Saturday, March 16, 2013

Kyrgyzstan: Public Anger, But No Revolution

This article originally appeared in the Institute for War and Peace Reporting,

Kyrgyzstan: Public Anger, But No Revolution

Political analyst on the protests where economic concerns meet north-south rivalries

As the opposition in Kyrgyzstan uses street protests to pressure the government, a leading political analyst says wider unrest like the revolutions of 2005 and 2010 is still a remote prospect.

In an interview for IWPR, Marat Kazakbaev said the anger evident in the demonstrations stemmed from real concerns about the government’s inability to turn round a failing economy, create jobs and reform the judiciary.

"The principal reason why people attend protests is the decline in social conditions that affect virtually every tier of society," he said.

Kazakbaev said things were worse in regions outside the capital Bishkek.

"There’s corruption, and even more important, unemployment," he said. “Even smallholders and farmers are complaining. Conditions need to be created to allow farmers to buy and sell, work unhindered and pay their taxes."

In addition, public faith in parliament is very low, he said, explaining citing constant internal squabbling among legislators and unseemly behaviour by some of them.

Kazakbaev’s conclusion is that “these rallies will not lead to anything serious, but they are a worrying sign".

“Should we be expecting another revolution this spring? I don’t think so,” he added.

The current government is heir to the mass protest movement that forced President Kurmanbek Bakiev out of power in April 2010. Bakiev himself became head of state after another revolution, in 2005, in which his predecessor, long-term leader Askar Akaev, had to flee in similar fashion.

There is another side to these protests – the prime movers hail from southern Kyrgyzstan, and are exploiting social discontent to undermine the mainly northern elite group that holds power under President Almazbek Atambaev.

In the most recent protests, several hundred people gathered in the southern city of Jalalabad, to demand the release of Kamchybek Tashiev, head of the nationalist Ata Jurt party, as well as two other leading members, Sadyr Japarov and Talant Mamytov.

A smaller demonstration drew around 200 people in the regional centre, of Osh, and there were also protests in the northern towns of Naryn and Karakol. The demonstrations were largely peaceful, apart from isolated attempts to take over government buildings in Jalalabad.

At a March 14 hearing, prosecutors asking for a ten-year sentence for Tashiev and Japarov and nine for Mamytov. All three were arrested in early October and accused of trying to mount a coup d’etat after they led supporters in an attempt to storm the Kyrgyz parliament. (See Kyrgyz Nationalist Leader Routed.)

Tashiev comes from the Jalalabad area, and for a while was a central figure in national politics. His Ata Jurt party came from nowhere to win a majority in the October 2010 parliamentary election, and became part of a governing coalition. Its Kyrgyz nationalist rhetoric appeared to match the public mood in the wake of several days of extreme violence between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in June that year. By the end of 2011, however, Ata Jurt had been pushed out by its coalition partners, and it became an opposition party.

Kazakbaev believes the authorities now face a dilemma about what to do next, since the arrest of Tashiev and his fellow party members has clearly failed to kill off Ata Jurt.

"It turns out that Ata Jurt has a big constituency in Osh, Jalalabad and Batken," he said, noting that support in these southern regions is fed by the dire economic situation there. In addition, the protests in Karakol and Naryn suggested that Ata Jurt was able to campaign in the north, too.

Another motive for southern mistrust of the Bishkek authorities is the rumour that they plan to edge out Melisbek Myrzakmatov as mayor of Osh.

Myrzakmatov wields considerable power in the south, and is an outspoken figure with nationalist leanings who has proved difficult for central government to manage.

"But at the same time, as mayor he’s done good work in Osh," Kazakbaev said, arguing that Myrzakmatov was viewed locally as a good administrator who delivered efficient public services in his city.

That makes him someone who can neither be ignored nor easily dislodged, in Kazakbaevs’ view.

The analyst says President Atambaev is left with an uncomfortable set of decisions to manage the situation. He could, for example, seek the release of the Ata Jurt politicians or dissolve the current legislature.

“The president has to sacrifice something, I think,” Kazakbaev said.

At the same time, Kazakbaev pointed to significant areas of progress that made a 2010-style mass revolt much less likely.

Since then, more channels have emerged through which people can communicate their frustrations to their leaders.

"First, there is freedom of expression. Everyone really is allowed… to criticise the authorities including the president. There is no political persecution in Kyrgyzstan," Kazakbaev explained

“Secondly, groups like Ata Jurt and Respublika that have parliamentary representation are genuine opposition groups that can issue statements, speak out and make a fuss.

“The third factor is that people have really grown tired of turmoil." 
Altynai Myrzabekova is an IWPR-trained journalist in Kyrgyzstan.