Bishkek in Turmoil Again

Government buildings in Bishkek stormed by huge crowds, just two months after similar demonstrations toppled government.

Bishkek in Turmoil Again

Government buildings in Bishkek stormed by huge crowds, just two months after similar demonstrations toppled government.

Special operation forces trying to disperse the protesters
Vice prime minsiter Usenov urges for order inside the White House

Just two months after a popular uprising brought former president Askar Akaev’s regime crashing from power, huge crowds of demonstrators have once again swept through government buildings in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek.

This worsening of the political situation in Kyrgyzstan comes just weeks before elections are due to take place to choose a new president.

On the morning of June 17, several thousand people stormed the White House compound which houses the offices of the president, his administration and government ministers.

They were protesting against a decision by Kyrgyzstan’s Central Election Commission, CEC, not to allow businessman and Mekenim Kyrgyzstan party leader Urmat Baryktabasov to compete in the ballot.

IWPR contributors were on the scene to observe developments throughout.

In the aftermath, analysts and government officials condemned the rioting, and members of the CEC insisted that it would do nothing to affect their decision. And many observers claimed that demonstrators had been paid to take part.

By June 16, many Bishkek residents were already expecting trouble. The management of the Dordoi Plaza department store and shopping mall complex, which was looted during the last uprising on March 24, recommended that shop managers should move their stock to safety. The next morning, almost all supermarkets, boutiques and banks were closed.

At 10 am the next day, thousands of people had gathered in the city’s Alatoo central square.

Those in the main body of people said they were holding a peaceful protest against the June 13 decision by the CEC to rule-out Baryktabasov as a presidential candidate, on the grounds that he is a citizen of Kazakstan.

A separate crowd of young people who had started to gather nearby would not respond to questions about their reasons for being there.

At first, the demonstrators stood calmly near the government buildings, holding placards. But by 11 am the crowd had moved up to the White House gates, and before long they began to storm the compound.

When protesters tried to climb the fence, police shook it until they fell. But the crowd then managed to tear down the fence itself, and began running towards the White House. Once they got there, they had no problem getting inside and began spreading out to the different floors. Throughout this time, a voice could be heard calling for the demonstrators to refrain from damaging the building or any property they found inside.

Attempts by acting deputy prime minister Daniar Usenov to address the protesters over a loudspeaker and call for negotiations were ignored. IWPR contributors watched protesters strolling from floor to floor, while high-ranking officials hurriedly vacated their offices and headed for safety. Demonstrators remained in the building until 11:40 am, when the law enforcement agencies and special forces managed to evict them.

Interior Minister Marat Sutalinov told journalists, “We will not allow a repeat of the disorder of the night of March 24, 2005. We will take adequate measures against the actions of these people, within the frame of the law.” Sutalinov said that, if necessary, such measures could include the use of tear gas, batons and water cannons.

By shooting into the air and using tear gas, special forces drove the demonstrators back outside the perimeter fence. One police chief was heard shouting to his men, “Bang harder on your shields, it is a psychological attack!”

But the demonstrators still wouldn’t disperse, and some started throwing stones at the police and special forces. A police chief, who wished to remain anonymous, told IWPR that at least six officers and members of the Kyrgyz national guard were injured in this way.

Another policeman escorted IWPR contributors out of the back door of the White House building to a safe place, where they saw the chief of the presidential administration Usen Sydykov and other high-ranking officials.

A fresh attempt by demonstrators to storm the White House building from the north-eastern side at 12:30 pm failed.

Police eventually managed to force the crowd to leave the main square – using tear gas for the second time, and also batons. Demonstrators then dispersed into nearby streets.

At a press conference later in the day, the acting president Kurmanbek Bakiev said ten police officers were injured during the disturbances. He was also critical of the Kyrgyz special forces, who he said had done “a poor job”.

But he insisted that the security forces would continue to enforce calm. “Police will be acting sternly, within the framework of the law,” he told journalists. “If [protesters] try to take over the government house or try to rob or loot, they should know that the strictest measures will be taken. There will be order and stability in Bishkek. If someone thinks that if they enter the government house Bakiev will run away, then they are profoundly wrong.”

Bakiev also said those behind the protests would be called to account, “I am sure the prosecutor general’s office will... open criminal cases as appropriate. The organisers and inspirers will definitely be held responsible in accordance with the law.”

Observers also gave varying accounts of who they thought these organisers were.

Bermet Turduniazova, a spokesperson for spurned presidential hopeful Baryktabasov, told IWPR that the storming of the White House occurred after separate groups hijacked a peaceful demonstration by Baryktabasov’s Mekenim Kyrgyzstan party.

“Three or four groups, independently of Mekenim Kyrgyzstan, are provoking such actions,” she said. “We said openly at an earlier press conference that this would be a peaceful demonstration. Everyone knew about it, and they took advantage and were prepared in advance.”

Turduniazova, who claimed this tactic was all part of an effort to discredit Mekenim Kyrgyzstan, reported noticing separate groups of people being driven to the demonstration in cars and buses.

Choyun Omuraliev, a member of Mekenim Kyrgyzstan’s coordination council, also insisted that “the takeover of White House not part of our plans”. But Omuraliev blamed the storming of the government buildings on “provocation of law enforcement agencies”.

Bakiev himself took advantage of his press conference to argue that the inner circle of former president Akaev had had a hand in the events. “The organisers of the unrest are in neighbouring Kazakstan,” Bakiev told journalists. “These people are very close to Askar Akaev... I call on them to stop their attempts to destabilise Kyrgyzstan.”

But Maksim Maksimovich, the ex-president’s lawyer, denied the allegation in an interview with the Kyrgyz AKIpress news agency.

“Askar Akaev has asked me to state to the media that neither himself nor his family have anything to do with the events that took place today on the square,”said Maksimovich. “He said that many accuse him of being behind those events, but this is all groundless.”

The lawyer added that Akaev regretted the developments and hoped far a rapid resolution and for stability to return to the country.

IWPR heard many reports that protesters had been paid to take part in the demonstration. And Bakiev himself made the claim during his press conference. “Yesterday evening I had information from citizens of Bishkek that residents of dormitories, students and the unemployed were being given 500 to 1,000 soms [between around 12 and 24 US dollars] to come out today,” he told journalists.

Bakiev went so far as to put a figure on the sum of money spent on the day’s events, claiming that the storming of the White House had cost organisers 28,000 dollars.

Temir Subanov, chief of public security at the Bishkek police department, and Nurgazy Narynbaev, a member of the Edinenie, or Unity, youth movement, also claimed to have heard reports that participants in the demonstrations had received anything from 2.5 dollars upwards to take part. Narynbaev alleged that those who actually stormed the White House compound were to receive 25 dollars each, while Subanov reported hearing that this amount was set aside for the organisers of the protest.

Leader of the coalition of NGOs For Democracy and Civil Society, Edil Baisalov, who alleged to IWPR that this hiring had been going on for three to four days, claimed that it in fact involved much larger bribes. “Not only common people were bought,” he said, “but also public figures, writers and some human rights defenders. Big sums of money, flats and houses were promised.”

Many observers that IWPR spoke to were disparaging of the tactics employed by the demonstrators as a whole.

Nazarbek Nyshanov, another presidential hopeful who failed to get his candidacy approved by the CEC, said, “Each of us has a right for fight for our rights, I support the intention of Baryktabasov supporters to fight... for their leader. But I certainly doubt if the methods of struggle are right...”

Miroslav Niazov, chair of the Kyrgyz Security Council, described the demonstrations at “a shame on the nation”.

And Baisalov, who agreed that the demonstration were “a clear example of a reckless scheme”, added that “someone clearly took the wrong lessons from March 24”.

At the same time, members of the CEC insisted that the protest would change nothing.

Gulbara Kalieva, a lawyer in the CEC, told IWPR that the council’s decision regarding Baryktabasov’s candidacy “is iron strong” and “based on all documentation”.

And CEC chair Tuigunaly Abdraimov agreed. “The issue of Baryktabasov and his registration will not be reconsidered,” he said. “The fact that his supporters take people out on streets does not do him credit... and it is not acceptable.”

“The CEC decision is a CEC decision,” said Bakiev. “That decision should perhaps have been appealed in a court instead of attacking the government house.”

Sultan Jumagulov is a BBC stringer in Bishkek. Leila Saralaeva is an IWPR contributor in Bishkek. Sultan Kanazarov, a correspondent in Bishkek for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, also contributed to this report.

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