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Kyrgyzstan: Authorities Attempt To Contain Protests, Negotiate

The Kyrgyz opposition holds a people's congress, "Kurultai," in Osh on 19 March. As anti-government protesters hold administration buildings in southern regions, including Jalal-Abad and Osh, Kyrgyz authorities are pledging to seek a negotiated solution. But will they be able to solve the problem peacefully or will the demonstrations grow stronger?

Prague, 21 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The images of the protests from Kyrgyzstan recall recent demonstrations in Ukraine and Georgia.

One major difference, however, is that the demonstrators have not made progress in the capital Bishkek.

The leader of one of the Kyrgyz opposition parties, Muratbek Imanaliev of the Jany Bagyt (New Direction) party, says the situation in Bishkek is quiet but says the momentum for change will grow there as well.

"In principle, unlike the situation on the south and some northern provinces, Bishkek is quiet. But there have been demonstrations for the last four days. Slogans are similar to those in the south. I believe this will continue and become more active," Imanaliev said.

Shifting the protests to Bishkek is likely to be one of the opposition's goals, according to David Lewis of the International Crisis Group.

"One possible scenario is that the situation will become more out of control. At the moment, it still seems to be under the control of either the government or the opposition. The dangerous scenario is that things will become less controlled by both sides. Maybe, [the opposition] will try to move the focus of action up to Bishkek and push for the resignation of Akaev, of course," Lewis said.

The demonstrators have vowed to continue their protests until President Akaev resigns. They are protesting parliamentary elections in February and March that they say were fraudulent.

One of the main issues facing the opposition is whether to negotiate with Akaev's government.

Bolot Januzakov, the deputy head of the presidential administration, told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that Akaev is ready to hold negotiations under certain conditions.

"Of course, the president is ready [for negotiations], the prime minister is ready, first prime-minister is also ready. Everyone is ready. But, in order to hold negotiations, there should be certain conditions. When people are breaking [things], setting fires, what kind of talks can be held? These [actions] must be stopped first, then it will be possible to hold talks," Januzakov said.

Roza Otunbaeva, a co-leader of Ata-Jurt (Fatherland) opposition party, says her movement has no plans to negotiate with the authorities. Imanaliev also says his party will not hold talks with Akaev.

But another opposition figure, Kurmanbek Bakiev, who lost a race for a parliament seat on 13 March, has gone to Bishkek for talks with Akaev.

Lewis says it may be too late for talks. He says the government lost an opportunity to negotiate with the opposition after the elections and it's not clear if the protesters now would accept talks.

"I think [compromise] is difficult now, certainly on the issue of Akaev. I think it's quite difficult [because] it's not clear if the opposition can persuade the protesters to accept a compromise. So it's not a good situation for any kind of serious political negotiations to begin," Lewis said.

Lewis also says the authorities may have erred by waiting so long to send in the police.

The crackdown, on protesters in Jalal-Abad, came only on the night of 19 March.

Lewis says any reports of death of injuries would only provoke stronger reactions from the population.

Opposition leaders claim their movement is growing and that they are finding support among the local police. Otunbaeva says police in Jalal-Abad are switching over to the protesters in massive numbers.

"Law-enforcement personnel are taking our side. Yesterday in Jalal-Abad they were switching sides in massive numbers. Policemen, including high-ranking officers, took off their uniforms, changed into civilian clothes and joined our ranks. So, we have substantial support," Otunbaeva said.

In Kyrgyzstan's second-biggest city of Osh opposition supporters today stormed and occupied several government buildings and the airport.

The opposition claims to have widespread support in Osh, but political analyst Ganijon Kholmatov, who lives there, says many residents do not support the demonstrators.

"Unfortunately, the city's population doesn't support demonstrations, they rather observe them with dissatisfaction. Demonstrations are organized and held by outsiders. The Osh citizens don't participate in them because most of Osh's inhabitants are those who get paid from the state budget. Protests will likely have negative effect on their life, on their salaries. For the last year, salaries of teachers, doctors, and artists increased significantly. It reduced their discontent [with the government]," Kholmatov said.

Observers say it's important that the protests remain bloodless -- especially in Osh.

Osh was the scene of violent clashes in 1990 between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks and memories of those events are still fresh.

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

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