Photo courtesy of Reuters
There are very few independent media reporters inside Kyrgyzstan but stories are starting to come out, predominantly via the Russian press.
Just as I covered the Ukraine elections at the end of 2004, I thought you might be interested to see these brave people stand up for a democratic, representative government.
This is Part 3 of my coverage. You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.
I don’t speak Kyrgyz and all the Russian-language Kyrgyz media is refusing to cover the protests. I also can’t find any Kyrgyz webcams to get a live eyeball on what the situation is there.
Aside from local stringers, the only foreign reporter I’ve found who has gotten in to report on what’s going on is Irina Gordiyenko of Novaya Gazeta. Unfortunately, her article is in Russian so you’ll have to live with my Babel-assisted translation:
In Khalal-Abad, Uzgena and Osh, the city goverment buildings are in the opposition’s hands. They are calling for Askar Akayev’s resignation. In Osh, a kurultai (a sort of village council) was assembled and a parallel government was elected. They tried to negotiate with the authorities without success.
The authorities tried to quell the unrest in the rebelling cities. The police and the Special Forces [ONON] stormed the buildings that the protestors had seized, inciting more protests in the south. Nearly the entire southern region is under the control of the opposition. Roads that connect the country with Uzbekistan are now blocked.
The leaders of the opposition are preparing for a march in Bishkek [the capital, which lies in the north]. The opposition is now refusing to negotiate with the authorities and are calling for early elections for the president and a re-run of the parliamentary elections.
In Bishkek, in the north, is the area of contentment and abundance. The population density here is lower but the standard of living is better here. The people here are sluggish and seemingly apathetic about what’s going on. There seems to be little opposition activity.
The television is reporting news about agriculture and running stories about how in the United States and Korea, doctors are worried about the obesity of the population. All local indepenent radio stations in Kyrgyzstan have been shut down. The only outside information is coming from Russia’s 1 Radio…
In Khalal-Abad, things are not quiet. Large piles of stone and concrete barricades are erected on the roads. People are afraid to drive their cars on these roads. People in the south are generally more politically active and many are young. Unemployment is high. Khalal-Abad is the second-largest city in the south. Although it has just 150,000 residents, this is a large town for this part of the world.
As soon as rumors appeared that the authorities were going to attack, thousands of people moved to the downtown area to storm the UVD building where the military police and Special Forces [ONON] were located. People continued to pour in from outlying villages in the region. When the UVD building caught on fire, the Special Forces troops opened fire, causing cars to explode. Black smoke billowed out and soldiers, in a panic, attempted to flee.
The people in the crowd rejoiced, slapping and boxing the ears of the fleeing troops…
The article (quite lengthy) also goes on to state that many of the law enforcement and administrative officials have fled the southern region, although some have joined the opposition.
The people are also worried that Russia will intervene, especially as some Russian politicians have been calling on Russia to send in troops to pacify the situation.
It’s worth noting here that there was a “mini” civil war in Kyrgyzstan soon after its independence from the Soviet Union between ethnic Kyrgyz and ethnic Uzbeks, which left several thousand dead. Russian troops ended up intervening in that situation.
The main opposition group that is organizing the protests seems to be KelKel, which means “Renaissance” in the Kyrgyz language. Like Otpor, Kmara and Pora before, it has a nice website complete with English section.
Ok, let’s review what the commercial media is reporting, in roughly chronological order.
From The Scotsman:
THE Kyrgyzstan president, Askar Akayev, facing violent protests in the south over a disputed election, yesterday defiantly backed the poll as legitimate but ruled out massive use of force to end the unrest.
Kyrgyzstan, which borders China and three Central Asian states, is poor in natural resources. But it lies in an energy-rich region in which the United States and Russia are vying for influence. Both powers have air bases near Bishkek.
Mr Akayev broke his silence over the protests, in which opposition supporters have seized control of two southern towns in the ex-Soviet Central Asian country, telling newly elected deputies they were part of a body of “high and indisputable legitimacy”.
Dismissing the unrest as temporary and led by marginal opposition groups encouraged by unnamed foreign forces, he refused to resign, saying that was not a decision “to be taken by rallies”.
But while taking a strong line, he ruled out using force to crush the protests. “I want to state firmly that I, as a president, will never resort to such steps,” he said.
Mr Akayev, by backing the elected deputies, rejected the views of international observers who had criticised the polls in February and March as flawed. His comments drew scorn from protesters who kept up pressure on the long-serving leader to step down by keeping control of two southern towns and asserting their authority by organising joint patrols with police. One opposition leader, Anvar Artykov, who has set himself up as de facto governor in the country’s second city of Osh, refused any suggestion of compromise with Mr Akayev.
“The only compromise would be guaranteeing his safety after his resignation,” he said.
Mr Akayev mocked the opposition leaders. “The people who set themselves up as leaders of the opposition cannot formulate acceptable conditions for talks,” he said in a televised speech.
“As far as my resignation is concerned, a decision on this is not to be taken by rallies… this can be taken only by the people or parliament.”
From the AP via Yahoo:
Riot police broke up a small opposition rally in the capital Wednesday and the new interior minister warned that authorities may use force to restore order — signs of the government’s determination to keep protests in southern Kyrgyzstan from spreading north.
“Our primary task is to restore constitutional order in all regions, but strictly in accordance with the constitution,” Interior Minister Keneshbek Dushebayev said. “The law gives us every right to take action, including by using physical force, special means and firearms.”
You might notice that they refer to the “new” Interior Minister, that’s because the former one just got fired:
President Askar Akayev, under pressure from violent protests in the south of Kyrgyzstan over a disputed election, on Wednesday sacked his interior minister and the general prosecutor.
Akayev announced the dismissal of Interior Minister Bakirdin Subanbekov and the general prosecutor, Myktybek Abdyldayev, in decrees.
He named the head of police in the capital Bishkek, Keneshbek Dushebayev, as the new interior minister.
The moves appeared intended to appease opposition protesters who have seized two towns in the south of the Central Asian country that borders China and lies in an energy-rich region where Washington and Moscow vie for influence.
The opposition is demanding Akayev’s resignation over a parliamentary election it says was rigged.
I think that former general prosecutor Myktybek Abdyldayev has the second most tongue-twisting name I’ve ever seen after former Russian ambassador to Georgia, Vladimir Chkhikvishvili.
Well except for maybe this next guy. I’m pleased to see the United States’ government is seemingly backing the protestors:
On Tuesday US Undersecretary of State for political affairs Nicholas Burns received foreign policy adviser to Kyrgyzstan’s president Alibek Dzhekshekulov in Washington.
As the press service of the US Department of State reports, Mr. Burns called upon the government of Kyrgyzstan to begin without preliminary conditions a dialogue with opposition to work out a policy line of long-term stability by considering the violations at the recent parliamentary elections and by laying a foundation for free and honest presidential elections this autumn.
The USA calls upon the leaders of opposition to join this dialogue without any preliminary conditions, says the report by the press service in which concern in connection with the disorders in the south of Kyrgyzstan, including the cities of Osh and Jalal-Abad, is expressed on behalf of the Washington administration.
We are continuing to call upon the government (of Kyrgyzstan) to display reserve. We condemn the use of force by either side, as well as the seizure and destruction of the government property, the report reads.
Russian media is generally taking a more pro-Akayev stance:
The opposition in Kyrgyzstan cannot cope with the situation it has produced in the south of the country. President Askar Akaev made this statement on Tuesday in a televised address to the nation.
“Spontaneous actions, which cannot be coped with by their initiators, have led to ransacking the buildings of state administrations and law-enforcement organs, market-places and trading outlets, paralyzed life in two large cities in the south of the country”, Akaev said.
In his opinion, after the mass actions of protest and unrest in the cities of Osh and Jalal-Abad, the citizens “have been left intimidated by the events” and have a good reason to “fear for their life and property”.
“From the very beginning of the actions, we have been categorically against the use of force is resolving questions. The law-enforcement organs have never showed resistance, had no and did not use weapons at a time when attackers beat policemen, threw stones and even incendiary devices, set fire to buildings. It is clear that such actions have nothing in common with democracy”, the Kyrgyz president is sure.
He believes that the opposition in Kyrgyzstan, “unlike in Ukraine, Georgia and other states” whose example it is following, began protesting “not according to the peaceful scenario”. As a result, “seizure of buildings of the organs of power, beating of law-enforcers have began”.
The Washington Post is picking up the fact that Akayev is blaming the West. It’s one of those oddball half truths because I’m sure KelKel and the rest are getting outside funding but the reason the protests are gaining strength is because the people are legitimately sick of Akayev’s autocratic ways:
President Askar Akayev of Kyrgyzstan reacted defiantly Tuesday to anti-government protests that have swept the south of the Central Asian republic, charging in a speech to parliament that the “opposition is directed and funded from the outside.”
He did not name the alleged foreign backers. But analysts said Akayev was voicing widespread suspicion among governments in the former Soviet republics that the recent popular revolts in Ukraine, Georgia and now Kyrgyzstan stem from Western, particularly U.S., efforts to install friendly leaders under the guise of building democracy.
“The events in Kyrgyzstan are not isolated from any of the so-called color revolutions that have been staged in other . . . countries over the last 18 months,” Akayev said in a reference to the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia and last year’s Orange Revolution in Ukraine. “Such revolutions, which are nothing more than coups, go beyond the framework of the law.”
So far I’ve seen reports that the central election commission in Kyrgyzstan has “validated” the votes in 71 out of 75 districts. The opposition (and western observers) said the voting was irregular and unfair but so far it doesn’t look like Akayev is willing to budge on this issue.
Via the Arab media in UAE, we find the first reports that the unrest has reached Bishkek:
Police dispersed hundreds of people trying to enter government buildings in Kyrgyzstan’s capital Bishkek on Wednesday as rapidly growing opposition protests spread to the city.
There were incidents of violence as officers made dozens of arrests while breaking up a crowd of some 300-400 students protesting about alleged fraud in recent parliamentary elections, witnesses said.
Detainees reportedly included opposition candidate Edil Boitsalov, who heads the For Democracy and Civil Society Party.
The situation was described as tense as riot units deployed in anticipation of disturbances during the night.
Opposition leaders who recently rallied huge crowds in other towns pledged to bring the demonstrations to the door of authoritarian President Askar Akayev, who they hold responsible for election abuses.
I’d like to take this opportunity to remind everyone that both Russia and the United States have air bases just a few kilometers outside Bishkek.
And the Russian government itself seems to be getting angry, Ukraine-style, at western interference:
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov discussed the situation in Kyrgyzstan in a phone conversation with EU Council Secretary General, EU High Commissar for general foreign policy and security policy Javier Solana.
“In connection with the statement disseminated in Brussels on behalf of Javier Solana, which contains, in Moscow’s opinion, incorrect evaluation of the events in Kyrgyzstan and the causes of the current crisis in that country, the Russian foreign minister drew Solana’s attention to counterproductive character of public statements that can be used by Kyrgyz opposition to intensify tension in the country,” officials from the department of information and press at the Russian foreign ministry announced.
“In the current situation, it is necessary to provide a fair evaluation of the actions conducted by forces that violated the Constitution and the law. The solution can be based only on current legal norms,” the officials in Moscow believe.
In his turn, Solana reassured Lavrov that the EU policy “will be aimed at decreasing tension and supporting political settlement.”
The Russian Foreign Minister and the EU Council Secretary General agreed to maintain contacts, the department officials confirmed.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov believes that the situation in Kyrgyzstan has certainly passed the limits of legality.
“In general, the development of internal situation in that Central Asian republic is rather worrisome. The events in the south of the country have long passed the limit of legality,” the minister stressed.
“Kyrgyzstan is our ally in the framework of the Collective Security Treaty. I hope that the so-called opposition will be reasonable enough to calm down and turn the development of the events into a political dialogue,” the Russian defense minister emphasized.
Meanwhile the erstwhile President of Georgia, Mikhail Saakashvili, has jumped into the fray by writing an open letter to Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev:
My specific purpose in addressing you at this time is to share my concerns about current events taking place in your country. Based on my own personal experience, I have come to learn that there is no more noble cause than to support and embrace the forces of democracy, which in itself is a guarantor of stability. For as leaders and public figures, there is no greater task than to respect the will of our peoples – in order to bring about peace and lasting stability.
In support of freedom and equal rights, and a strong Kyrgyzstan, please know that I extend you a hand of friendship and support during this critical period in the history of the Kyrgyz nation. Furthermore, if you consider it helpful I also am ready to be of assistance, in any form that you would deem appropriate. Specifically, I am ready at any moment to visit your Kyrgyzstan to serve as a negotiator, moderator or friend – and to take part in the constructive discussions with the opposition.
Please consider my gesture to assist you not as interference but rather as an expression of my desire to help establish a constructive dialogue and prevent instability chaos and unrest. It is in our shared interests that Kyrgyzstan preserves its role as a democratic leader in the region. I am confident that by working together, we can achieve that outcome.
Predictably, this didn’t go down too well with Akayev:
Kyrgyzstan president’s press secretary Abdil Segizbaev is sceptical about the proposal of Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili to be a go-between in negotiations between the Kyrgyz authorities and the opposition.
Asked by journalists to comment on the Georgian initiative, Segizbaev said that, according to the Kyrgyz authorities, some nationals of Georgia, including some deputies of the Georgian parliament, have “galvanized unrest in the south (of Kyrgyzstan)”.
“Now they want to be the peacemakers”, Segizbaev said.
“The point is that criminal groups are in control of the situation in the south of our republic. If he (Saakashvili) can talk their language, he is welcome”, the press secretary said.
Meanwhile the Slovenian Foreign Minister, Dmitrij Rupel, is in Kyrgyzstan as a representative of the OSCE:
“I assured President Akayev that the OSCE will do everything it can to help reduce tension,” the Chairman-in-Office said after a telephone conversation with the Kyrgyz head of state. “I stressed that all sides should refrain from violence and provocation and resolve their political differences peacefully.”
President Akayev gave his assessment of the current situation in Kyrgyzstan and expressed his appreciation for the work of the OSCE Centre in Bishkek.
The pro-Western Moscow Times is saying that civil war is a distinct possibility:
The Kyrgyz opposition might have hoped to start a velvet revolution by protesting parliamentary elections, but President Askar Akayev’s decision to use force appears to have brought the country to the verge of civil war.
Moscow, wary of sparking instability in Central Asia, is taking a more cautious role in Kyrgyzstan than it did in Georgia’s Rose Revolution and Ukraine’s Orange Revolution.
The Kyrgyz opposition, which won just six of parliament’s 75 seats in recent elections, held peaceful street demonstrations that erupted into violence when protesters started seizing government buildings in southern Kyrgyzstan last week. The government responded by sending riot police to retake the buildings — a show of force that fueled protesters’ anger. Arming themselves with sticks, stones and Molotov cocktails, demonstrators seized more federal buildings and the airport in Osh, the country’s second-largest city. Buildings have also been seized in nearby Jalal-Abad.
Northern Kyrgyzstan, including the capital, Bishkek, backs Akayev and remains calm, but protesters on Tuesday boarded buses for Bishkek in an effort to increase pressure on the government. The opposition is demanding a revote and the resignation of Akayev, his ministers and election officials.
“The fierce confrontation may threaten the unity of the country,” said Alexei Malashenko, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center. “It may tear apart the country and set off a war between the north and south.”
Akayev has no one to blame but himself for the crisis because he ignored the opposition for too long, considering it “flabby,” Malashenko said. In a sign of Akayev’s confidence, his son and daughter ran and won in the elections, he said.
Akayev also might have underestimated the protesters’ determination, believing that the opposition would back down if he sent in riot police, said Andrei Grozin, analyst with the Commonwealth of Independent States Institute.
But the opposition’s willingness to risk a crackdown and mount a strong response came as a surprise to Akayev and observers alike. “I thought that the opposition would organize rallies but that they would not be violent,” Malashenko said. “They must have understood after the first round that their plans to win a third of the seats flopped and that they could no longer afford to act in a civilized manner.”
The opposition won only two seats in about 40 districts in the first round of elections on Feb. 27. A second round was held March 13 for the remaining districts, where no candidates had gotten a clear majority in the first vote.
Grozin said the opposition had little reason to fear retribution because the combined strength of the Kyrgyz army and police force amounts to a mere 25,000 people scattered across the country. Once the police were called in, protests persisted because of widespread discontent over the Akayev family’s control of most businesses, the pauperization of peasants and high unemployment in southern Kyrgyzstan, Grozin said.
Akayev’s hard line over the protests helped the fractured opposition — which was divided into four electoral blocs — unite behind former Prime Minister Kurmanbek Bakiyev, leader of the opposition People’s Movement, Malashenko said. “Bakiyev grew like a mushroom — literally before your eyes,” he said.
Bakiyev’s star shot up during the two weeks between the two elections as the opposition looked for someone to challenge Akayev, Malashenko said. Bakiyev was picked because he is a moderate who has the experience of running the country as prime minister from 2000 to 2002 and has support from Moscow, he said.
Grozin said, however, that the opposition had yet to select a single leader because other leaders, such as Roza Otunbayeva, the head of the Ata-Jurt Movement, are too ambitious. Otunbayeva is a former Kyrgyz ambassador to the United States and Britain, and she served as a United Nations representative to Georgia during Mikheil Saakashvili’s Rose Revolution.
Grozin said the opposition is riding a wave of protests — mostly by peasants — that were initiated by southern clan leaders, businessmen and gangland figures who want higher living standards and some control over the economy. Opposition leaders have been trying to rein in the crowds, while the crowds’ leaders have asked opposition leaders to relay their demands in possible negotiations with Akayev, he said.
As usual, Eurasianet has the best reporting in this part of the world:
Presidential aides sought to undermine support for the protesters, telling reporters that “terrorists” and “drug traffickers” were stoking anti-government action. Presidential spokesman Abdil Segizbayev told a EurasiaNet correspondent that a “Third Force” was in “control of the situation” in Jalal-Abad and Osh, alleging that mobs were roaming the streets in both cities. “People are afraid to go out,” he said.
The actual scenes in Jalal-Abad and Osh sharply contrasted with Segizbayev’s portrayal. Conditions were relatively calm and self-styled “people’s power” governing authorities sought to consolidate their hold over both regions. In an address televised on a local station, Osh-3000, the head of the Osh provisional authority, Anvar Artykov, declared that Akayev’s authority was no longer recognized in the region. Joint patrols, mounted by local police officers and protest representatives, sought to maintain order in both cities, and many residents in both cities were celebrating the spring festival of Navruz.
It is difficult to gauge precisely the extent of support for the people’s power governing structures in southern Kyrgyzstan. A significant number of state-sector employees, including local government workers, teachers and doctors, may still be loyal to the central government in Bishkek, but many are laying low at this time, enabling staunch opposition supporters to dominate public debates. Law-enforcement bodies in both Jalal-Abad and Osh nominally transferred their allegiance to provisional governing bodies, but some police officers apparently were not reporting for duty. In addition, the crisis prompted the closure of all schools and higher educational institutions in Osh Province for a one week “holiday,” the AKIpress news agency reported.
In an interview with the Russian daily Izvestiya, Roza Otunbayeva, a prominent opposition figure, claimed that “people’s power” provisional authorities were in control of all but one district of Osh Province, five of eight districts of Jalal-Abad Province, as well as four districts in Talas Province and one in Naryn.
“We are moving towards control over half the country,” Otunbayeva said. “The next goal will be Bishkek.”
They’ve also some great photos that you can’t find anywhere else.
So what will happen? Will Akayev try to rout the protestors with force? Will he enter into some kind of negotiations with them to achieve a compromise acceptable to both sides? Will civil war break out? Will Russia send in the cavalry?
It’s impossible to say at this point. My feeling is that next step is that Akayev will fire more officials and promise reforms. Whether that will appease the protestors, I have no idea.
We’ll all just have to stay tuned.
This article is cross-posted from my blog, where you are humbly invited to visit