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

Tense Stand-off Ends Peacefully in Kyrgyz Capital

President Bakiev steps in after protesters occupy central square to demand prime minister’s resignation.
By Leila Saralaeva
The Kyrgyz capital Bishkek is no stranger to demonstrations, but a protest this week that began over a local election dispute quickly blew up into a national-level furore that forced President Kurmanbek Bakiev to intervene.



After election officials ruled on March 30 that Rysbek Akmatbaev – a controversial businessman with a criminal record – could not stand in a by-election in the town of Balykchi in the Issykkul region, his supporters blocked roads and surrounded the mayor’s office in the town.



That protest then shifted to the capital on March 31, with demonstrators marching through the streets to the Alatoo square facing the main government building. They waved red banners calling for Akmatbaev’s reinstatement in the April 9 ballot, and others demanding the resignation of Kyrgyz prime minister Felix Kulov.



Akmatbaev himself was in the crowd, and told IWPR he believed Kulov was behind the decision to stop him standing for parliament.



“Our demand is for Kulov to resign,” he said. “It was on his orders that they dropped me from the election campaign.



“People are demanding Kulov’s resignation on the grounds that he himself provokes them to hold such rallies. If he goes, the people will disperse as well.”



Akmatbaev said his supporters would “respond in kind” if the authorities used weapons against them. One of them cut in, “Our people are armed too.” But Akmatbaev said he himself was unarmed, even turning up his sweater to prove it.



As the demonstration got under way, there were almost 2,000 people – about half of them bussed in from Balykchi, on Alatoo square. They demanded that Prime Minister Kulov resign – but also that he come out and meet them. They also called for Interior Minister Muratbek Sutalinov and CEC chairman Tuygunaaly Abdraimov to step down.



The demonstration was remarkable for its organisation – participants were given lunch on paper plates, and a truck arrived later to collect the rubbish.



His supporters were last seen on the streets of Bishkek in October, when they were protesting about what they said was official complicity in the death of Akmatbaev’s brother Tynychbek, the head of parliament’s legal affair committee who had been shot dead during a visit to a prison.



Akmatbaev had been hoping to win in his late brother’s constituency in Balykchi. But the Central Election Commission, CEC, ruled that he could not stand because he had not disclosed a previous criminal conviction dating from 1998, and had not been a permanent resident of Kyrgyzstan for the last five years, a legal requirement for election.



His original registration as a candidate by election officials in Balykchi was overturned after the interior ministry, the prime minister’s office and the non-government Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society wrote to the CEC with the facts.



In a criminal investigation against him last year, Akmatbaev himself told prosecutors that “for security reasons” he lived abroad for some years, first in Kazakstan and Uzbekistan, and from May 2003 in Germany and Spain, only returning to Kyrgyzstan in May 2005. The case against him, involving multiple charges of murder, collapsed in January 2006 when a court threw it out.



Akmatbaev’s demand for the resignation of Prime Minister Kulov is nothing new. Last October, he accused Kulov of complicity in his brother’s murder - an allegation the premier dismisses out of hand. When Akmatbaev was cleared of murder in January, Kulov issued a statement the next day citing this as one example of what he depicted as Kyrgyzstan’s alarming descent into criminality.



The protest looked as though it might end in violence as 500 National Guardsmen and about 200 police in full riot gear deployed around the square, with around 100 special forces with Kalashnikovs waiting in a nearby park.



But the situation was defused when President Kurmanbek Bakiev came out and talked to Akmatbaev. Ringed by 120 soldiers and bodyguards, the president spoke to the crowd for about ten minutes, asking them to go home as Bishkek residents were growing very nervous.



Following these negotiations, Akmatbaev instructed his supporters to leave the square, but as a parting shot he warned they would be back if the dispute was not solved to his satisfaction.



Later in the evening, President Bakiev appeared on television – suggesting that his own officials were wrong not to have talked to Akmatbaev’s supporters. He said that instead of negotiating, they had spent the time instead discussing whether to use force to end the protest.



“I’m going to have it out with the government members who committed this oversight when people were standing and demanding the prime minister’s resignation. No one responded to this,” he said.



The protest may be over, but it has left the political analysts asking some difficult questions about the strength and coherence of government in their country. Some believe the Bakiev administration - the product of last year’s March revolution which was supposed to herald a new era of clean, transparent government - remains too beholden to powerful, unelected business groups.



“This is not a spontaneous rally. Participants are being manipulated by certain political circles who want to see Kulov resign. The annulment of Akmatbaev’s candidature is just a pretext,” said political scientist Alexander Knyazev. “I think such rallies will continue as there’s a track record of bringing the masses out into the squares as a way of exerting pressure to get political decisions taken.”



Knyazev predicts that “Kyrgyzstan will be chronically unstable. Everything depends on whether there’s a compromise among the political circles that are linked to criminal forces”.



Edil Baisalov, who heads the Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, insists the authorities must get a grip and start imposing the law.



He worries that there is a danger they will relent and allow Akmatbaev to register as a parliamentary candidate despite the legal problems identified with his candidature. That would be a sign of weakness, he warns.



“There can be no talk of compromise,” he warned. “The one thing that’s clear is that it’s not about Akmatbaev as a deputy or about Kulov resigning,” added Baisalov, saying the case was being “used by senior officials who just can’t wait to weaken Kulov.



“But what they don’t realise is that they are playing with the destiny of the state.”



Leila Saralaeva is an IWPR contributor in Bishkek.