For more than a year the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, has witnessed numerous demonstrations and protests. According to estimates from the Ministry of the Interior, on average there have been two different protests each day in various parts of the country since the beginning of 2006. In total, there were about 2,000 mass gatherings in 2005 and 245 so far this year (Fergana.ru, June 1). Various groups organize the protests: from large non-governmental organizations and members of parliament to allies of slain mafia kingpin Rysbek Akmatbayev. When all these protests are tallied, Bishkek has not been quiet since March 24, 2005, Tulip Revolution.
On May 27, Kyrgyz NGOs and opposition leaders held yet another demonstration calling on President Kurmanbek Bakiyev to fight corruption. Some Central Asian analysts called this demonstration a disappointment for the Kyrgyz opposition, because no more than 10,000 protestors turned out. The opposition has claimed that as many as 50,000 demonstrators came to the central square in Bishkek on other occasions (Eurasia Insight, May 30).
However, Kyrgyz NGO leaders claim that it is not the number of people that is important, but the demonstration’s techniques (Baisalov.liveournal.org, May 31). According to Edil Baisalov, head of the Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, the Kyrgyz public has learned to express its views in non-aggressive ways.
Yet just few days later, a violent demonstration took place in front of the government complex in Bishkek on June 2. Together with NGO activists, veterans of the Aksy region protests of March 17, 2002, gathered in front of the government complex to demand a thorough investigation of the bloody events that ended with six people shot dead by militia.
Several protesters, including renowned human rights activists, were violently pushed away from the government compound’s fences by security guards. According to Vecherny Bishkek (June 5), the protest began because activists from Aksy misunderstood the Supreme Court’s recent decision to discontinue investigation of the case.
The Aksy issue is sensitive for Kyrgyzstan because it triggered a deep political crisis in the country, challenged the professional reputations of numerous government members, and criticized local law-enforcement officials. At the same time Aksy was a turning point for civil society, mobilizing local civic organizations and mass media outlets.
Since the Aksy events and the March 24 Tulip Revolution, the Kyrgyz public has developed its own repertoire of protest actions against state policies. The civic sector has gained considerable leverage over public discourse about political affairs. It is able to criticize the performance of political institutions and individual officials. Other social and professional groups have followed the Kyrgyz NGO model to voice their own interests. For example, on June 6, public transportation workers in Bishkek staged a one-day strike and demanded that the government increase their wages.
Indeed, political leaders are beginning to hire women and elderly people to create larger crowds at demonstrations. While some Kyrgyz naturally agree to assemble in Bishkek’s central square for money, Kyrgyzstan’s population is not afraid to engage their government politically. This development is a novel one in Central Asia. In Kazakhstan, for example, one of the leaders of the Bilim-Central Asia think tank, reports that local NGOs are cautious about using the media to discuss political issues. No protest of this kind would be allowed in Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan, though anti-government moods are widespread in these countries.
However, despite the active mobilization of civil society, there still is no repertoire for state-society collaboration. President Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s short speeches in front of various demonstrators and promises to consider NGOs demands can hardly be called attempts to stage a political dialogue.
One reason political circles in Kyrgyzstan are reluctant to begin a discussion is fear. According to Rashid Tagayev, a member of parliament and leader of a national committee on organized crime, “There are many political figures today that are deeply involved in organized crime and drug trafficking in Kyrgyzstan.” At the same time, according to Tagayev, opposition members are likely to have their own ambitions and their unity on May 27 might have been just a temporary marriage of convenience.
Constitutional reform is one area where the government and civil society are experiencing difficulties in finding common ground. A working group on constitutional reform, comprised of parliamentarians and government members, is having trouble involving the public in any new constitutional project. They offer differing options on how best to collaborate with the wider public, such as opinion surveys and outreach, but since no consensus exists within the constitutional working group, the reform process drags on.
There is also a palpable discontent among Bishkek residents about the crowds continuously gathering in the city’s center. According to Almaz, a young entrepreneur from Bishkek, protests continue because Bakiyev is not a legitimate president, but was selected accidentally after the March 24 revolution. Although doubting the legitimacy of the current leadership, Almaz says that he now feels freer in his business, especially after the death of Rysbek Akmatbayev in May.
Meanwhile, Bishkek has earned a negative reputation as being a hub for various mass demonstrations. Though local civil society has learned how to shape their agenda, the Kyrgyz government must still learn to function alongside and together with the non-governmental sector. As long as the government only pretends to hold a dialogue with NGOs, the protests are likely to continue.