Akayev Benefits From Lack of Opposition Unity

Protests in southern and eastern Kyrgyzstan have put President Askar Akayev on the defensive, as the country prepares for the second-round of parliamentary election. A lack of unity, however, is preventing opposition leaders from honing a cohesive message that could attract the support of a critical mass of the Kyrgyz population, political analysts say.

Anti-government protesters are continuing to occupy regional government offices in Jalal-Abad, one of southern Kyrgyzstan's main population centers. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Demonstrators have also occupied government offices in Uzgen, near the southern city of Osh, and in eastern Naryn Province. In addition, recent protests have occurred in Issyk-Kul Province. The catalyst for the protests was the first-round of parliamentary elections, which were tainted by government manipulation, according to OSCE monitors. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. A second round of voting, in which 44 out of parliament's 75 seats are to be determined, is scheduled for March 13.

As the protests spread, opposition rhetoric took on a more aggressive tone. Bektur Asanov, one of the leaders of the Jalal-Abad protest, went so far as to call for a rebellion against Akayev's administration. Meanwhile, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, a prominent opposition figure, called for Akayev's resignation and an early presidential election. The presidential vote is currently scheduled for October.

Bakiyev's call was echoed by other leaders of the Forum of Political Forces, a loose-knit coalition of opposition parties and movements. At a March 7 news conference, Roza Otunbayeva, leader of the Ata-Jurt movement, endorsed an early presidential vote, while calling for the mandate of the sitting parliament to be extended for one year -- a move that would effectively annul the results of the current parliamentary election.

Otunbayeva, at the same time, sought to paint Akayev as a president who was rapidly losing his ability to govern. "We can say openly that the situation is going out of control," she said. "Therefore, the leaders of the country's opposition have called on the country's parliament ... to take part in the stabilizing the current state of affairs,"

Since the surprising February 27 first-round of the parliamentary vote – which defied expectations by not providing Akayev a solid legislative majority – attention has focused on the president's own political future. Prior to the election, political analysts in Bishkek and abroad expected Akayev to try to circumvent constitutional obstacles and seek another term. In the vote's wake, however, speculation mounted about Akayev's ability to engineer his desired presidential election scenario [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In calling for an early presidential vote, opposition leaders are attempting to further restrict Akayev's room to maneuver.

"The situation in Kyrgyzstan is quite fluid," said Fiona Hill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC. "For now, Akayev and the government have the advantage, rather than complete control."

In an effort to blunt the opposition's momentum, Akayev administration officials have stuck to a long-standing theme, characterizing government critics as reckless and bent on sowing disorder. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. "All their actions are [aimed at stirring up] provocation and conflict," said presidential spokesman Abdil Segizbayev during a March 7 news conference. Earlier, Akayev's deputy chief of staff, Bolot Januzakov, portrayed the protest leaders as political malcontents who were upset that they didn't win parliamentary seats. "Losers should accept defeat and leave gracefully," Januzakov said.

Officials have utilized their near-monopoly on mass media to carefully craft their message and convey it to the Kyrgyz public. In doing so, they have taken advantage of their opponents' lack of unity. For instance, state-controlled television outlets have repeatedly broadcast Asanov's ultra-radical appeal for rebellion in attempting to discredit the opposition. At the same time, authorities have largely succeeded in silencing media outlets that can offer alternative points of view.

The existing confusion in the opposition camp is underscored by the inability of various groups to settle on a unified leader that could stand in contrast to Akayev. Opposition personalities, including Bakiyev and Otunbayeva, along with the jailed Feliks Kulov, all appear reluctant to set their own personal political ambitions aside.

In addition, the current round of protests lacks coordination. The Forum of Political Forces has actively participated in the Jalal-Abad action. But the protests elsewhere have been largely driven by local concerns that do not easily blend in with the broader attempt to force Akayev to leave office when his term is over. Opposition leaders have additionally not been able to organize large protests in the capital Bishkek.

The inability of the political opposition to forge a cohesive protest plan, backed by a clearly articulated alternative vision for the country's future development, means that the protests stand little chance of attracting broad nationwide support. "The government has been able to exploit the differences among opposition leaders [and] obstruct access to the media so that there is not complete information within Kyrgyzstan about what is happening," Hill said. "The government has [also] so far avoided the kind of incident, such as Aksy, that might trigger larger demonstrations." [For additional information see the Eurasia insight archive].

Despite Akayev's evident vulnerability, the opposition is not well positioned to foster the type of political change that has occurred in Ukraine and Georgia over the past 15 months, Hill suggested. "They [Kyrgyz opposition groups] still have a lot of work to do to become a truly viable opposition like the opposition groups in Georgia and Ukraine," Hill continued.

Alisher Khamidov is a PhD Candidate at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) of Johns Hopkins University in Washington D.C.

Akayev Benefits From Lack of Opposition Unity

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