On April 19 the Kyrgyz police violently ended the week-long protests staged by opponents of the government. The protests were staged by two opposition blocs, the United Front and For Reforms, and brought up to 12,000 people into central Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital. The police used tear gas and stun grenades against protestors and dispersed a crowd of several thousand people within minutes. Tens of protestors were arrested and dozen wounded.
Before the protests began on April 11, there was already widespread concern about the possibility of violence and bloodshed between opposition members and law-enforcement structures or government supporters. When the protests turned violent late on the night of April 19, both the government and opposition members resorted to finger pointing, accusing each other of provoking the fight. While the government claimed it had prevented a violent takeover of state power, the opposition accused the government of waiting for a convenient moment to end the protests.
The United Front’s leader, former prime minister Felix Kulov, claims that the government organized groups of provocateurs to whip up the crowds and then use force to disperse them. Civil rights activist Tolekan Ismailova agreed that the government’s suppression was excessively brutal and sought to end the protests by any means. Most local mass media outlets reported that the police had reacted to a group of drunken men who were attempting to break through the fence surrounding the government headquarters.
Prior to the April 19 clashes Kulov had warned that the demonstrations would bring radical changes, forcing President Kurmanbek Bakiyev to step down. Before and during the opposition’s protests, Bakiyev tried to make some minor concessions to calm the United Front. But he obviously tried to prolong the constitutional reform that was the opposition’s core demand.
After Kulov lost his position as a prime minister in January, he chose an aggressive tactic against Bakiyev. From the outset, the United Front was based on symbols associated with physical confrontation with the government. For instance, the bloc’s members cover their faces with blue scarves that reveal only their eyes. Yet the bloc clearly lacked an articulate strategy against the president and government, mostly limiting its activity to radical slogans.
Newly appointed Prime Minister Almazbek Atambayev has been criticized for favoring the violent suppression of the opposition, thus taking the president’s side. Atambayev himself argues that Kulov is the only one to be held responsible for letting his supporters slip out of control. Being a member of For Reforms, Atambayev compares the opposition’s April 11-19 rallies with those held by the bloc in November 2006, when crowds were managed effectively and violence was avoided. Minister of Interior Bolotbek Nogoibayev also stands accused of supporting the president and masterminding the police crackdown.
The authorities raided two opposition newspapers’ publishing facilities, as well as the United Front’s office, shortly after the April 19 clashes. The National Security Committee questioned Kulov and a number of his followers. This was followed by criticism from U.S. State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack, who accused Bakiyev of trying to censor the independent media.
A few days after the clashes, the opposition was busy disassociating itself from the April 19 violence. The clashes entailed a split among opposition leaders, especially the For Reforms members. Omurbek Tekebayev, MP leader of For Reforms, argues that the opposition clearly suffered a defeat. Today, the opposition’s plans for further actions against Bakiyev are unclear.
Not only have Kulov’s plans for overthrowing Bakiyev failed, the April 11-19 protests also confirmed the president’s ability to resort to more authoritarian leadership. It is now up to the parliament and the judicial branch to decide whether the government acted justly in suppressing crowds. But neither branch of power is able to realistically challenge the president due to the personal loyalties and interests of some of its members. The government, meanwhile, is determined to continue using force to prevent protests. Nogoibayev openly declared that he will try to thwart any further anti-governmental protests.
The April 11-19 experience offers the opposition — as well as other political actors in Kyrgyzstan — a lesson that regardless of their popular approval rating, the president and government cannot be overthrown simply through mass protests. Although Bakiyev is deeply unpopular today, the opposition should learn other ways of influencing presidential power.
(24.kg, Ar-Namys.org, Akipress.kg, Bely Parohod, Ferghana.ru, April 19-22)