own justice!”
Justice is relative in southern Kyrgyzstan. But blame seems to be absolute.
The murder of a tax official has set off a protest with frightening parallels to events preceding ethnic violence last summer.
Sagynbek Alimbayev, the deputy head of the regional tax service, was found dead February 23 in a brand-new Lexus sedan with a gunshot wound to the chest. Two days later, local authorities said they had arrested the culprits, three ethnic Uzbeks, who had allegedly acted on orders from a businessman in Uzbekistan.
Employing the kind of mob justice that has replaced courts here, several hundred Kyrgyz rioted in the southern town of Nookat on March 1 and burned down a house or three that, they say, belong to the killers.
As police dispersed the rioters, taxman Alimbayev’s son Nurbek did his part to keep hostilities ablaze. He announced, improbably, that the murder was carried out on order of the elusive, exiled enemy number one: Kadyrjan Batyrov. A wealthy businessman from Jalal-Abad, Batyrov had called last spring for Uzbeks to have greater representation in government, but not, independent investigators have found, much more. Yet he is constantly blamed for sparking the ethnic violence that left at least 400 dead.
After winter’s seasonal scarcity, spring is the traditional time for protest in Kyrgyzstan. And though cold weather may hold onto the country for some weeks more, what happens next seems to be on everyone’s mind in Bishkek. Most expect protests of some sort, fueled by inflation, rising bread prices, and perceptions of a paralyzed parliament.
The fears are so acute that some are even beginning to ask themselves: What would Kyrgyzstan look like if this new government were unseated, like the last two, through popular protest? The answer is: Afghanistan.
“If another coup takes place in Kyrgyzstan, then surely a regime of warlords will be established in the country,” the president’s chief of staff, Emilbek Kaptagayev, said on February 16.
Of course it is in Kaptagayev’s interest to warn against unrest; he wants to hold onto his post. But some regions are already governed by the warlords of which he warns -- a mix of criminal gangs and other local power brokers, sometimes with connections to the police, and with no loyalty to Bishkek. Parts of the south are the most obvious examples.
The first deputy governor of Osh Province, Kushbak Tezekbaev, said the same day that in his region, “Many senior government bodies do not work; they are concerned with earning money and receiving bribes.” Only five percent of those in law enforcement there do their jobs, he added.
Now, taking his cue from Central Asia’s despot playbook, MP Ismail Isakov, the interim government’s defense minister during ethnic violence last summer, says a legally non-binding report has insulted him. Therefore, he will sue.
General Ismail Isakov, who was President Roza Otunbaeva's defense minister and special representative in the south during the unrest, said in Bishkek that the National Commission's conclusions -- in which he was cited as one of the government leaders responsible for allowing the clashes to take place -- are "superficial and groundless."
Isakov -- who is a parliament deputy -- said the commission's conclusions have impacted negatively on his "personal dignity and honor" and so he will defend himself in court.
Kyrgyzstan’s security officials are not the most convincing bunch. So when they go on a media blitz warning of impending terrorist attacks, we naturally start asking for evidence and bracing for some sort of blast. This time, they are worrying Osh, scene of fierce ethnic fighting that left over 400 dead in June.
Speaking on state television on December 20, Keneshbek Dushebayev -- director of Kyrgyzstan’s KGB-successor, the recently renamed State National Security Committee -- reiterated a familiar refrain: Terrorists wish “to turn the Central Asian region into a blazing torch of destabilization for the entire world.” He did not produce any evidence.
This would not seem unusual coming from a Central Asian security boss seeking international sympathy, but a week earlier Osh Mayor Melisbek Myrzakmatov, who prompts panic merely by opening his mouth, suggested the city is swarming with terrorists who are ready to blow up a bridge, a government building, or a kindergarten.
Myrzakmatov has repeatedly tried to link Islamic militants to the summer’s ethnic violence. As ethnic Uzbeks tend to be more religious than their Kyrgyz neighbors, between the lines Myrzakmatov is again pushing the idea -- widely held in nationalist circles -- that Uzbeks are responsible for the violence.
Surprisingly, he also said the Islamic terrorists lurking in the hills are the same radicals responsible for the 2005 Andijan massacre in neighboring Uzbekistan, when security services murdered hundreds of their own citizens, according to human rights groups.
He hasn’t presented any proof yet, but Kyrgyz Ombudsman Tursunbek Akun says his office’s investigation has concluded that local Uzbeks began ethnic clashes in southern Kyrgyzstan this summer to carve off a piece of the country and join neighboring Uzbekistan. They then intended to overthrow strongman Islam Karimov, he said in comments carried by AKIpress.
Akun added that the Uzbeks started the fight but Kyrgyz then “finished it very harshly and more roughly.”
“The aim of the provocateurs was to create an autonomous region and make Uzbek its official language. They wanted to make Osh and Jalal-Abad regions an autonomous region of Uzbekistan. They had links with Uzbek citizens, rich Uzbek people who speak out against Karimov. And they wanted to overthrow Karimov and elect their person instead of him and rule all of Uzbekistan with Osh and Jalal-Abad regions."
Uzbek nationalist aspirations were one of the earliest explanations for June’s violence cited by official sources. However, convincing publicly available evidence has been scant.
As we reported yesterday, Kyrgyz authorities have said that two violent incidents this week were the work of Islamic militants. But authorities quickly arrived at this conclusion, without providing evidence, after presenting some odd accounts of the November 29 shootout in Osh and the November 30 bomb explosion in Bishkek. For the record:
At a November 29 press conference, Interior Minister Zarylbek Rysaliyev said nine people had been arrested late last week for attempting to destabilize the government with over 10 kilos of TNT. The group of ethnic Kyrgyz, Uzbeks and one Russian were reportedly arrested in Bishkek and Osh.
Authorities may not have nabbed them all, however. Within hours of Rysaliyev’s press conference, special forces got into a shootout with members of a criminal gang and/or terrorist group in Osh, with authorities killing at least four and detaining three. One apparently blew himself up. Some reports linked the group to the arrested nine. Reuters cited a police spokesman connecting the violence to Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a banned Islamist group.
After much delay, bad press and political protest, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has decided to water down a planned police advisory mission to Kyrgyzstan, announcing that it will embark instead on a one-year project described as part of “a longer-term approach to police reform.”