As 24 March dawned, the air was rife with expectations that the opposition would try to mount a sizeable demonstration in the capital, although nothing presaged a decisive confrontation. Police in Bishkek had broken up an opposition demonstration of 1,000-1,500 the day before. And President Akaev had just appointed a seemingly hard-line new interior minister, Keneshbek Dushebaev, who promptly announced "We will not allow any seizures or sieges of government offices in the capital," Kabar news agency reported. The Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) captured the prevailing sense of how events were proceeding in a 23 March report citing sources in the opposition Coordinating Council who "said actions in Bishkek would take place in stages and would not be a one-day event."
Several accounts indicated that the opposition took pains to bring thousands of supporters into Bishkek without attracting undue attention in the lead-up to 24 March. Bayaman Erkinbaev, a well-known martial arts champion from Osh, told Russia's "Kommersant-Daily" on 23 March that 5,000 opposition activists from Osh and Jalal-Abad were already in Bishkek. Kyrgyzstan's "Delo No" reported on 30 March that 6,000 people had arrived secretly from Osh, Jalal-Abad, Naryn, and Talas before 24 March. IWPR reported on 23 March that protestors had been arriving in small groups for several days from precisely those locations (not all of them, it should be noted, in the south of Kyrgyzstan, traditionally cited as the hotbed of anti-Akaev sentiment). And Russia's "Novaya gazeta" reported on 28 March that the opposition had decided to bring in supporters in small groups after rumors that buses might be targeted with gunfire.
Several accounts indicated that the opposition took pains to bring thousands of supporters into Bishkek without attracting undue attention in the lead-up to 24 March.
Marchers began to gather at several locations in Bishkek on the morning of 24 March. This plan was sufficiently well-known that "Kommersant-Daily," in the edition that appeared on 24 March, reported that the opposition intended on that day to stage five demonstrations, each numbering 5,000, in five different places. Roza Otunbaeva, the co-chair of Ata-Jurt and now acting foreign minister, had telegraphed the opposition’s focus on Bishkek in a 22 March interview with Russia's "Izvestiya," saying, "We already control fairly large territories. It will soon be half of the country. The next goal, of course, is Bishkek, the presidential administration."Not Part Of The Plan?
Opposition leaders have maintained that they had no plans to storm the presidential compound and all reports indicate that the actual event took them by surprise. In a typical comment, Kurmanbek Bakiev, head of the People's Movement of Kyrgyzstan and now acting president and prime minister, told RFE/RL shortly after demonstrators swarmed the presidential administration, "We did not expect that at all. It was not a part of the plan."
But at least one person in Bishkek appears to have had an inkling that 24 March might be a decisive day. Jenishbek Nazaraliev is a prominent doctor who runs a clinic for drug addicts in Bishkek. On the morning of 24 March, as protestors massed outside the clinic, the doctor, who stressed that he was with "the people" and had no ties to the opposition, had the following exchange with "Kommersant-Daily" correspondent Mikhail Zygar:
Nazaraliev: All of our actions will be peaceful, but if the militia opens fire, we won't back down. We'll answer them shot for shot. (He grabs a rifle and shakes it in the air.)
Zygar: Are you sure that you'll topple Akaev today? You're not going to wait for presidential elections in October?
Nazaraliev: No, only today. We won't back down already. We'll sweep away this regime this very day.
(In an interview with Reuters on 28 March, however, Nazaraliev seemed to back down from his prescient enthusiasm of a few days earlier. He said, "I had originally expected the government to fall in two to five days.")
At around noon on 24 March, marchers arrived on Alatoo Square to rally in front of the presidential administration, or "White House." Reports differ on precise details, but most mention two main columns, one originating at Nazaraliev's clinic and another, led by Almaz Atambaev, beginning in another part of the city and arriving somewhat later. Estimates of the total crowd on the square ranged from 5,000 to 50,000 (the latter figure coming in Britain's "The Times" but with most estimates tending toward the lower end of the spectrum). The number of police was around 400 ("Delo No" and "ResPublica").Events Turn Violent
Clashes soon erupted. As is always the case in a mass event marred by violence, individual eyewitness accounts varied. But virtually all reports noted that demonstrators faced both uniformed police and plainclothes Akaev supporters, often described as agents provocateurs, who wore either white baseball caps or blue armbands. The white baseball caps were not making their first appearance. In a detailed description of the 23 March rally in Bishkek, opposition journalist Bolotbek Maripov wrote in "Obshchestvenny reiting" that men wearing white baseball caps helped riot police as they violently dispersed protestors. IWPR's description of the same event also mentioned men in white baseball caps.
Britain's "Observer" reported that on 24 March the authorities "bussed in hundreds of sympathizers, most state industrial workers." The newspaper "Kommersant-Daily" confirmed this, reporting that the men were employees of the state electrical company who were given the day off with full pay to support "law and order" in the face of unruly demonstrators. But one of the men told the newspaper, "I don't like Akaev at all. His family's bought everything up. They make it impossible for everyone else." Queried by the correspondent why he didn't join the opposition demonstration, the man replied, "What's the difference? They're no different from Akaev."
When clashes broke out between demonstrators and Akaev supporters in caps and armbands, the mood turned ugly, RFE/RL reported. At some point, mounted police joined the fray, although protestors managed to pull down at least one rider, "Delo No" reported. During the fighting, demonstrators armed themselves with stones, but some had come to the square prepared. RFE/RL reported that as marchers set off for the White House in the morning, they included a "hardcore group of a few hundred [young men], most of them equipped with wooden sticks and wooden shields."
(Only Russia's "Novaya Gazeta" provided an alternate explanation for the demonstration's descent into violence. It reported that while some fights broke out early on, a sea change occurred when two reports reached the crowd -- that the interior minister had said police would use force, and that Bermet Akaeva, the daughter of President Askar Akaev, had described demonstrators as "drunken cattle.")
Police were also involved in the violence, but they did not use deadly force and were heavily outnumbered. IWPR reported that "many of the police on duty did not put up much resistance," although not all accounts confirmed this. RFE/RL reported that police briefly had the upper hand before giving way. But by 3:00 p.m., the White House had fallen to protestors amid general chaos.Why No Crackdown?
The most pressing question about the events of 24 March is the authorities' decision not to use deadly force against protestors. Ousted President Askar Akaev has stressed in several interviews that this was his decision. He told Britain's "Guardian" on 31 March that he ruled out the use of force even though he had been advised, although he did not say by whom, to "protect the building with armed special forces."
The words and actions of then-Interior Minister Keneshbek Dushebaev on 24 March, however, suggest that the decision may not have been Akaev's to make by the time demonstrators massed on Alatoo Square. On 23 March, Dushebaev had confidently stated that police can use "any legal means, including physical force, anti-riot gear, and authorized weapons" in order to establish "constitutional order," RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. But as protestors gathered at Nazaraliev's clinic on the morning of 24 March, Dushebaev was a surprise guest. Addressing the crowd, he struck a different tone, although accounts of his remarks differ somewhat. IWPR simply reported that he was "hissed off the stage." "ResPublica" reported that Dushebaev told protestors to disperse, and was ignored. And "Delo No" reported that Dushebaev urged demonstrators to obey the law, promising that police would not use weapons or riot gear.
More importantly, when Dushebaev spoke briefly with "Kommersant-Daily" at the clinic, he noted that while the law gives the police the right to use "gas, rubber bullets, and truncheons...I myself am with the people and I want to show that all of the police are with the people." Queried, "What if the president orders you to shoot," Dushebaev replied, "[H]e can't give me an order like that. I'm the only one who gives orders to the police, and I won't give such an order." "Kommersant-Daily" also reported that Dushebaev met with opposition leader Kurmanbek Bakiev shortly after making this remark.
The events of 24 March unfolded against a backdrop of quickening opposition momentum and rising stakes for President Akaev. Days earlier, riot police had retaken government offices in Osh and Jalal-Abad only to see them reoccupied by protestors. Having encountered and overcome a violent challenge, the opposition took steps to foil further security measures, moving some of its supporters to the capital as unobtrusively as possible, even as it planned a show of strength in Bishkek. Akaev, fresh from his failure to reassert control over Osh and Jalal-Abad with a limited show of force, now faced the prospect of a more crucial showdown.
There was a "dress rehearsal" for the showdown -- the anti-government demonstration on 23 March. It featured 1,000-1,500 demonstrators and 200-400 police, plus additional agent provocateurs in white baseball caps, according to combined reports. Government forces made quick work of the protest.
The next day, when the opposition finally managed to bring thousands to the streets, most accounts indicated that demonstrators acted with greater resolve in the face of agents provocateurs. And police were apparently in a less favorable ratio to demonstrators than they had been the day before. Moreover, the interior minister's behavior on 24 March would seem to indicate that the use of deadly force was off the table no matter what orders the president may nor may not have given.
In sum, the opposition demonstration on 24 March marked both a logical continuation of preceding protests and a response to previous government actions. But the measures the government took that day to counteract it displayed neither unity of purpose nor clarity of logic, raising the possibility of gross miscalculation, internal division, or perhaps simply precipitate collapse in the face of mounting crisis.