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Kyrgyzstan: President Offers Concessions Ahead Of Mass Protest

  • Bruce Pannier --> Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev (file photo) (RFE/RL) March 28, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Large protests are due to start in Kyrgyzstan in two weeks, but Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev used a recent national anniversary to offer concessions, possibly to defuse tensions ahead of those planned protests.

As Kyrgyzstan braces for the wave of protests calling for constitutional reforms and, this time, Bakiev's resignation and an early presidential election. Rallies are scheduled to start around the country in early April and culminate in a huge demonstration in Bishkek on April 11.

But some observers believe Bakiev is trying to meet opposition demands in an effort to eliminate the need for the protests.

"If he does not [resign] then we, a civic society, need to force the president to resign by means of influencing him. This kind of event already happened in our history, and we can go down this road."

Privatizing State TV

For example, Bakiev announced on March 26 that the state television and radio station MTRK will be transformed into a public station, as opposition groups have been demanding.

Bakiev had previously vetoed MTRK's privatization -- but growing discontent seems to have forced this concession, as it seems to have done on other issues.

Protests have become common in Kyrgyzstan since March 2005 when crowds chased President Askar Akaev from office. The opposition leader at the time, Bakiev, filled Akaev's position and promised to implement sweeping reforms that the people had demanded from Akaev.

Two years later many people in Kyrgyzstan feel Bakiev has been slow in fulfilling these promises and, in some cases, has been reluctant to even try to implement some reforms.

The most glaring example is constitutional reform. In November, thousands demonstrated outside the main government building demanding constitutional reforms. As the protest entered its second week, Bakiev gave in and signed a constitution that parliament hastily passed.

Constitutional Controversy

Facing similar demonstrations in two weeks, Bakiev used the March 24 anniversary of the People's or Tulip Revolution that ousted Akaev to try to placate his current political opponents.

"Yes, all of us, including the opposition and the parliament, were led by emotion in November and December," Bakiev said. "Now, we need to correct such mistakes. Now, I am ready to urgently establish a working group to prepare new amendments and changes to the constitution, and to send an agreed and checked version of the constitution to the parliament to consider it and, if there is a necessity, even to put it to a referendum."

Bakiev's reference to December is at the core of the upcoming protests. The constitution he signed in November reduced the powers of the president. Just before the New Year, Bakiev supporters in parliament managed to pass a package of amendments that restored most of those lost powers to Bakiev.

But in a speech to the nation on March 23, Bakiev referred to the "dialogue" he and opposition groups had at the end of last year as an indication that progress was still possible through discussion.

"Last year's complex political struggle showed that the authorities were capable of maintaining a dialogue with the people, with political forces, including even the most extreme opposition groups," he said. "The authorities are ready to take any steps in the interest of the people. We have seen that a political dialogue can be conducted not only through ultimatums or by the pressure of rallies, and this is what testifies to the maturity of democracy, of politicians, and political movements."

A Worthy Future

The opposition For Reforms movement that organized the November demonstration in Bishkek has criticized this apparent cancellation of the deal they thought was reached with Bakiev in November.

A recently formed opposition group, the United Front for a Worthy Future for Kyrgyzstan, now joins them in calling for demonstrations in April. Bakiev's former prime minister, Feliks Kulov, and former parliament speaker Omurbek Tekebaev lead that group.

As he has ahead of previous opposition rallies, Bakiev has been meeting with opposition leaders to discuss their demands and ensure that protests remain peaceful and, during his speech on the March 24 anniversary, Bakiev said he is ready to continue meeting with these leaders.

"I am prepared to meet day or night with any politician, but I categorically reject the language of ultimatum and confrontation," the president said.

And, Bakiev said he understands the frustration some in Kyrgyzstan feel at the delay in reforms.

"Just like many of you, I well understand that the country needs to move forward -- there needs to be political and staff reforms," he said. "The country needs renewal."

Resign Now?

The opposition has heard this before, and responses from its members indicate they are not convinced by Bakiev's promises. United Front leader Tekebaev said March 26 that Bakiev has his chance and should leave office.

"This would be a decisive and good way, if President Bakiev would sense the current tough situation and resign voluntarily," Tekebaev said. "This step would be a historic good example. If he does not do so, then we, a civic society, need to force the president to resign by means of influencing him. This kind of event already happened in our history, and we can go down this road."

Kulov the same day questioned whether Bakiev simply exploited popular dissatisfaction with Akaev to put himself in office.

He asked: "In society there are running discussions about what was March 24, 2005 -- a revolution or a coup d'etat? There can only be one criteria [for answering this], if the hopes that fueled the people's uprising were justified and their goals attained then this was undoubtedly a revolution. If the goals were not attained and the discontent of the people was used by a group of people, then this was a coup."

When confronted with impending large demonstrations, it has become a habit for Bakiev to publicly sympathize with the frustrations of the people, offer concessions, and promise to accelerate reforms. But he is gaining a reputation for shelving these concerns or later reneging on promises after the protesters have dispersed.

(RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report.)

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