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Bishkek Holds its Breath

President Akaev lambastes opponents but urges non-violent solution, as protesters who hold most of the south consider next steps.
By IWPR Central Asia

Pro-Akaev rally in Bishkek, March 22
Soldiers take a nap during a pro-Akaev demo in Bishkek
Bishkek photos by Dinara Makesheva

With most of the southern half of Kyrgyzstan effectively under the opposition's control, the political atmosphere remains tense and expectant.

Rumours circulated in the media and among supporters and opponents of President Askar Akaev alike that the protesters in the south would march northwards to on the capital Bishkek to press their demands for the head of state to resign.

Meanwhile, Akaev made his first public appearance since the abortive police raids to recapture government buildings in the cities of Osh and Jalalabad at the weekend. He used the occasion to lash out at the opposition and what he suggested were its foreign backers.

At the time this report was published late on March 22, the intentions of the protest movement – which grew out of widespread public anger over the alleged ballot-rigging in the recent parliamentary election – were still unclear. There were suggestions that demonstrators would head for Bishkek, but a report from the Russian news agency Interfax that a column of buses had actually set off from Osh was denied by Irina Gordienko, a reporter for the Moscow newspaper Novaya Gazeta who was on the ground.

Gordienko reported that the demonstrators in Osh were being joined by others arriving by bus from the town of Uzgen to take part in a possible march.

Four or five hundred protesters did arrive in Bishkek on March 22, but they had come from the Naryn region in the north, rather than from southern Kyrgyzstan. Many were supporters of Akylbek Japarov, a politician who was prevented from standing for election in his Kochkor constituency. Japarov has become a significant figure as he is national head of the People's Unity Movement, an umbrella group coordinating protests across Kyrgyzstan.

Bishkek certainly seemed to be anticipating of large-scale protests. Security around the central government building was stepped up, with armed members of the National Guard encircling the area. Mounted police were seen patrolling the city streets.

A law-enforcement source in Bishkek who asked to remain anonymous said police had been alerted to the possibility of a march coming from the south and were preparing "for this emergency situation".

But he admitted that senior officers were not entirely confident that police – if pushed – would obey orders.

"Many of the law officers now surrounding state institutions might just throw in the towel and leave if too many protesters gather in Bishkek,” he said. “For example, we still don’t know where the personnel of Jalalabad and Osh police departments have been since the opposition seized power there."

In Bishkek, President Akaev appeared in defiant mood, addressing parliamentary deputies elected in the ballot that lies at the root of the current unrest.

At the March 22 swearing-in ceremony for the incoming parliamentarians, Akaev stressed the "great and indisputable legitimacy of the body of deputies who have been elected".

He dismissed the political opponents now leading the movement against him, "Having lost the election…a number of irresponsible opposition members have started along the road of imposing their own interest on society by force."

The president went on to attack unspecified external forces - presumably western officials who have voiced concern at the way the election was conducted. "In a display of double standards, certain forces abroad are all but patting the opposition on the head," he said.

Until a few years ago, Akaev was widely viewed as a friend of the West and as the only Central Asian leader who had embraced the concept of political pluralism.

In a separate address to the nation the same day, the president appeared to rule out using his security forces to crush the opposition movement.

“We consider there is no solution to these issues that involves force, nor can there be. All the problems that have arisen must be resolved by political means, through negotiations,” he said, according to his official website.

As Akaev addressed the new legislators, between 8,000 and 10,000 people were attending a rally in support of his rule in the square outside the government building.

Most appeared to be students who had come with their lecturers, along with other public servants. The front ranks were equipped with banners saying, "Students are with the president!"

Some participants quietly complained to reporters that they had been pressured to turn up under threat of expulsion from college or dismissal from their jobs. "Eight out of ten of us are neutral - we're not for the opposition but we're not for Akaev either," said one student. "We were forced to come by our deans and rectors."

As the rally went on, police cadets who had been stationed around the square to keep order lay down and fell asleep on their riot shields.

Sultan Kanazarov is a correspondent for Radio Azattyk, the Kyrgyz service of RFE/RL. Ainagul Abdrakhmanova is IWPR’s programme coordinator in Bishkek.

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