KYRGYZ RALLY ENDS IN DISARRAY  Compromise still possible on constitution, but 
deep divisions separate the president and the opposition.  By IWPR staff in 
Bishkek and London

free assembly are under threat as Almaty protesters are told they can gather, 
but only if they do so well away from the city centre.  By Daur Dosybiev in 


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Compromise still possible on constitution, but deep divisions separate the 
president and the opposition.

By IWPR staff in Bishkek and London

Hopes that the latest stand-off between the Kyrgyz government and its opponents 
would be resolved with a compromise deal suffered a blow this week when police 
dispersed an opposition rally as some of the protesters tried to storm the 
government building. 

During the rally on Bishkek’s central Ala-Too square, which began on April 11, 
the opposition – the United Front for a Worthy Future for Kyrgyzstan and the 
Movement for Reforms – had appeared in confident mood, insisting that President 
Kurmanbek Bakiev must step down and allow an early presidential election. 
Opposition supporters announced plans to gather the 300,000 signatures needed 
to hold a nationwide referendum on impeaching Bakiev.

That confidence has gone, at least for now. The protesters have disappeared 
from the square, their impromptu encampment of nomadic yurt tents dismantled, 
the United Front’s offices have been raided and its leaders called in for 
questioning by the National Security Committee 

Police moved in on April 19, the ninth day of protests, after some of those in 
the crowd tried to force their way into the White House, the main government 

Riot police used tear gas to disperse the crowd, and 11 people including five 
policemen were taken to hospital after being injured in scuffles as the crowd 
was dispersed. Around 100 people were arrested. 

It is unclear where the confrontation between Bakiev and his opponents goes 
from here. The latter have failed to unseat the president, and will find it 
harder to regroup for a further round of street demonstrations. Pro-Bakiev 
members of parliament are pressing for prosecutions and payment for damages.

One local analyst, Marat Kazakbaev, suggests that the opposition miscalculated 
by making absolutist demands – for example telling Bakiev to resign – at a time 
when the president had been seen to adopt conciliatory policies. 

“The protest failed because people saw that the authorities were paying heed to 
the opposition's demands and were making concessions,” he said. 

Before the rally got under way, Bakiev had selected a leading opposition 
figure, Almazbek Atambaev, to head up a coalition cabinet, a venture which 
foundered after other oppositionists refused to take ministerial posts. Bakiev 
had also made other efforts to meet opposition demands, for example by moving 
ahead with constitutional reform.

“When the authorities make concessions, it is not the right time to be laying 
down radical demands,” commented Kazakbaev. 

The opposition remained deeply mistrustful of the president’s concessions, 
seeing them as empty promises that came too late in the day and were unlikely 
to be fulfilled. 

This current crisis has its roots in the last round of protests in November, 
when a weeklong rally by Movement for Reforms supporters forced Bakiev to 
accept a new draft of the constitution that significantly curbed his powers. In 
December, the president was able to force parliament to agree to a revised 
version that restored much of his authority, a move which his opponents saw as 
reneging on the earlier deal.

There is in theory still scope for some kind of consensus on the constitutional 
question. Parliament has been asked to review a proposed draft of the 
constitution, and swore in two new Constitutional Court judges – crucial to the 
process – on April 20. However, what is unclear is which document will go 
before legislators – the opposition version produced by the United Front, the 
official one drafted by a working group led by Prime Minister Atambaev, or 
conceivably a compromise draft combining the two.

Despite the rout of the protesters, Tamerlan Ibraimov, director of the Centre 
for Political and Legal Studies, insists the rally will prove to have been of 
benefit in the longer term. “It has contributed to the swift launch of 
constitutional reform, which will result in a stronger prime minister and a 
president with less power,” he said. 

Melis Eshimkanov, a member of parliament and a member of the United Front, also 
said the opposition had proved its mettle. Speaking before the rally was broken 
up by police, he said “The United Front has only existed for less than two 
months, but in this short time it has been able to change the situation in the 
country. The president gave former oppositionist Almazbek Atambaev the position 
of prime minister, he was prepared to hand the entire cabinet to the 
opposition, he presented a new version of the constitution to parliament, and 
he is now bargaining with everyone simply to keep his position.” 

One complicating factor is that as well as policy issues, there are strong 
personalities involved in this latest round of confrontation. The November 
dispute was between Bakiev and the Movement for Reforms. But this time the 
opposition’s agenda has been driven by Felix Kulov, who was Bakiev’s prime 
minister until January this year, but who formed the United Front in February 
and assumed a leading role in the opposition. 

In the unstable period that followed the March 2005 revolution, the two men 
formed a political alliance known as the “tandem” that secured nationwide 
support for Bakiev to win election as president. The vote might otherwise have 
been split between Kulov’s supporters in the north of Kyrgyzstan and Bakiev’s 
support-base in the south. 

Kulov resigned in December 2006, but stayed on in a caretaker capacity. But 
after parliament twice refused to endorse Bakiev’s attempt to get him 
re-confirmed in the post, the president nominated another candidate, Kulov was 
out, and the “tandem” arrangement was over.

As the Movement for Reforms began to be led by the United Front’s more radical 
agenda in terms of policy, Kulov’s emergence as the leading light in the 
opposition also personalised the political confrontation, potentially making a 
compromise more difficult. 

Political analyst Turat Akimov likens the conflict between Kulov and Bakiev to 
“a head-on collision between two kamikazes”. 

“Neither of them wants to make any concessions or compromises, or hold talks. 
Now the only question is who will break whom,” he said.

Parliamentarian Rashid Tagaev also said “personal grievances and ambitions” had 
fuelled confrontation. 

“A fight for power is under way, or more precisely for one position – that of 
president,” he told IWPR.

The need to co-opt different regional constituencies was the raison d’etre of 
the “tandem”, and the ensuing political split between Bakiev and Kulov has also 
become a regional issue. Regionalism is a powerful force in Kyrgyz politics 
which many regard as a major risk to stability. 

In remarks to journalists on April 15, Kulov referred to the regional divide, 
saying, “A president who causes confrontation among the people, dividing those 
in the north from those in the south, does not have the right to be head of 

The rally in Bishkek appears to have been attended mainly by people from 
northern Kyrgyzstan, where Kulov is stronger. Attempts to stage similar events 
in southern cities were called off for fear they would be disrupted by 
pro-Bakiev groups. 

“The vast majority of opposition deputies and of the participants in the rally 
come from the northern elite. So there is an element of regionalism here,” said 
parliamentarian Iskhak Masaliev.

The north-south divide is such a potent issue that although politicians may try 
to harness it for their own ends, doing so is a high-risk venture. 

“The opposition and President Bakiev’s supporters inevitably think along 
regional lines; it is a political tool to mobilise mass support,” said 
political analyst Mars Sariev. “People are becoming politicised and divided 
according to their regional origin, and this is even happening to people who 
had never thought about this before. This is a mistake by our politicians, and 
stems from their immaturity.” 

Roza Otunbaeva, a former ally of Bakiev but now an opponent, believes the 
current politicisation of the north-south divide can be traced to the uneasy 
nature of the Bakiev-Kulov “tandem”.

“It reduced them to the level of regional leaders,” she said. “Kulov became the 
leader of the north, while Bakiev became the southern leader. And so the south 
has to defend Bakiev, and a section of the northern electorate went out onto 
the square in support of Kulov.

“This does no credit to either of them. They are the ones who are dividing the 

Akylbek Isanov provided reporting from Bishkek for this article. IWPR’s News 
Briefing Central Asia agency also provided some of the interviews.


Concerns that rights to free assembly are under threat as Almaty protesters are 
told they can gather, but only if they do so well away from the city centre. 

By Daur Dosybiev in Almaty 

Political turbulence in Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine appears to be making the Kazak 
authorities more than usually jumpy about protests in their own country, even 
when these have little to do with politics.

The authorities in Kazakstan’s former capital Almaty recently ordered a planned 
protest over urban development to take place on the outskirts of the city 
rather in the centre as the organisers wanted. 

The protest was scheduled for April 15 – a time when in neighbouring 
Kyrgyzstan, thousands of protesters were gathered in the centre of the capital 
Bishkek calling on the president to resign. 

Unlike the Kyrgyz protests, the Almaty rally was not overtly political. Plans 
to redesign a central district of Almaty known as the “golden square”, which 
will involve the demolition of many homes, have created a groundswell of 
opposition among residents in recent months. 

The organisers of the April protest, a group called Protect Our City, said they 
would postpone the event rather than agree to relocate it far from the city 
centre, where it was likely to pass unnoticed.

A city resident whose own home is scheduled for demolition voiced the anger 
felt by many. “Construction firms have already bought up the entire city and 
hiked up the prices of housing and land,” he said. “We want the authorities to 
listen to us and take our opinion into account, but instead they tell us to let 
off steam on the city outskirts.”

The city authorities may have been made more nervous by the fact that the rally 
was to be attended by other pressure groups with different grievances, so that 
it might have begun to look like a grassroots, broad-based movement. 

Apart from residents, environmentalists and architectural experts concerned 
about urban redevelopment, another particularly vocal group consists of owners 
of right-hand-drive cars, which the authorities have ordered off the road by 
2009. The government says the cars, , cause a disproportionately high number of 
accidents in a country where most cars are left-hand-drive. But the owners are 
an important social group, the emerging middle class, who can just about afford 
a cheap import from the Far East and feel they are being punished by the rich 
and powerful who control car sales.

A disgruntled car owner, Takejan Akhmetov, explained why people like him 
planned to join a rally against urban development. “Social and economic 
problems have built up in our society. We don’t want them to turn into a 
conflict…. [but] people don’t want these problems to be hidden away on distant 

A representative of the Almaty city government who asked not to be named said 
holding the rally in the city centre would have caused serious traffic 
problems, and in any case there was a new rule that all protests had to be held 
in a particular square ten kilometres from the centre of town. 

Yevgeny Zhovtis, director of the Kazakstan Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of 
Law, told IWPR that such restrictions on the right to assembly stemmed from the 
government’s fear of popular unrest, which have led to regime change in 
Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan in recent years. 

“I think that by banning peaceful meetings, the authorities are hoping to 
protect themselves against public dissatisfaction,” he said. 

Zhovtis said excessive curbs on public protests could prove counter-productive. 
“People hold a peaceful meeting and the police start to pressure them merely 
because certain formalities have not been observed,” he said. “There are 
beatings and arrests, and this only leads to radicalisation and an increase in 
the level of conflict.”

Human rights groups are growing increasingly concerned about restrictions on 
freedom of assembly, which is a constitutional right in Kazakstan although 
demonstrations have to be approved by the authorities in advance. 

“Unfortunately, the right of assembly, like many other rights and freedoms of 
citizens in Kazakstan, is illusory,” he said. “They may exist in the 
constitution, but they don’t operate in everyday life.” 

On April 12, Zhovtis’s group along with other human rights groups presented a 
draft law on freedom of assembly which they say is intended to provide clearer 
guidance on how advance notice is given of public meetings, and the reasons 
which the authorities can use to ban them
The authorities have yet to react to the proposal.

Daur Dosybiev is an IWPR contributor in Almaty.

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