The Kyrgyz government has intensified its criticism of Islamic fundamentalist extremists, which Bishkek describes as the main threat to the country's stability. High-ranking government officials allege that Islamic extremists, such as Hezb ut-Tahrir, are behind the recent assassination attempt on Security Council Secretary Misir Ashirkulov, as well as ongoing protest marches in the southern region of Djalalabad. Observers believe these statements signal the Kyrgyz government intends to toughen its previous liberal approach toward Islamic fundamentalists.
Prague, 12 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Coinciding with the first anniversary of the 11 September terrorist attacks, high-ranking officials in Bishkek have been talking publicly about a string of incidents they say reveals the increasing threat to Kyrgyzstan's stability posed by radical Islamic extremists.
According to the National Security Service, a well-planned terrorist attack was foiled on Kyrgyzstan's Independence Day on 31 August. They provided no further details.
Security officials also claim to have found a weapons cache in the country's restive southern Djalalabad region, which they say signals that terrorist groups are active in the region.
On 5 September, top officials from the country's law-enforcement bodies told the Kyrgyz parliament that the main danger to the state comes from religious extremists and the outlawed Islamic Hezb ut-Tahrir group. The law-enforcement officials claim such extremists could use public protests to organize armed provocations against the state.
Finally, on 6 September, Kyrgyz officials cited an assassination attempt against Misir Ashirkulov, the secretary of the Kyrgyz Security Council and head of the presidential administration. Ashirkulov has been hospitalized with injuries after two grenades thrown by unknown attackers exploded at the entrance to his home.
A statement by presidential adviser Bolot Januzakov summarizes Bishkek's official attitude toward the assassination attempt and other recent events. "This terrorist act was carried out by the enemies of our people, our country, and of Ashirkulov. I think that it is a politically motivated terrorist action. That's why today, all law-enforcement and security organizations are doing their best to find these enemies of the people and punish them. Whoever did it -- enemies from inside or outside -- they are a threat to our people, to our country and no doubt a threat to our president [Askar Akaev]. Today, we all should unite our thoughts, our minds, and hearts, and make efforts to preserve peace in our country," Januzakov said.
Later, Kyrgyz Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev, Chairman of the National Security Service Kalyk Imankulov, and other high-ranking Kyrgyz officials pointed the finger of blame for these incidents at Islamic fundamentalist groups such Hezb ut-Tahrir, an Islamic party that seeks the overthrow of the government through nonviolent means.
Since its independence in 1991, Kyrgyzstan has taken the most liberal approach toward Islamic fundamentalist organizations among the five Central Asian states. Groups such Hezb ut-Tahrir have pursued their activities with relative freedom.
In the face of Kyrgyzstan's continuing political crisis, however, this liberal approach appears set to change.
Thousands of Kyrgyz have participated in protest actions around the country this year, especially in southern Aksy Raion. The shooting deaths on 17 March of five antigovernment demonstrators by police caused a public outcry that led to the resignation of the Kyrgyz government in May. A special commission blamed state officials for the bloodshed. Antigovernment protest marches have continued this month in the Djalalabad region.
But observers are asking whether any strong evidence exists to link Islamic extremists to the most recent violence, or whether the government's statements are simply part of a well-organized effort to publicly discredit these groups.
Sodiqjon qori Kamolov is a former mufti of Kyrgyzstan and the head of the International Center for Islamic Cooperation. He said some factions in the government are using the Islamic threat as a scapegoat. "I think that the government wants to distract people's attention from the current situation in Kyrgyzstan, from ongoing tension between the public and the authorities. There are also ethnic tensions, conflicts over other issues. There was bloodshed [in Aksy Raion]. In this situation, the government wants people to believe that there is a real threat, coming from a third side. They want to throw people into fear and use it for their own interest," Kamolov said.
Neighboring Uzbekistan has used tough tactics against radical Islamic groups for many years. But despite Tashkent's crackdown, radical Islamic activities in Uzbekistan appear not to have decreased. In fact, the opposite may be true.
Some observers speculate that Uzbekistan's influence might be to blame for Bishkek's taking a tougher approach against Islamists. Others, like Kamolov, believe groups such as Hezb ut-Tahrir invite such treatment with their radical calls. He said they should be careful in their actions so as not to give the government a legitimate excuse to start a repressive campaign against Muslims. "Members of Hezb ut-Tahrir and other groups should thoroughly think how to protect our religion [Islam] from this kind of slander. They should think which of their actions are provoking these slanders and all efforts to blacken Islam. I think it would be useful if [radical Islamic groups] consider their actions," Kamolov said.
Kamolov and others believe that any attempt to demonize Hezb ut-Tahrir, to label it as a terrorist organization, will only increase tension in Kyrgyzstan and add fuel to the fire of public discontent.
He said much of the Kyrgyz population is aware of Hezb ut-Tahrir's principles, which denounce the use of violence. He said efforts to brand the group as a terrorist organization may end up discrediting the government itself.
Ernest Mamirkanov, director of the Media Resource Center, a nongovernmental monitoring organization based in southern Kyrgyzstan, agrees with Kamolov. In addition to using Hezb ut-Tahrir to distract attention from the current political crisis, Mamirkanov believes Bishkek also wants to attract more moral and financial support from West, and that it believes its calls may be listened to more seriously around the anniversary of the 11 September attacks. "Probably, each step of the government would be simply followed by an appropriate response [from Islamic radicals]. At the present moment, I don't see any reason why the government should artificially provoke this issue. Maybe there is [a feeling] that Kyrgyzstan wants to draw attention to itself again, and maybe through such statements it wants to get additional aid [from West]," Mamirkanov said.
Other observers believe recent events indicate an intensified inner struggle within the Kyrgyz political establishment.
The chairman of the Human Rights Movement of Kyrgyzstan, Tursunbek Akhunov, told RFE/RL that the assassination attempt against the secretary of the Security Council shows that some groups are willing to use violence to achieve their goals. "Misir Ashirkulov is one of the high-ranking officials who is very articulate and on good terms with the opposition. [He's] smart and simple. It was due to Ashirkulov that the president and the political opposition found common ground and created a Constitutional Council. But there are some people in the president's circle who don't want the president and the opposition to work together. These people want to use an Aksy method [violent methods] against the opposition. There are opinions that [the assassination attempt] was made by these people. I think this is true," Akhunov said.
According to a recent statement by the Kyrgyz National Security Service, Ashirkulov may not be the only target of an assassination attempt. The statement said the country's opposition political leaders are also likely targets.