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

Mass Protests Falter in Kyrgyzstan

Thousands-strong opposition rally fails to unnerve government, which hits back with accusations of a coup plot.
By Cholpon Orozobekova
































Rally in Bishkek, 2-Nov-06
Speakers at November 2 rally: (left to right) Roza Otunbaeva, co-chair of Asaba party; Edil Baisalov, head of NGO Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society; unknown female speaker.
Police deploy to main square. Photos by Elena Skochilo.


The opposition protests that began on November 2 were the largest seen in Kyrgyzstan since the revolution of March 2005. But despite the opposition’s best efforts, the administration of President Kurmanbek Bakiev seemed to be regaining the initiative as the demonstrations entered a second day.



The principal demand of the Movement for Reforms long-anticipated mass rally was that President Kurmanbek Bakiev and Prime Minister Felix Kulov should step down, a request to which neither man seems ready to accede.



The rally, on Bishkek's main square, began at two in the afternoon as demonstrators arrived from gathering-points in five different areas of the city. Waving red scarves – the colour scheme chosen for this protest – participants shouted “Bakiev out!” and carried banners demanding that the president and prime minister go.



While rally organisers insisted there were 50,000 people there, journalists present on the square said there were closer to 20,000, while police put the number even lower, at 8,000. Thirty-two members of parliament joined the demonstrators as their colleagues conducted an emergency session of the legislature to discuss the crisis.



The authorities deployed about 4,000 police, some in riot gear, around the square.



The rally kicked off with some tough talk from opposition leaders, many of whom are former allies of Bakiev who defected after he failed to live up to their expectations following the 2005 regime change.



Roza Otunbaeva, who served as Bakiev’s foreign minister last year before becoming co-chair of the Asaba party, drew comparisons with the protests that drove former president Askar Akaev from power, “When we stood here almost two year ago, we couldn’t have imagined we’d be back again…. Thieves have gathered in the White House [government building], the same ones who robbed Kyrgyzstan before.”



The crowd called on Bakiev and Kulov to come and talk to them, but this did not happen.



Participants insisted they would continue protesting until their demands were met. “We’ll stay here as long as it takes; we won’t leave,” said Social Democratic Party leader Almaz Atambaev.



After the opposition leaders had delivered their speeches, the protesters set up an encampment on the square, near Government House. Some people from outside the capital spent the night there.



However, contrary to the fears of shopkeepers in central Bishkek who put the shutters up in anticipation of rioting, there was no trouble overnight.



LAST-MINUTE HORSETRADING FAILS



Ahead of the rally, there were attempts by both government and opposition to bridge the gap between them. Bakiev met his opponents on for last-ditch negotiations on October 31, offering them significant concessions. He promised not to use his presidential veto to block proposals to turn the state TV and radio station into a public-service broadcaster, and also said he would submit a draft constitution to parliament in November 2, after months of foot-dragging on the vexed question of constitutional reform.



Not only that, but the draft he proposed using was the one favoured by the opposition, laying the ground for a parliamentary rather than presidential system, in which Bakiev would have only limited powers to control the government.



But instead of producing the promised draft, Bakiev sidestepped the issue early on November 2, before the rally got under way. He explained that he planned to wait until November 6 before submitting the document because there was considerable controversy surrounding the various constitutional drafts now in circulation, and also because members of parliament had expressed concern about rushing into a decision on the issue.



This meant that opposition leaders were in angry mood from the moment the protests began, since they felt Bakiev had reneged on a key undertaking.



“Two days ago, the president promised he’d submit a new draft of the constitution for debate today. He hasn’t fulfilled that pledge, despite the fact that we shook hands on it,” said Temir Sariev, a leader figure in the Movement for Reforms.



SECOND DAY OF PROTESTS SEES FALL IN NUMBERS



The protest resumed on the morning of November 3, although by now the number of participants had shrunk to some 5,000.



At about midday, protesters marched towards the city mayor’s office where they called for the resignation of Mayor Bolotbek Nogoev and tried unsuccessfully to break through a police cordon. Later on, between 500 and 1,000 people moved on to the state broadcasting building, which they blockaded. After an initial confrontation, their leaders were promised airtime to address the nation.



At the end of November 3, there was some confusion as opposition figures claimed there had been demonstrations in a number of towns across Chuy region, outside Bishkek, while the authorities denied that most of these protests had taken place.



GOVERNMENT HITS BACK WITH COUP CLAIMS



By this point the government had regained its composure and begun to hit back at its opponents. Bakiev appeared in parliament early on the second day of protests to accuse his opponents of trying to stage a coup d’etat – something he said his administration would not allow to happen.



He was followed by Kulov. In the past, the two men have been seen as at odds with each other, but on this occasion they spoke in virtual unison. “Whatever attempts anyone undertakes, the executive and government won’t allow the constitutional system to suffer,” said Kulov.



The prime minister made the surprise announcement that that he had obtained a computer disk detailing opposition plans to seize control of important buildings including the state TV and radio station, the mayor’s office, the National Security Service and the ministry of interior, the prosecutor’s office, and a number of urban centres.



The contents of these audio recordings were later carried by local media.



Edil Baisalov, one of the leaders of the Movement for Reforms, confirmed that the discussion had taken place but said his colleagues should be judged by their deeds rather than words. Other opposition figures initially denied the conversation had taken place, but later admitted it had, and instead accused the government of bugging their meetings.



Toktogul Kakchekeev, spokesman for Kyrgyzstan’s prosecutor general, told IWPR’s regional news service News Briefing CentralAsia that the rally had been sanctioned by the authorities and that no legal action against the opposition was envisaged for the moment, despite the revelations about its purported plans.



“If no harm has been done to persons or property, it is impossible to launch criminal proceedings,” he said.



IS THERE A WAY FORWARD?



At the time this report was published, it was unclear what would happen next. Some analysts were saying the opposition’s grand plan had failed and that the protest would soon fizzle out, while others feared the authorities might still send in the riot police, causing bloodshed, bad feeling, and continued political turmoil.



“The temperature has reached boiling point,” said Elet party leader Naken Kasiev. “Both sides are continuing to talk but you’d think they weren’t speaking Kyrgyz – they’re talking different languages. And there’s no neutral force on hand to take on the job of reconciling them.”



There was still some brinkmanship on either side of the divide. State Secretary Adakhan Madumarov warned, “The opposition is not seeking not constitutional reform, but power for itself. They want to use this noisy activity to force the president and prime minister out at all casts.”



Opposition member of parliament Kubatbek Baibolov offered a diametrically opposed view. “This situation is going to end in disaster. The president must today send parliament the constitutional amendments agreed by consensus,” he said.



Overall, there was a sense that the opposition protests had run out of steam and the ball was now in the Bakiev administration’s court.



“This never-ending rally will last another week,” said political scientist Nur Omarov. “The opposition has modelled itself on the Ukrainian revolution but it lacks the required resources and it isn’t getting help from abroad.”



According to Ishanbay Abdurazakov, a former state secretary, “Both sides are being stubborn, and one of them has to behave wisely and go for a compromise. No good will come from confrontation.”



Cholpon Orozobekova is a correspondent for Radio Azattyk, the Kyrgyz service of RFE/RL.