BACKGROUND: On March 17 and 18, the first violent clashes between citizens and the police happened in Aksy region of the Kyrgyz Republic. People came out to protest the lawsuit against member of parliament Azimbek Beknazarov, a vocal critic of President Akaev. The police was ordered to prevent the protesters from entering the regional center where the verdict of the lawsuit was to be announced. This led to clashes between the police and the protesters that led to the killing of at least five people, all civilians, and several dozens injured. The immediate picture in the aftermath of these events is an increasing rhetorical muddle. The longer-term implications are a matter of many guesses and speculations. The events can be seen as a clear culmination of a continued series of public protests against the government’s persecution of its critics by means of arrests and lawsuits. Protests against political lawsuits have long been on the Kyrgyz scene, with a bigger tide starting when Feliks Kulov, a former holder of many high government posts but later the most formidable opponent of President Akaev, was arrested in the spring of 2000. Since then, major instances of popular protests on behalf of persecuted government critics have been happening continuously, some of them lasting for many months. People have resorted to hunger strikes, tent protests, written and spoken demands and petitions. One person died while participating in lengthy hunger strikes on behalf of Beknazarov. The characteristic response of the authorities to this series of public protests was to ignore them as long as they were peaceful and not very visible, and to send police troops to forcefully disperse them when they became too many and too visible. Resentment against this favored tactic of President Akaev in dealing with his opposition has all grounds to exist, and to see the Aksy events as culmination of this resentment is only logical. In the last few years, the frequency of arrests and legal procedures against all vocal critics has grown sharply, and individual dissenters, civic groups, political candidates, and especially media outlets have all fallen under the brush. The grounds for legal actions have often been dug up from the past, or discovered in affairs not even distantly related to the obvious real causes of persecution. Beknazarov’s case followed exactly such a pattern. Every such politically motivated case has taken place with gross violations of legal procedures. The concepts of ‘due process of law’ and ‘presumption of innocence until proven guilty’ have been most systematically ignored.
IMPLICATIONS: In the more immediate future, the direct effects of the Aksy events in Kyrgyzstan’s political life are likely to be the detention of further suspects, possible further persecutions, and displacement of some lower-level officials from their jobs. In the increasing muddle of talks about the events from all quarters, what is interesting is how the original cause of the events – protest against Beknazarov’s detention and lawsuit – is being diffused in the multitude of other explanations. Certainly to the preference of the government, reasons such as extreme poverty, high unemployment, other social grievances, and the North-South divide are being cited everywhere as the root reasons for the public mobilization in Aksy. Add to this Akaev’s condemnation of a few provocateurs and demagogues who manipulated people’s feelings and provoked them to come out, and the case of Beknazarov effectively becomes an unimportant, accidental side issue in the whole story. The effect of such diffused explanations of Aksy is obviously to de-emphasize the problematic practice of politically motivated lawsuits, to divert the critical attention of the public and observers from the principal cause to some more general and less controversial issues. Some in the opposition have bought this trick, and have embarked on criticism of the government for all the most general problems in the country and nothing specifically. The investigation of shootings is moving at a relaxed pace. A number of investigation commissions have been initiated spontaneously, the results so far being quite mediocre. Besides Akaev’s accusations of a few unnamed provocateurs, and Interior Minister Akmataliev’s premature accusation of activist Tursunbek Akunov, one target has been the local prosecutor who allegedly gave the order to shoot, and who appears not to have been arrested yet. The first detained person so far has been a teenager who allegedly set a house on fire. The calls from the opposition for President Akaev to resign have the least chance of succeeding, even though this is probably a time when resignation is most warranted. Such calls have been made on every fitting and unfitting occasion, rendering the demand meaningless, and Akaev can easily ignore them. And as reports have it that several inconvenient individuals were being screened and followed, including Beknazarov’s family, the familiar tactic of persecutions seems likely to stay even after Aksy.
CONCLUSION: If President Akaev wishes to guarantee a smoother flow of the remaining three years of the current administration, granting the country the stability that it so desperately needs, he would improve the current situation only by acknowledging the real causes for which the protesters came out, and by acknowledging the graveness of what happened. Using the Kyrgyz judicial system against everybody the government dislikes is doing Kyrgyzstan’s stability and prosperity no favor.AUTHOR BIO: Emil Juraev is a Graduate Student at the Department of Political Science, Indiana University.
Copyright 2001 The Analyst. All rights reserved