Violence Casts Doubt on Kyrgyzstan's Development
The dead are buried, and an uneasy order appears to have returned to Kyrgyzstan following days of riots and bloodshed in the southern Jalalabad region. Questions remain, however, about the development of rule-of-law in the Central Asian country.
President Askar Akayev, his voice trembling and full of determination, struck an optimistic note in a live broadcast on Kyrgyz TV: "As president, it is my obligation to use all the rights and means that are given to me by the constitution and the laws of the Kyrgyz Republic in order to ensure constitutional order, peace and accord in the country, and I will do so. I believe that the people support me and will continue to do so."
Both foreign and local observers tend not to be as positive as the president about prospects for constitutional order. Many were surprised by how events turned so violent, so suddenly in this remote corner of Central Asia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Sure, this area has witnessed violent confrontations in the recent past. In 1990, for example, inter-ethnic riots in and around Osh left dozens dead. More recently, the region has been the scene of Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) insurgent activity.
Still, the Kyrgyz people have enjoyed a reputation for possessing a calm temperament and even a certain political passivity. Somehow the image of violent Kyrgyz crowds provoking the police forces to start a massacre is difficult for many who live or have lived in Kyrgyzstan to fathom. That the violence erupted with such swiftness would seem to indicate deep underlying problems with the country's political and economic development.
Officials now promise that investigations will be held to find out what exactly happened near Jalalabad on that "Bloody Sunday" a few days ago. Initial accounts March 18 reported that more than 40 members of the security forces suffered injuries. Authorities in Bishkek immediately blamed the opposition for fomenting confrontation, and claimed that they were responsible for the violence and bloodshed.
Subsequent reports by independent media sources - such as an independent Kyrgyz journalist's website - cast doubt on the government's version of events. A list of those killed and wounded during the two days of clashes does not include many police officers. In addition, those protesters who died all suffered gunshot wounds: A list published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty provided the following information: "Chetimbaev, Begaly, born 1971, bullet wound in the head; Saparaliev, Kadyrkul, born 1965, bullet wound in the stomach; Tagaev, Sovetbek, born 1977, bullet wound in the head; Umetaliev, Eldar, born 1979, bullet wound in the head, Urkumbaev, Satymbek, born 1957, bullet wound in the stomach." Many of the wounded also suffered bullet wounds. The casualty list suggests security forces sparked a massacre, firing into a crowd of young protestors who had no chance of escaping the massacre.
Journalists are having a hard time covering the events, as they themselves are afraid of the police, and on some occasions have been denied access to the scene of the protests. The local private TV station, Jalalabad-based "Echo Manas," claims it does not have any coverage of the events. Local contacts in nearby Osh say they were aware of the fact that "special troops were being sent out over the weekend with orders to stop the demonstrators getting to the court." However, nobody really expected a massacre.
In the end President Akayev gave in to the protesters' chief demand and released jailed MP Azimbek Beknazarov from custody [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Beknazarov still claims that the case against him was simply fabricated, a means to the end of his political opposition career. Some local observers do not expect Beknazarov's release to lead to political conciliation between Akayev and his opponents.
"The President's propaganda machine is working non-stop in Bishkek," reports a foreign non-governmental organization representative, who has lived in Bishkek for two years. "The locals are just fed on a heavy dose of Akayevism; whether he said it or not in his TV broadcast - he made it perfectly clear that he will crush anyone who dares dissent; and they all know it; they do not believe in the almighty leader; they are just saving their necks however they can. Even my staff are very reluctant to talk about any of it; they would rather nod than be heard openly."
In a televised address marking the spring holiday of Novruz, Akayev warned of the dangers created by "provocateurs and a mere group of demagogues who play on the feelings and emotions of ordinary people." The president went on to pledge that the government would address the country's development challenges. "I want to say to the citizens of Kyrgyzstan that work on solving the most topical social and economic issues is under way all over the country," Akayev said.
Many locals now view such vows with cynicism. Akayev's words have not, and are not corresponding to his actions. Indeed, there is a strong impression among political analysts that Akayev's administration has waited too long to respond to the crisis, which has been brewing since Beknazarov's arrest in January. Akayev said little during the protests and hunger strikes conducted on Beknazarov's behalf.
Now the damage is done. And even if Akayev can convince a large segment of the public that the opposition bears responsibility for the riots, hostility over the administration's reaction will linger. It was not the IMU that killed young Kyrgyz men near Jalalabad, not an evil force from outside the Kyrgyz society. It was the Kyrgyz security forces that opened fire on their own people. Akayev may yet pay a dear price for not taking steps to address popular discontent sooner.
Chris Schuepp is an independent journalist focusing on Central Asia.
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