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Kyrgyz Opposition Regroups for Protests

New constellation of opposition leaders hopes to pressure the government, but it is far from certain they will succeed.
  • A currency exchange sign in Bishkek shows the Kyrgyz currency slipping. The latest economic headache for the government is the knock-on effects of devaluation in neighbouring Kazakstan. (Photo: Pavel Dyatlenko)
    A currency exchange sign in Bishkek shows the Kyrgyz currency slipping. The latest economic headache for the government is the knock-on effects of devaluation in neighbouring Kazakstan. (Photo: Pavel Dyatlenko)

Pavel Dyatlenko

Pavel Dyatlenko
Political analyst

Opposition forces in Kyrgyzstan are preparing to mount a spring offensive against the government, and are trying to identify social issues that they could use to mobilise protests. But their chances of doing serious damage to the current administration may be limited. 

A group of politicians formally launched the United National Movement on February 26, and plan to hold its first congress on March 17, four years after a similar event which led to the ousting of President Kurmanbek Bakiev a month later.

The movement says it wants to prevent the current president, Almazbek Atambaev, accumulating too much power and thereby reversing constitutional changes made in 2010 which created a parliamentary system. It also wants a referendum on the government’s plan to join the Moscow-led Customs Union, and the release of opposition members.

The movement is led by parliamentarian Ravshan Jeenbekov, joined by the ex-mayor of Osh, Melis Myrzakmatov, Ata-Jurt party head Kamchibek Tashiev, and the leaders of some  smaller parties.

The movement says that if the government refuses to negotiate on these issues, it will start holding public protests.

More broadly, the new movement is clearly hoping that in an environment of falling living standards and price rises, it will be able to harness anti-government sentiment. The economy was already in worse shape than last year when a currency devaluation in powerful neighbour Kazakstan further exacerbated the situation. Demand for Chinese goods sold in Kyrgyzstan and traded to Kazakstan fell, while import costs from the latter state rose. The Kyrgyz currency fell against the US dollar, which commonly used for major purchases like property or cars. Another important economic impact will be the decline in remittances that households in Kyrgyzstan receive in migrant workers. These relatives abroad send money back in dollars, which they will be able to buy less of since their wages are paid in the now weakened Russian rouble or Kazak tenge. 

However, the government is now in a stronger position than it has been in the last year or two. It has faced sporadic protests, for instance calling for the Kumtor gold mine to be renationalised, but these have been localised and fairly quickly contained. (See Kyrgyz Politicians Go for Gold on the background to the Kumtor dispute.) 

Major opponents like Ata-Jurt leaders Kamchibek Tashiev and former Osh mayor Melis Myrzakmatov have been neutralised – in the former case with a spell in prison, and in the latter, by removing him and replacing him with someone less troublesome. (Double Win for Kyrgyz Government in Key Mayoral Polls) In November, the authorities filed corruption charges against Ahmatbek Keldibekov, a leading member of Ata Jurt member and former speaker of parliament, after he expressed backing for the campaign to renationalise the Kumtor mine.

President Atambaev and the Social Democratic Party have held onto power since the 2010 elections, working with various combinations of parties as coalitions have come and gone and governments have fallen. Atambaev has successfully avoided the kind of major blunder that would make him the focus of massive public anger.

Atambaev also has a reliable ally in his prime minister,  Jantoro Satybaldiev, who has proved resilient since his appointment in September 2012. Opposition parties recently attempted to remove him by alleging government mismanagement of the reconstruction of southern Kyrgyzstan, devastated by ethnic violence in June 2010. In the end, though, parliament deemed the cabinet’s work satisfactory.

UNCERTAIN OPPOSITION ALLIANCE

Many of the politicians associated with the new opposition movement have worked in government in the past but have fallen out with the ruling elite for one reason or another. So the new bloc is not so much about conviction politics as a way of gaining leverage in the battle for a share of political power, not to mention access to economic resources.

Its leader Jeenbekov has had a fairly typical career path shuttling between government and opposition. Under Kyrgyzstan’s first president, Askar Akaev, he was head of the government’s privatisation committee. By 2010 he was a member of the opposition Ata Meken party. That party is now in coalition with the Social Democrats, but it expelled Jeenbekov two years ago.

The United National Movement may not live up to its ambitious title, either. It claims to represent several political heavyweights, yet some are already peeling away in what looks more like disunity than consolidation.

On the day the movement was launched, one of its leading lights, Artur Medetbekov, was quoted as saying that he and his People’s Democratic Party were leaving because they did not want to work with another member, El Unu party leader Azimbek Beknazarov. The previous day, another headline name, Akyikat party leader Alibek Jekshenkulov said he had not actually decided whether to join the movement. And at the launch event, both Myrzakmatov and Tashiev were conspicuous by their absence.

The opposition bloc is also struggling to identify a winning policy issue. The Kumtor dispute is one, but even this controversial issue has brought out a few hundred protestors at a time, and that mainly in the immediate locality of the mine.

This February, the Kyrgyz parliament finally gave its assent to a deal which the government has reached with the Centerra company which operates the gold mine. Previously, legislators had rejected the deal giving Centerra 50 per cent of a joint venture running the mine. Parliamentary approval clears the way for the government to finalise the deal, making it harder for the opposition to hold the government to ransom over the issue.

The movement is now tackling the government on the planned accession to the Customs Union.

Resentment here is focused on Kyrgyzstan’s role as regional wholesale market for Chinese-made consumer goods, which provides tens of thousands of job. That will come to an end when Kyrgyzstan is forced to adhere to new trade and customs regulations as part of a bloc with Russia, Kazakstan and Belarus. The Kyrgyz government has run into difficulties trying to negotiate softer accession terms to cushion its population from the shock. (See Kyrgyzstan Slows Pace of Customs Bloc Entry on this.)

Another issue the opposition movement has taken up is a localised issue in the northern town of Karabalta, where residents are unhappy about the environmental impact of a Chinese oil refinery that started up last autumn.

In the current political environment, there are two possible ways in which the situation might develop.

If the United National Movement manages to show that social discontent exists on a massive scale, and if the authorities make a wrong move by being either too indecisive or too heavy-handed in their response to protests, it could gain ground. In practice, this might translate into fresh demands for a change of government, or simply to jobs being awarded to opposition politicians.

If, however, the opposition is unable to overcome the mood of “protest fatigue” and capitalise on social and economic concerns, the balance of power may remain as it is now. This is obviously contingent on the government being able to reassure Kyrgyzstan’s citizens that it is able to reverse the worsening economic situation.

Pavel Dyatlenko is a political analyst based in Bishkek.

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