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Kyrgyz Election Protests Spread

Roads blocked across the country as thousands come out to back disqualified candidates.
By IWPR Central Asia

Thousands of people across Kyrgyzstan have mounted protests after election candidates were prevented from running in the February 27 parliamentary ballot.


The country has seen opposition protests before, some of them on a massive scale.


What sets the latest demonstrations apart is that so many involve supporters of pro-government candidates. They allege that their candidates were pushed aside in favour of individuals whom the regime wanted to bring into parliament.


Another aspect that may be worrying the authorities is that the protests are so widespread, for example taking place in rural parts of northern Kyrgyzstan. Traditionally the opposition has been able to muster only modest demonstrations in the capital Bishkek – the centre of political life – while grass protests were associated only with the impoverished south. The wave of protests began on January 21, in the central Talas region, when over 2,000 supporters of parliamentary hopeful Ravshan Jeenbekov mounted a demonstration outside a local courthouse where the candidate had just had his registration revoked after it was alleged he had tried to buy votes.


Jeenbekov, 34, is no opposition figure. Until December last year, he was head of the State Committee for Administering State Property.


The same day, supporters of two other pro-regime candidates blocked the main road through Kochkor, the main town of the Naryn region. By February 12, there were 4,000 people stopping traffic on the road, which is an important highway leading from Bishkek to Torugart on the border with China.


They were demanding the reinstatement of Akylbek Japarov, until recently a pro-government deputy in parliament, and Beishenbek Bolotbekov, a government official.


Elections officials had rescinded their registration on charges of buying voters. But supporters of Japarov and Bolotbekov say they were shoved out – despite being regime loyalists – because the authorities wanted the constituency kept clear for 86-year-old Turdakun Usubaliev, a former Communist Party head of Soviet Kyrgyzstan.


As the rally continued, participants parked trucks across the highway and set up tents.


“We will stand here to the end. There is no alcohol, but hot meals have been organised,” resident Jekshenbek Baigaziev told IWPR.


Protesters set up a special tent for local police, and fed them hot meals. “There haven’t been any violations yet. We are here as observers,” said a policeman.


Participants alleged that local government and court officials fled after seeing public opinion turn against them.


“When the people started grumbling, an employee of the district court admitted they had come under pressure from above,” said Nurbek Saparbekov. “Then he ran away from us.”


Joldosh Saparaliev added, “When he sensed the popular mood, the governor of Naryn region Shamshybek Medetbekov scarpered – he hopped over a fence and drove off in his car. Folk couldn’t catch up with him.”


Saparaliev said he and his fellow-protesters meant business.


“If blocking a strategically important road has no effect on the authorities, then we will march to Bishkek and completely block the central street. If the candidates are not reinstated before February 27, the elections will not be legitimate.”


In the Issykkul region to the north, a local member of parliament Arslan Maliev found himself ejected from the election race in the Ton constituency on February 21, when a court ruled his candidature was not legally valid. Several hundred of his supporters in the village of Bokonbayevo came out and blocked traffic on the main highway that skirts the southern shores of lake Issykkul.


IWPR contributors saw roadblocks in five nearby villages, with rocks or trees placed across on the road every three kilometres or so.


The blockage of this important east-west highway had an economic impact. Canada’s Centerra Gold Inc reported difficulties in getting supplies to the Kumtor gold mine it operates in a joint venture with the Kyrgyz government.


Mukanbet Bubaev, a member of Maliev’s team, told IWPR, “The authorities promise honest and transparent elections, but in fact they are deceiving the people, and do not let those who support the people take part in the ballot.”


In Maliev’s case, the more-favoured rival candidate is a brother of the governor of Issykkul region.


In the same region but further east in the Tyup constituency, businessman Sadyr Japarov was standing against the sister of Mairam Akaeva, the president’s wife. When Japarov was disbarred, his supporters came out onto the streets. In this case the protests worked, and Japarov was reinstated on February 23, after two days of public action.


Southern Kyrgyzstan has seen its share of demonstrations, too. The same day as many other protests began, February 21, supporters of Azzamjon Irsaliev blocked the road from Osh to Bishkek for two hours.


Observers noted that this was a rare example of public action by the ethnic Uzbek minority.


Thousands of people took part in other rallies in the south, including protests on February 22 and 23 against attempts by police to seize computers from the campaign office of Jusupbek Bakiev, a candidate whose brother is leading opposition figure Kurmanbek Bakiev, the head of the opposition People’s Movement of Kyrgyzstan.


Many observers have been surprised at the speed at which protests have spread, and that the central figures are not opposition members, but people who had been loyal supporters of the regime. Slighted at being discarded to make way for higher-profile carpetbaggers, these minor establishment figures appear able to draw on substantial local support to defend their position.


“I did not expect such solidarity,” commented Radio Liberty correspondent Jarkyn Ibraeva. “People have forgotten their family concerns and come out to support their candidates. There are a lot of women, old people and children among the protestors. You can’t fool the people just like that any more.”


Political analyst Askat Dukenbaev said, “It’s very difficult to say right now how events will develop. But the number of people taking part in the protests is worrying. It is an alarm signal for the government. These events will force the authorities to be more careful about using ‘administrative resources’ and distorting [election] results.”


Ermek Kozubekov, another political scientist, said there had been growing signs that candidates would no longer accept being barred from standing. “This is what things were really leading up to. Early on, when other opponents were removed from the election race, there were protests, but just in Bishkek.


“This time, candidates in the provinces are mobilising all their forces, resources and supporters to get decisions passed in their favour. We can see that in Jeenbekov’s case, it has worked.”


Although the nature and timing of the protests suggests a degree of coordination or at least copycat action, the various opposition parties and movements appear not to be playing a major role in events as they develop.


“This is a very unexpected turn of events, especially for the authorities,” said Edil Baisalov, who heads the Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, an association of non-government organisations.


“In the Ton, Tyup and Kochkor regions, it is far from the stars of the opposition who are standing…. But tens of thousands of people are already taking to the streets in support of them,” he said, adding that the case of Jeenbekov, a member of the pro-government party Alga Kyrgyzstan, indicated that “the main party of the country is coming apart at the seams”.


Some opposition figures are suggesting that it is only the start, and Kyrgyzstan could be heading for a lengthy period of civil disobedience.


“I see these recent events as the death throes of a regime that is incapable of holding honest elections,” said Ishengul Boldjurova, deputy head of the opposition People’s Movement of Kyrgyzstan. “It may have unpredictable, uncontrollable consequences. And the regime will be to blame - it has nothing to do with the opposition.”


Baisalov urged the authorities to reverse the series of court rulings that had disqualified candidates, warning that if so many protests were possible in the traditionally passive north of the country, real trouble could be expected from the more turbulent south.


“The court judgements that are now being made are absurd, they are a farce. Since they know this, people cannot simply disperse and go home. They have lost faith,” he said. “The authorities must take this as a warning. The protests began very unpredictably in quiet regions. There is a danger that the traditionally active southern regions will also rise up. To stop that happening, the authorities must reinstate the candidates.”


Ainagul Abdrakhmanova is coordinator of IWPR’s Kyrgyzstan programme, Leila Saralaeva is an independent journalist and Sultan Jumagulov is a BBC correspondent in Bishkek. IWPR contributors Gulnura Toralieva in Bishkek, Jalil Saparov in Jalalabad, Aliya Abdulina in Naryn and Asel Bolotbek kyzy in Talas also contributed to this report.


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