The recent violent clashes between protestors and police in Kyrgyzstan fit a trend in which Central Asian presidents crush dissent with less and less temperance. They also underscore a separate but related trend: the equation of opportunist politicians who have lost power with a broader civil society movement. In Turkmenistan, former government officials in exile have stepped up criticism of President Saparmurat Niyazov. And in Kyrgyzstan, two jailed politicians - former Vice President Feliks Kulov and oppositionist member of parliament Azimbek Beknazarov - have become such potent symbols of resistance that they may squelch the development of a broader democratic movement.
The two government veterans have already become emblems of civil unrest. On April 13, with the deaths of five protestors in Ak-Sui still shaking the population [for background see the EurasiaNet Civil Society archive], tens of protesters demanded jobs in an unauthorized demonstration in Baitik, a village near the capital city of Bishkek. The protestors also demanded Kulov's immediate release - he has been detained for two years.
During the People's Kurultay, a general assembly that occurred the week of April 15, a resolution urged the authorities to free Kulov. Many prominent veterans of the opposition movement - including two-time prisoner of conscience Topchubek Turgunaliev, MP Omurbek Tekebaev and activists such as Ramazan Dyryldaev and Natalya Ablova have organized peaceful protests, demonstrations, hunger strikes and statements on Kulov's behalf. Several political parties designated Kulov as the chairman of the newly organized Peoples' Congress, which includes leading activists such as Turgunaliev, Communist party leader Klara Ajybekova and others. This amounts to the stirrings of a cult adoring a politician who served in a more tolerant Kyrgyzstan -and who received his sentence in a closed trial.
But a cult, no matter who occupies its center, can tend to suppress free thinking and progress. Some local observers argue that, by tacitly encouraging citizens to view them as saviors, these opposition politicians are diluting the strength of popular resistance. Some also maintain that the official crackdown on the opposition movement comes in part from authorities' conviction that unemployed politicians and some "oligarchs" from rivaling clans are employing the democratic rhetoric to promote their own self-interested ends. A source in Kyrgyz government, who wished to remain anonymous, told EurasiaNet that "the ongoing fight is not between the Kyrgyz government and democratic opposition. It is rather a clash between the ruling clan and oligarchs from disgraced clans who have bought the support of civil society leaders with large sums of money and with false promises to promote democratic reforms."
This sort of charge can itself be a tool for a politician who wants to suppress dissent. In his interview with a Kazakhstan weekly published on March 28, Kyrgyz Ambassador Jumagul
Saadanbekov made this claim the government's official position. "Oligarchs have provoked the destabilization of the situation in Jalalabad [where police clashed with protestors]," he said, "rousing passions around Beknazarov, using his relatives and close people, compatriots, knocking them together with law-enforcement bodies." Saadanbekov defended recent government moves to limit oligarchic control of capital and boost small and midsize businesses, and called Kulov and others "oligarchs" who "organize meetings and demonstrations triumph, hiding greedy and dishonest interests of new nouveau riches." According to some local analysts, Kulov and some other former politicians have rapidly gained support in part because of large financial means they accumulated during their time in the office. Authorities had thrown Beknazarov in jail on charges that he abused his power. Defenders of him and Kulov, who is charged with the embezzlement of large sums of money during his time as governor of Chui province, deny such claims.
Whether or not these opposition heroes are self-serving, the concentration of so much democratic attention into two personalities stunts the development of a robust opposition movement. Some media reports have even charged that many supporters of Kulov and Beknazarov were "hired" by their family members and colleagues from among crowds of unemployed rural youth who flooded Bishkek in search of jobs. The state-sponsored Vecherniy Bishkek reported in early February that some Jalalabad protesters did not even know whom they were supporting. It is easy to dismiss such charges from a pro-government publication, or to maintain that the opposition figures truly deserve support even if some of their supporters have engaged in political theater or bribery. The real problem, according to Bishkek-based lawyer Azamat Sadykov, is that opposition movement leaders and media have focused attention on rich "big shots" while lesser-known promoters of human rights and democratic reforms remain imprisoned or in danger as the result of governmental crackdowns.
Kulov and Beknazarov have not, for instance, vocally defended the dozens of residents rounded up and imprisoned because of their religious beliefs. For instance, Ravshan Gapirov, director of the Kara-Suu Human Rights Center, spoke up for members of radical Islamist group Hizb-ut-Tahrir and has served time on trumped-up charges. Moldosali Ibraimov, a journalist from Jalalabad, was imprisoned last year for his criticism of judges and is reportedly in degrading conditions.
Meanwhile, some opposition figures mistrust former officials who cast themselves as populists. Parliament deputy Adaham Madumarov withdrew from the Peoples' Congress in November 2001 because of his objections to Kulov, who endorsed the transfer of some powers from parliament to the executive branch during his term in office. Some local observers also associate Kulov with earlier clamps on the media, in the days when he and President Askar Akayev worked as partners. According to the Interfax news agency, a secret task force called "Kalkan" took shape when Kulov ran the National Security Ministry. Some loyalists have said the agency might have fueled a coup attempt. Much of the equipment allocated to Kalkan, including electronic eavesdropping devices, has disappeared.
Some local analysts claim that Kulov is every bit as likely as Akayev to use authoritarian methods. They allege that as the cadre police officer and a national security officer, Kulov is in favor of more authoritarian and strict means of economic and social development. In a private conversation with a European diplomat who wants to remain anonymous, Kulov reportedly asserted that he admired Uzbek President Islam Karimov's emphasis on repressive security services. Kulov cannot speak for himself, of course. But there may be reason to worry that so many of Kyrgyzstan's dissatisfied citizens are willing to channel their dissatisfaction through him and through the equally well connected Beknazarov instead of finding their own voice.
Alisher Khamidov is currently a Muskie Fellow graduate student at the Joan B. Kroc Institute of Peace Studies at Notre Dame University.