Protests Follow Kyrgyz Election Row

Pro-government supporters and opposition activists hold rival demonstrations as tensions rise on eve of parliamentary ballot.

Protests Follow Kyrgyz Election Row

Pro-government supporters and opposition activists hold rival demonstrations as tensions rise on eve of parliamentary ballot.

Roza Otunbaeva at the protest meeting
Otunbaeva supporters marching through central Bishkek

A row over the authorities’ refusal to allow a former ambassador to stand for parliament in Kyrgyzstan’s upcoming elections has spilled onto the streets of the capital.


But supporters of President Askar Akaev’s regime reacted by holding counter demonstrations in Bishkek, accusing the opposition of trying to destabilise the former Soviet republic.


The four-day opposition protest has now been suspended in the run-up to a parliamentary hearing on January 17, but opposition activists warn that demonstrations could begin on a larger scale if the authorities fail to meet their demands.


Supporters of Roza Otunbaeva, an ex-diplomat who wanted to stand as an opposition candidate at the February 27 election – have accused the government of trying to clear the way for its favoured deputies.


The protest, which ran from January 7 to10, was sparked by the controversial decision of a constituency electoral commission in Bishkek to strip former foreign minister and ambassador Otunbaeva of her right to stand for the opposition some five hours after she was officially registered as a candidate. The official reason given was that she had not met the residence rules applying to candidates.


Around 200 protestors carrying yellow ribbons and banners marched to the central Bishkek square in front of the parliament building. When this was cordoned off by police on January 9, the group - comprising opposition parties, civil society groups and members of the public - moved to the government buildings instead.


Protestors told the media that their adoption of the colour yellow was a nod to the pro-democracy campaigners in Ukraine, where orange-clad demonstrators succeeded in having a disputed presidential election result overturned.


One Kyrgyz protestor dressed in yellow clothing told IWPR that he was supporting those whose “rights were violated so that only those favoured by the incumbent government can come to power”.


“We want these elections to be honest but there have been numerous violations already. I am here to defend our right to a fair election – our future depends on it.”


Leaders of the five main Kyrgyz opposition groups voted on January 10 to suspend the protests for a week in anticipation of a parliamentary hearing where amendments to the election code – including the rules about how long candidates need to have been resident in the country - will be debated.


Prominent opposition deputy Azimbek Beknazarov warned that the protests may flare up again if the January 17 hearing does not restore Otunbaeva’s right to stand for parliament.


“If the majority of deputies support us and if the president signs [the amended law] without delay, then everyone will be calm,” he said. “But if the legislation is deliberately blocked, demonstrations will start with renewed force.”


Otunbaeva, who formerly served as Kyrgyzstan’s ambassador to the United Kindom and the United States, most recently acted as deputy special representative to the United Nations’ Secretary General. She moved into opposition politics upon her return to Central Asia late last year.


She was told that her candidacy was ineligible because, due to the nature of her job, she had not been resident in Kyrgyzstan for the past five years. The longest absence allowed under the law is six months out of each year.


Central Electoral Commission, CEC, chairman Sulaiman Imanbaev told the media that the district committee’s decision had been correct, and said that the initial decision to grant Otunbaeva permission to contest the election had been “a mistake”.


This has been disputed by Otunbaeva, who claims that the turnaround was politically motivated. “We have appealed to all international organisations, and I will stand up for my constitutional rights,” she said.


Otunbaeva was joined in the protest by Medetkan Sherimkulov, former speaker of parliament and former ambassador to Kyrgyzstan in Turkey, who was barred from taking part in parliamentary elections on similar grounds on January 8.


“We worked in a foreign country by decree of the head of state, and now we are being deprived of our elementary constitutional rights,” he told the protestors. “We do not want to make people take to the streets, but the authorities have forced us personally to do so.”


Otunbaeva’s lawyer Nurlan Sydykov is currently preparing an appeal to the Kyrgyz constitutional court, which last year rejected appeals by Sherimkulov and other diplomats prevented from standing for parliament on the grounds that the constitution does not prevent diplomats from becoming election candidates.


Opposition deputy Ismail Isakov alleged that Otunbaeva’s candidacy had been cancelled on the orders of President Askar Akaev, as part of a campaign to weaken anti-regime movements.


“Recently Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev held a number of secret meetings where… he gave instructions to the executive bodies to do everything to stop leaders of the opposition from getting into parliament,” Isakov told journalists.


His fellow deputy Adakhan Madumarov went further, claiming that the authorities had removed Otunbaeva from the list of candidates because Bermet Akaeva, the Kyrgyz president’s daughter, planned to run in that district. “This is why the authorities rushed to get rid of obstacles for her,” Madumarov told IWPR.


But President Akaev, who is currently on a countrywide pre-election tour, insists that the upcoming ballot will be free, fair and honest.


At a meeting with representatives of the Chui region, Akaev described opposition members “demagogues and opportunists”, and called on people to reject them at the ballot box.


Presidential official Bolot Januzakov accused the opposition of attempting to destabilise the situation in the country on the eve of elections.


“This is a group of people who want to get into power, and they have started to stir up the public. The law is strict but it is for everyone, and there should also be no exceptions made for former ambassadors,” Januzakov told IWPR.


Abdil Segizbaev, the president’s press secretary, agreed. “The president does not have the right to interfere in the affairs of the CEC,” he argued.


The anger is shared by government supporters, around a hundred of whom launched a counter-protest on January 10. One of them, Margarita Krasnokutskaya, told IWPR that the pro-authority demonstrations were spontaneous. “The people who have gathered here are satisfied with the current authorities and want peace in the republic,” she said.


“We don’t want a repeat of [the regime change in] Georgia or Ukraine.”


And unemployed Amir Torobekov said, “If people do not speak out against such protests, our republic will be bogged down in demonstrations. Everyone will soon get into a fight. We presidential supporters are here to plead for peace and quiet – in other words, stability.”


As well as voicing suspicion over the alleged spontaneity of the pro-authority demonstrations, the opposition protesters noted that those who took part seemed to have a poor grasp of the issues at stake.


Roza Raimbekova, a member of the For Development of Kyrgyzstan party, described many of the pro-authority protestors as aggressive and misinformed.


“These people don’t know what we stand for and do not read our slogans,” she said.


“When this crowd emerged at the square, they were spouting insults pertaining to interethnic relations – they wanted us to disperse because they though we were promoting racial discord!


“Someone is provoking a scandal on purpose.”


Analysts warn that the while the pattern of parallel protests is not unusual, the level of political and social tension in Kyrgyzstan may lead to conflict.


Political scientist Nur Omarov says that the counter-protest organised in support of President Akaev was understandable, since “any action causes counter action.”


“But protests are not a solution,” he added. “When one crowd hits another crowd, it is wrong and uncivilised.”


Analyst Ermek Kozubekov said, “The fact that a counter protest was organised tells about the democratisation of society. But there are fears that such actions, considering the Central Asian mentality, might grow into a deep conflict.”


Sultan Jumagulov is a BBC correspondent in Bishkek. Leila Saralaeva is an independent journalist in Bishkek. Gulnura Toralieva and Marina Bashmanova contributed to this report.


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