FAILED COUP RAISES ADDITIONAL QUESTIONS ABOUT STABILITY IN KYRGYZSTAN
Anti-government protests on August 5, 2010 in the capital of Kyrgyzstan ended with the riot police dispersing crowds of demonstrators and arresting the organizer, Urmat Baryktabasov, on charges of coup attempt and illegal possession of weapons. Baryktabasov gained notoriety as a result of his alleged first attempt at seizure of power in June 2005, weeks following the Tulip Revolution. Even though the police and security services successfully coped with the challenge this time, the situation in Kyrgyzstan is far from stable.
BACKGROUND: The country has been run by the self-appointed provisional government since the ousting of President Kurmanbek Bakiev on April 7, 2010. Consisting of a loosely-knit group of former opposition leaders united in an ad-hoc fashion, it remains to be seen whether the provisional government will prove successful in legitimizing itself either by elections or an impressive management of the country. The government’s inability to efficiently handle the ethnic conflict in the southern regions of the country was highly damaging to its image, internationally and domestically.
Urmat Baryktabasov returned from exile in the United Arab Emirates this summer. Wanted on charges of coup plotting since 2005, he was freely admitted into the country but allegedly put under house arrest, while his case was being reviewed by the prosecutor. Baryktabasov, however, ignored several appointments with the prosecutor and started preparing for a protest from Balykchi, his power base in the northern Issyk Kul region, where he is believed to enjoy considerable support from the local population.
The Meken Tuu party led by Baryktabasov announced a kurultai (a people’s forum) on August 5 in the capital city Bishkek, with invitations sent out to several other parties and the government. The officials, fearing possible riots and disorder by the allegedly armed participants, reversed their initial decision to allow peaceful protests under tight control and mobilized well-equipped riot police and security service units to stop the protesters.
Around noon on August 5, a group of about two thousand Bishkek protesters gathered at the Old Square in front of the Parliament, while two thousand additional protesters arriving from Balykchi reached the police roadblock near Kyrgshelk some thirty kilometers away from Bishkek. The official reason for the block was the possession of arms, including hand grenades, by some of the protesters.
Talks were held between Baryktabasov and Topchubek Turgunaliev (adviser to the president), and Zarylbek Rysaliev (head of the Bishkek police), in which Baryktabasov demanded that all criminal charges be dropped against him, that all his supporters be allowed into the city, and that he be appointed Prime Minister. The third demand was obviously impossible to meet. Failing to acquire a response to the ultimatum, Baryktabasov’s supporters attempted to approach the police cordon around 3 PM. The police reacted with stun grenades, rubber and dummy bullets and tear gas. The two-hour standoff resulted in a quick dispersal of the crowd and the arrest of Baryktabasov after a chase involving police cars and two helicopters. Later, journalists were shown a car where, the police claims, protesters allegedly stored ammunition.
IMPLICATIONS: Baryktabasov’s failed protest has only strengthened his reputation as a risk-taking “all-or-nothing” politician. However, outside the mainstream media there are voices who claim that Baryktabasov was framed during the 2005 protests, and that he was manipulated by “third parties” this time. Unwilling to discount Baryktabasov’s apparent irrationality as a mere miscalculation and noting several other curious aspects of the events, such as the ease and calm with which the police dispersed allegedly armed protesters, it is claimed that the demonstrations might have been staged to serve certain third-party interests. Verifying such allegations is virtually impossible.
Meanwhile, the mainstream media and the government are presenting the events as a well-managed joint operation of the power structures, which managed to protect a one-million capital city from armed criminals and possible looting, and arrest a suspect wanted both in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. This stands in sharp contrast to the otherwise common allegations of incompetence and corruption within the police and the army, and abuses during the ethnic and humanitarian crisis in the south of the country. The President has admitted cases of misconduct and several monitoring and aid groups, most notably Medecins Sans Frontieres, report that violations still take place.
The overall performance ratings of the provisional government have plummeted. Initially seen as visionaries and agents of change, members of the government are now widely regarded as acting in accordance with their personal and group interests. Over 350 people were killed and severe damage was inflicted on Uzbek homes and property in the clashes between ethnic Uzbeks and the Kyrgyz in the regions of Osh and Jalalabad this June. The government’s management of the situation is widely regarded as a failure; some ethnic Uzbeks are calling for peacekeepers and others for opportunities to leave the country. The mayor of Osh, the hotbed of ethnic strife, has publicly announced his ethnic nationalism and his disregard for and distrust in the Government. Several groups have accused the mayor of shady affairs and an ethnic bias, while the President has admitted that he is not trusted by the government.
De jure legitimacy of the provisional government’s rule is another unsettled issue. Initially, the overthrow of the unpopular President Bakiyev and almost unanimous support from Kyrgyzstan’s civil society provided it with a degree of legitimacy. However, many civil activists soon aired their disillusionment and distanced themselves from the new government. The referendum, held in the middle of the crisis in the south, provided an overwhelming approval for the new constitution and the continued leadership of Roza Otunbayeva until 2012. However, the legitimacy of other members of the provisional government has not been subjected to public approval. Certain members of government, such as Azimbek Beknazarov, who supervises security and justice affairs, and Temir Sariev, who oversees finances, have been accused of “privatizing” public administration and manipulating their positions for personal gain.
CONCLUSIONS: Kyrgyzstan is far from stable at this point, with fierce power struggles within the political elite, a humanitarian crisis unfolding in Osh and Jalalabad, and a provisional government whose authority, legitimacy and competence is frequently and ubiquitously challenged. The situation is not expected to stabilize either before or after the elections of October 10, 2010, which will turn Kyrgyzstan into a parliamentary republic and hopefully restore the legitimacy of state institutions. With its progressive constitution, a parliamentary republic and the only female head of state in CIS, Kyrgyzstan’s case holds great promise, but the overwhelming problems of criminality, corruption, inter-ethnic tensions and a humanitarian disaster pose massive challenges for the new government to be formed in October.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Anvar Rahmetov is a PhD Fellow in Political Science at the IMT Institute for Advanced Studies in Lucca, Italy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.