Critics Blast Plan to Restrict Rallies in Kyrgyz Capital

The mayor’s decision to ban public meetings outside three designated spots in Bishkek has been criticised as anti-democratic by rights activists and opposition parties.

Critics Blast Plan to Restrict Rallies in Kyrgyz Capital

The mayor’s decision to ban public meetings outside three designated spots in Bishkek has been criticised as anti-democratic by rights activists and opposition parties.

The recent decision by Bishkek’s new mayor, Daniyar Usenov, to confine public meetings to a handful of designated areas on security grounds has gone down poorly with opposition politicians, non-government organisations and civil rights groups.

A visit to one of the three proposed areas, on the edge of the capital, helps explain their lack of enthusiasm. Bishkek’s “Youth Park” is not only far from the city centre, but derelict and unpleasant.

Empty vodka bottles, old syringes, urine-soaked clothes and piles of rubbish lie scattered around wrecked concrete monuments from the Soviet era and the now distinctly un-child-friendly playground.

No one was to be seen there that mid-afternoon except for a single tramp staggering along the path, clutching a blanket and carrying his belongings on his back.

Speaker’s Corner it wasn’t. It’s hard to think of an area less resembling Britain’s famous symbol of free speech, located in London’s central Hyde Park.

Despite complaints by parties and civic groups, Bishkek’s city council approved the mayor’s decision on November 30.

As a result, from now on all protests and demonstrations must be confined to the Youth Park, to another park near the statue of Maxim Gorky, and to one central location, the Old Square next to parliament.

The desolate Youth Park location is to be improved, officials say, by putting up a special platform to act as a stage.

Mayor Usenov was unrepentant about the decision. Describing Bishkek as a “metropolis with a million-strong population”, he insisted its day-to-day life must not be “paralysed” by rallies.

Many locals side with the mayor, saying they are tired of mass demonstrations in the city centre and the resulting inconveniences.

During these mass parades, the crime rate is said to rise, public transport is held up and many people are delayed.

“When demonstrations take place in Bishkek, it is difficult and even frightening to walk the streets,” said Bishkek resident Vadim Mishin. “Many of the protestors are drunk and use obscene language, and we are also late for work.”

A local government official, who did not give his name, agreed. “During demonstrations the likelihood of mass disorder rises and we have to be the alert,” he claimed.

Bishkek residents have become increasingly familiar with – and apparently weary of – political protests in recent years.

In spring 2005, the then president Askar Akaev was deposed after weeks of mass rallies by opposition groups angry at what they said were rigged elections. The new administration that replaced him was in turn the focus of a series of mass protests which blocked the central square in front of the main government building, known as the White House.

The last such protest, in April 2007, ended in tumult when police used force to disperse participants rally. Police said they intervened only after serious disturbances erupted in the crowd.

Critics insist the mayor’s latest initiative is a violation of people’s constitutional rights and an attempt to stifle criticism of the authorities.

Edil Baisalov, deputy chairman of the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan, said his party strongly opposed the mayor’s move, adding that its members on the city council had voted against the resolution.

On November 30, while Bishkek city council was discussing the issue, human rights activists protested in front of the mayor’s office, saying they would appeal against the decision through the courts.

The Citizens Against Corruption group kept this promise, and on December 3 wrote to the prosecutor general’s office urging it to overturn the ruling on the grounds that Usenov had acted contrary to the constitution and to international conventions that Kyrgyzstan has signed.

Tursunbek Akun, head of the State Commission for Human Rights, which operates under the presidency, conceded that the idea of designated protest sites might be unnecessary, not least because the public has had enough of protests.

“People themselves are tired of these demonstrations, because they understand that not much can come of them,” he told IWPR.

Aziza Abdirasulova, head of the Kylym Shamy human rights centre, took issue with the mayor for different reasons, raising fears that restrictions on protests in the capital might have a knock-on effects in the countryside.

“Experience shows that whenever there are attempts to restrict the citizens’ rights to free expression in the capital, demonstrations are brutally suppressed in the regions,” she said.

Recalling the March 2002 tragedy in the Aksy area of southern Kyrgyzstan, when law-enforcement officers opened fire on a peaceful demonstration, killing six and wounding dozens, Abdirasulova said, “There, the police simply shoot at protestors.”

Jyldyz Mamytova is an independent journalist from Bishkek.

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