On April 29 between 15,000 and 20,000 members of Kyrgyz civil society groups and the political opposition staged a peaceful demonstration in central Bishkek, the capital city. This unprecedented act of popular mobilization called on the government to take action regarding organized crime, stalled constitutional reform, and anti-corruption policies in the country by May 27. The crowds were nearly as large as the protests that toppled former Kyrgyz leader Askar Akayev in March 2005.
The demonstrations were a follow-up to an April 8 event that brought up to 5,000 people onto the main streets of Bishkek. That protest was organized by Kyrgyz civil society activist Edil Baisalov, a leader of the Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society (see EDM, April 11). Bishkek law-enforcement agencies adopted a friendly attitude toward the crowd by distributing carnations to the participants and female militia officers.
The popular mobilization that produced the April 29 demonstration marks a new, significant stage in Kyrgyz politics.
First, the demonstration showed the maturity of Kyrgyz civil society and its ability to formulate specific political demands. Notably, the logistics for the demonstration were financed by local businessmen, not external funds. Unlike the riots that preceded the March 24, 2005, Tulip Revolution, where the participants were mainly people bussed in from rural areas with low income and educational levels, the April 29 demonstration was populated by Bishkek residents with higher education and middle incomes. Thus, the mobilization techniques significantly varied from the protests in February-March last year. The demonstrators organized primarily around a political agenda, rather than certain political leaders. The main slogans called for a constitutional reform and a prolonged fight against corruption.
Key opposition members from various parts of the country actively participated in the demonstration, including parliament members Omurbek Tekebayev, Kubatbek Baibolov, Melis Eshimkanov, Kabai Karabekov, Temir Sariyev, Dooronbek Sadyrbayev, and Bolotbek Sherniyazov. There were at least two former members of the government who had initially supported President Kurmanbek Bakiyev but have since moved into the opposition: Almazbek Atambayev and Roza Otunbayeva. Almost every opposition leader had an opportunity to address the crowds in Bishkek. For example, Karabekov asked, “Why do criminals today have a future, while ordinary Kyrgyz do not?” (24.kg, May 2).
Second, President Bakiyev and Prime Minister Felix Kulov both came out of their government offices to address the crowd in person. The president’s appearance in front of the demonstrators constituted a direct dialogue between the government and civil society. According to Baisalov, the demonstration boosted the political alliance between the president and Prime Minister Kulov. However, Bakiyev was mocked by a number of Kyrgyz mass media outlets for his cowardly statements on April 29 such as: “I will not run from my people, if this is my fate — I will die here” (gazeta.kg, April 29).
Third, the large-scale, peaceful, well-organized and premeditated mass demonstration in Bishkek is the first of its kind in the entire Central Asian region. Against a background of generally weak popular mobilization trends in the neighboring states, especially Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, the Kyrgyz example once again proved that civic initiative can allow the people to openly and persistently voice their concerns.
The situation in Bishkek remains unstable. Thirteen out of 18 ministers and high government officials submitted their resignations on May 2 after the parliament criticized the government on April 28. The president turned down most of the ministers’ requests to be relieved of their duties. According to MP Adakhan Modumarov, Kulov considered resigning along with the ministers, but other members of the government persuaded him to remain in his position in order to prevent a political crisis (Akipress, May 2). Some Kyrgyz experts argue that Kulov himself, and not ministers, should resign if his government is criticized by the parliament.
Following the incident, some ministers noted that parliament’s criticism had led the ministers to reconsider their performance in a constructive way. “I think the ministers, whom the parliament gave low marks for their work, now feel moral responsibility,” commented legislator Temir Sariyev (24.kg, May 2). The head of the State Committee on Migration and Employment, Aigul Ryskulova, seemed to agree, commenting: “We will continue to work even more effectively… the parliament’s [negative] evaluation will make us a stronger and more cohesive team” (24.kg, May 2). There were also negative reactions to the demonstrations. Regarding the deadline set by the opposition, Baibolov commented, “The current political regime is not capable of any actions – positive or negative” (Akipress, May 3).
The leading political opposition figures announced the date for the next demonstration — May 27 — that will also serve as a deadline for the government to react to the demonstrators’ requests. In case the president fails to implement substantial changes in the official anti-corruption policies within the one-month period, the opposition will gather ever-larger crowds that will remain at Bishkek’s main square until the government consents to act.