Postcard from Bishkek


Protesters in Kyrgyzstan. Photo by Michael Coffey

Opposition elements in Kyrgyz politics have a history of holding large rallies on Ala-Too square. Following the inconclusive nature of protests in late 2006, however, both sides in this Central Asian country have girded themselves for a more serious confrontation this month.

The government has already mobilized the national guard, police, and prison guards as well as special forces and armored vehicles – many of whom have been equipped with U.S. aid – to defend the White House. The opposition has also prepared itself. With dozens of military tents and yurts ringing the main city square, the opposition has organized its own security force. Youths (pictured) have taken to wearing blue bandanas of the “United Front.”

The current confrontation has its roots in the November 7, 2006 riot that broke out in front of the Kyrgyz parliament in the capital Bishkek. Security forces armed with riot shields and flashbang stun grenades acted quickly at the time to separate pro- and anti-government demonstrators. Deputies hurriedly reached a compromise during the following night, allowing organizers of the fall protest to claim victory and send their supporters home.

Since November, the makeup of the administration of Kurmanbek Bakiyev has undergone radical changes. Meanwhile, important foreign and domestic issues have arisen to give renewed vigor to the largely northern opposition forces looking to reclaim power from the current, southern-dominated government.

Significantly, the former “tandem” of President Bakiyev and Prime Minister Felix Kulov that served to unite northern and southern factions was dissolved earlier this year. During last year’s protests, many in the opposition had hoped that Kulov, a one-time leader of the political party Ar-Namys, would split with the government. Leaders of the opposition were disappointed that Kulov opted instead to remain in the government camp. Now, Kulov has stepped down from his post as prime minister and joined the opposition cause, albeit at the last minute.

At the top of the opposition’s complaints is the rewriting of the constitutional compromise that served to head off violence last November. Pro-government deputies managed to undo the rebalancing of powers between the executive and legislative branches just days later. Other issues – such as the U.S. military base at Manas and possible accession to the International Monetary Fund/World Bank’s Highly Indebted Poor Countries program – have also served to unite various opposition elements around a more nationalist platform. In both cases, critics of the government have blasted what they consider an over-reliance on foreign organizations and institutions.

FPIF contributor Michael Coffey is a former linguist and intelligence analyst for the U.S. Navy, as well as editor for Military Periscope. Currently an M.A. student in European and Eurasian Studies at George Washington University, he is spending this year abroad studying and writing in Kyrgyzstan.