After surmounting months of political hurdles, Kyrgyzstan’s interim government faced a new test on August 5 as demonstrators clashed with security forces in a Bishkek suburb.
Protestors ignored a government ban and gathered to demand the leader of an obscure political party, controversial businessman Urmat Baryktabasov, be allowed to hold a demonstration in the center of the capital. Baryktabasov, wanted by authorities in both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, recently returned after five years in exile to lead the Meken-Tuu (“Banner of the Fatherland”) party. After days of speculation about the aims of the protest, approximately 1,000 demonstrators called on provisional President Roza Otunbayeva to fire her deputies and make Baryktabasov prime minister.
To avoid clashes, police allowed the procession of approximately 1,000 to assemble before parliament. Yet Interior Ministry forces stopped Baryktabasov and several hundred of his supporters when they attempted to enter Bishkek from the eastern town of Balykchi. Officials say the Balykchi demonstrators seized weapons from police the previous evening and that Baryktabasov was attempting a coup.
When word spread that Baryktabasov was barred from entering the capital, young men boarded buses for the roadblock in Novo Pokrovka, a village some 10 miles from downtown Bishkek. Armed with rocks, they clashed with security forces that responded with tear gas, stun grenades, and fired live ammunition into the air. Army units chased protestors through back allies and wheat fields. Neutral witnesses commended them for their restraint.
Police later detained Baryktabasov in a high-speed chase and shootout, authorities said in the evening.
Kyrgyzstan has seen sustained political instability since the April 7 riots that ousted former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev. In Osh, protesters have held regular demonstrations against the planned deployment of 52 unarmed police advisors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Otunbayeva requested the presence of the OSCE force to help stabilize the situation in the South after June clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks left hundreds dead. The August 5 demonstration presents a formidable political challenge to Otunbayeva’s caretaker government.
“All these events are the consequence of the misbalanced system after the events in April. At the moment … everything depends on the legitimacy of the government,” said Nur Omarov, a political scientist at the Kyrgyz-Slavonic University in Bishkek.
“I think these events will escalate right up to [parliamentary elections in the fall]. It reminds me of the Tajik scenario, where politicians would use any means to gain power,” he said, referring to the conditions that led to Tajikistan’s civil war.
In the wake of the April uprising, government officials frequently sought to blame outside forces for any disturbances. At a press conference in the evening, Keneshbek Duishebayev, chair of the State Committee for National Security (SNB), said the Bakiyev family had financed the day’s unrest.
It seems unlikely many Kyrgyz will believe such accusations. Instead, the clash is likely to provoke more anger at the new government, struggling for legitimacy after months of political instability.
“I came here not to support Baryktabasov, but to show I disagree and don’t like the interim government. We wanted to have peaceful protest. But they didn’t let us, and they are doing what the old government used to do by banning peaceful protests,” said Kubanychbek Sharshenbayev, a demonstrator at Novo Pokrovka. “I was in the square [in Bishkek during the fighting] on April 7, and I was wounded. Now it breaks my heart that I was there to let them take over the government and now they are doing the same things as former governments did.”
In addition to facing embezzlement charges in Kazakhstan, Baryktabasov is accused of “attempting to seize power,” following his unsuccessful attempt to take over the government headquarters in 2005, when he was prohibited from running for president. He returned to Kyrgyzstan this summer.
Demonstrators told EurasiaNet.org that they like Baryktabasov because he is “clean” and has not been involved in politics before.
“We believe Baryktabasov is a clean person. He is a businessman. He was never in the government or any government structure before. We should give him a chance to work,” said one middle-aged demonstrator named Bakytbek, who refused to give his last name, but said he was originally from Baryktabasov’s home region.
Many observers suspect Baryktabasov, notorious for his wealth, paid the mob to force the interim government to drop charges against him. Omarov at the Kyrgyz-Slavonic University called it “political adventurism.”
“He is a pretty charismatic representative of marginal political circles who can cultivate instability. Of course, there are some financial groups behind him interested in further destabilization in the country and who are against the current government. And this situation shows that there will be more destabilization in the future,” said Omarov.
“The unity of Kyrgyzstan is now in question,” he said.
David Trilling is the Central Asia new editor for EurasiaNet.org. Alina Dalbaeva is a journalist based in Bishkek.