Once hailed as an "island of democracy," Kyrgyzstan now finds itself engulfed in political violence rooted in the government's attempt to stifle dissent. Security forces clashed with protestors March 17 in a remote area of southern Kyrgyzstan, leaving at least five dead and 61 people injured. Authorities in Bishkek blame government critics for inciting the violence. Political observers, however, warn that the government's policies have radicalized protestors, adding that the "era of peaceful protest is over."
The confrontation, the first such bloodshed since Kyrgyzstan gained independence in 1991, developed in the remote Ak-Sui district in the southern Jalalabad region, site of the trial of opposition legislator Azimbek Beknazarov on abuse of power charges. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Approximately 2,000 Beknazarov supporters gathered March 17, seeking to enter the Ak-Sui district center, where Beknazarov was scheduled to be sentenced the next day. Special police units blocked access to the village. When protesters did not stop, security forces reportedly opened fire, prompting a melee.
Rampaging protesters burned down a local police station and other official buildings. At a news conference March 18, Kyrgyzstan's Interior Minister Temirbek Akmataliyev said opposition leaders and human rights advocates provoked mob violence, and characterized the clash as an attempted coup. He added that of the casualties, 47 were members of the security forces.
Meanwhile, The Kyrgyz Committee for Human Rights (KCHR) reported that the death toll had climbed to 13 by March 18. In addition, the upper house of parliament authorized the formation of a special commission to investigate the cause of the clash. A demonstration in the Ak-Sui district on the evening of March 18 drew thousands of anti-government protesters, who called for President Askar Akayev's resignation.
To one Washington analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity, the violence does not come as a surprise. "What do you expect when the governments of the region provide no other option.
Justin Burke is Eurasianet’s publisher.