Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kyrgyz Opposition Runs Out of Steam

The opposition appears to have lost its momentum following April's turbulent protests, although some analysts think a period of reflection would do everyone good.
By Astra Sadybakasova
After the dramatic events of April, in which thousands of Kyrgyz opposition supporters appeared locked in a fight to the death with President Kurmanbek Bakiev, political life has lapsed into turpitude.

At certain points before and during the April 11-19 rally, it seemed Bakiev’s opponents had him on the back foot, forcing him to make concession after concession. They accuse him of failing to introduce political and economic reforms to make a break with the system he inherited from former president Askar Akaev, ousted by the opposition in the March 2005 “tulip revolution”.

However, after police used force to break up the rally and questioned a number of opposition leaders, it seemed that Bakiev had them on the run instead.

But a month on, it seems that the opposition is less defeated than simply in a quandary about to should do next.

The United Front for a Worthy Future for Kyrgyzstan held a “national assembly” on May 5 at which it demanded the resignation of Almazbek Atambaev, the opposition politician whom Bakiev appointed prime minister last month as one of his concessions to his opponents. The opposition refused to join Atambaev’s coalition government, and pressed ahead with street protests.

However, the assembly’s final resolution made no mention of the principal demand voiced by the United Front since it was set up in February – that President Bakiev should stand down immediately to clear the way for a fresh election.

United Front leader Felix Kulov explained the omission afterwards by saying such a call would have brought down a “ferocious” reaction from the authorities.

Since the April rally, opposition politicians have been speaking about a new strategy of “peaceful resistance”, although no one seems to be clear what that means – or what forms of protest it rules out. They have also indicated that there will be no more major anti-government protests until the autumn – a radical shift of gear following the sustained confrontation of recent months, which saw big political rallies last November as well as this April, and two changes to the constitution which still left the opposition unsatisfied.

The May 5 assembly agreed that if the government failed to meet its demands within 20 days, the opposition reserved the right to stage further protests and gather the 300,000 signatures needed to impeach the president. But this new prospect of more unrest receded almost immediately when opposition politicians started talking about an October 20 date for the next demonstration.

One interpretation of this apparent loss of momentum is that the opposition has imploded.

Until February, Bakiev with Kulov beside him as prime minister was opposed by an umbrella group of parties called the Movement for Reforms. When Kulov failed to win re-appointment as prime minister, for which he blamed the president, he changed sides and set up a new group, the United Front, which articulated similar demands to the Movement for Reforms but using tougher language.

The movement initially held off from aligning itself closely with its new, more radical rival. But as the April protests loomed, it sided with the United Front, and Kulov began to be seen as the leader of the opposition.

That relationship may now becoming strained.

“Even the conglomerate of oppositionists who supported the March 2005 coup have fallen out with one another,” argued political analyst Toktogul Kakchekeev. “They are virtually enemies now, because the… orientation of the revolutionaries was never stable,”

Beishe Bulan, chief editor of the De Facto newspaper, dates the schism to Kulov’s arrival in the opposition ranks, which prompted leading politicians like Atambaev, Azimbek Beknazarov and Roza Otunbaeva to part company with their allies.

“In Felix Kulov, the opposition lost more than it gained,” said Bulan.

According to journalist Dmitry Orlov, much now depends on what both opposition politicians and the authorities decide to do.

“Kyrgyzstan’s politicians have seriously damaged their own reputations of late,” said Orlov. “Because of their actions, we have been left with a total void in place of a Kyrgyz state.”

For the moment, it looks like being a quiet summer.

Political analyst Turat Akimov said the opposition is completely demoralised and is trying to reassess its own aims and values, to regroup, and to gather funds.

“There will be no serious political action until the autumn,” he said Akimov. “But then we can expect more rational action from the opposition.”

Temir Sariev, the only leading opposition member whom IWPR was able to track down, would not say exactly what was planned, simply that there were “several options” and “work is in progress”. “We won’t be relaxing over the summer,” he promised.

“Political life usually dies down in the summer,” said political analyst Nur Omarov. “What can we expect in the autumn? That depends on whether a new constitution is passed. If the draft document has the backing of both government and opposition is passed - or even if the opposition is at least 50 per cent happy with it - then the opposition’s potential will be drained to a large extent.”

Political analyst Zainidin Kurmanov is more sanguine than other commentators about the current political process. He points out that what looks like chaos in Kyrgyzstan is simply the difference between that country and other Central Asian states, where everything seems calm because there is no open debate, no adversarial politics, and everything is locked down by authoritarian presidents.

“It’s simply that in comparison with neighbouring countries where the entire political space has been privatised by the heads of state, everything here seems terrible,” said Kurmanov.

“It’s incorrect to say that the opposition has died down. In fact, it is taking a breather to review everything that’s going on, including the reasons why the April rally failed.”

Kurmanov presents three possible scenarios – the opposition reverts to past practice and launches more street protests; the opposition and government come to terms under an informal “non-aggression pact”; or there is a continuing stand-off between the two, in an atmosphere of “misunderstanding and confrontation”. But he does not believe any of these options would lead to catastrophe.

“We must learn to live in the conditions of democracy, with its rallies, pickets and protests,” he said.

Astra Sadybakasova is an IWPR contributor in Bishkek.

More IWPR's Global Voices