This morning, 15,000 to 20,000 people gathered in Bishkek’s central square demanding President Askar Akayev’s resignation. The protesters then stormed the government headquarters. There are reports of severe fights between the protesters and hooligans allegedly hired by the government to stir up tensions in the crowd. State Secretary Osmonkun Ibraimov has resigned his position citing disagreement with Akayev’s politics. Ibraimov had been one of the president’s closest allies. With his resignation, he hoped to encourage Akayev to start negotiations with the opposition, which he has refused to do.
After capturing the Kadamjai district of Batken Oblast this week, the Kyrgyz opposition now controls over two-thirds of the country’s territory and one-third of its population, excluding the densely populated Bishkek and Issyk-Kul regions. The escalating political crisis that erupted after the violent suppression of opposition protesters in Jalalabad and Osh last Sunday (March 20) generated international response to the worsening situation in Kyrgyzstan. The Kyrgyz government was alternately criticized and offered more help in creating a peaceful dialogue with the opposition forces.
The first large-scale, anti-government protests in central Bishkek began on March 23. Two youth organizations, KelKel and Birge, together with Bolot Maripov, a candidate who competed with President Askar Akayev’s daughter Bermet Akayeva in the disputed parliamentary elections, organized a protest of 1,000 people in the center of Bishkek. After ten minutes of protest, a group of men wearing white caps, allegedly a team of hired provocateurs, attacked the demonstrators. The clash escalated when OMON troops arrived and selectively beat the protesters but without harming the provocateurs.
In total, more than 20 students and journalists were hospitalized and 200 people were arrested in Bishkek, including Maripov, as well as other well-known figures such as NGO leader Edil Baisalov and film director Bolot Shamshiev (Res Publica, March 23). This incident once again showed the Kyrgyz government’s undemocratic means in suppressing unwanted demonstrations. New protests are expected in Bishkek in the coming days.
More sources now confirm that President Akayev spent several days in Moscow after the parliamentary runoff on March 13. His first public appearance since that date was only on March 22, at a session of the new parliament, where he made it clear that the government is not willing to launch any talks with the opposition because its actions have already crossed the legal line. Akayev claimed, “Everyone has his own requests and it is not clear with whom to lead negotiations” (Interfax, March 22). He insisted that the new parliament must tighten control over the restive regions. Likewise, opposition leader Roza Otunbayeva, who is currently active in Osh, says, “There is no point for cooperation, the government lost the south to the opposition protesters and the north is supporting them” (Fergana.ru, March 22).
Kyrgyz Ombudsman Tursunbai Bakir volunteered to mediate talks between the government and opposition. Prime Minister Nikolai Tanayev is currently visiting Osh, but it is yet unclear with whom he is planning to meet.
At the first session of the new parliament, 10 deputies out of the total 71 refused to show up in a show of solidarity with the opposition and protesters. According to the Chair of the Central Election Commission, Suleiman Imanbayev, the new parliament is comprised of 19 members of the pro-governmental Alga Kyrgyzstan party and five from Adilet (Deutsche Welle, March 23). This means at least one-third of the parliament belongs to the pro-presidential coalition. Akayev recently appointed a new interior minister, three deputy interior ministers, and a new attorney general (NTV, March 23).
In the Russian Duma, Dmitry Rogozin of Rodina and deputy speaker Vladimir Zhirinovsky made a proposal to send peacekeeping troops to Kyrgyzstan in order to prevent the escalation of violence in its southern cities. Existing agreements within the Commonwealth of Independent States and the Russian air base near Bishkek facilitate fast, legitimate troop movements in times of emergency. The mood in the Duma was echoed in the Russian mass media. Komsomolskaya Pravda, for example, published an article entitled, “Are We Loosing Kyrgyzstan?” Unlike in Georgia and Ukraine, the Kyrgyz public shares generally positive feelings toward Russian influence in their country’s political, economic, and cultural spheres. Especially in the northern cities, the Russian language is widely used and, in some cases, more popular than Kyrgyz.
So far, Kazakhstan, Japan, Russia, and the United States have all called for a peaceful resolution of the crisis and urged against resorting to military forces. Uzbekistan tightened control at the Kyrgyz border, citing the need to prevent the possible spillover of destabilizing forces. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and the Ukrainian ambassador in Bishkek both expressed support for Akayev’s regime and spoke of their hope for an “evolutionary” resolution of the situation. U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs R. Nicholas Burns, in a meeting with Kyrgyz Presidential Adviser Alibek Jekshenkulov, stated that the U.S. government encourages immediate dialogue with the opposition (RIA-Novosti, March 23). Some Kyrgyz experts believe that Jekshenkulov may well be Akayev’s chosen political successor.
On March 23, the French newspaper Liberation harshly criticized the Kyrgyz government’s use of force in the southern cities, calling it an “extremely unpopular regime” with a highly mobilized opposition in a small, poor country. According to Oliver Roy, a French expert in Central Asian affairs interviewed by Liberation, “The Kyrgyz political regime is not capable of reform,” to which a Russian columnist from Vremya novosti, Arkady Dubnov, suggested that the post-election tensions in Kyrgyzstan are “the result of the Kyrgyz government’s low political professionalism” (Ekho Moskvy, March 21).