Foreign Policy Blogs

Kyrgyzstan, April 19: Apres le purge — Opposition's "decisive day" backfires

Bakiev scoresLast Thursday, April 19th, Kyrgyzstan's opposition promised a “decisive day” against Bakiev's government. At least that much is true:  the nine-day long protests in Bishkek ended in violence.   Therefore the protests, which were a call to reduce the power of the executive branch in the Constitution, may well result in increased presidential power.

According to Russia's Regnum, opposition leaders sent the most intractable protesters to the vicinity of Kyrgyzstan's White House, about 200 youths, although the crowd numbered 1,000 in surrounding areas and parks.  al-Jazeera puts the number at 1500; but on the 19th, the crowd was enlarged.  The larger number was also not under the control of the united opposition leadership, either.

Kyrgyzstan's White HouseAccording to Ria Novosti reports, Kyrgyzstan police used teargas and stun grenades to disperse a crowd that was becoming violent.  Official reports from the Health Ministry state that six protesters and two policemen were admitted to the hospital for related injuries.  Thirty-five people were arrested, and the offices of an opposition newspaper (headquarters of Ar-Namys party) raided.  The newspapers for the day were confiscated.  Reuters also reports that banners, flags, and computers, documents, and archives were also taken.  One wonders to what evidentiary purpose these records will be put–and about the future of Ar-Namys.

By far, the best description of the opposition's leadership failures comes from Mirsulzhan Namaliev at  His account is available in English and in Russian.  To me, the most significant is that the effort to arrange media “damage control” was more sustained than the effort to do “crowd control” when the mood became ugly.  It's pretty clear, unlike the Regnum report noted above, that the opposition leaders did not 'send’ hostile elements outward.  Rather, they failed to prevent the hostility.

Yes, it involves physical risk to confront the crowd.  It would also have been a proof of democratic leadership: to take responsibility for the actions of those who are acting in your name; to plan for and strategize ways to head off extreme developments; to stand for order and stability; to unite people under a legitimate purpose.  Failing to make the attempt represents the opposition's true failure.  This may not be a fair assessment from someone behind a keyboard: I agree it is a lot to ask: but the strategy put in motion by the opposition should have been accompanied by planning for worst-case scenarios. In this way, leaders protect their legitimate aims, their constituency, and the nation at large. 

Some effects: The entrenched leadership of Bakiev has a legitimized claim for using violence against the crowd, opening investigations of both criminal activity and legal opposition members.  Daniel Sershen, writing for Eurasianet, noted that arrests continued over the weekend.  Human rights defenders noted a lack of due process for detainees. 

Second, regional tensions may be underscored between North and South, as Mirsulzhan noted, as protestors from the north return home and talk about the violence or inhospitable behavior of those near Jalalabad or in Osh. 

A third problem, the same one that surrounds all such unrest in Kyrgyzstan: how does one separate opposition, which is democratic and legal, from unrest that facilitates criminal elements?  Mr. Bakiev has the chance to be a statesman, something beyond politics.  To manage this well, he will have to confine his investigations and purges to the larger dangers while remaining true to democratic principles. 

Self-serving leaders, organized crime–these have far more potential to derail Kyrgyzstan than popular protest.

Photos: BBC (from a different set of demonstrations); University of Massachusetts-Amherst (without crowds).