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Analysis: Uneasy Days In Kyrgyzstan

Opposition leader Roza Otunbaeva (file photo) Postelection protests in Kyrgyzstan began to take on the classic earmarks of genuine unrest on 20 March. For several days the authorities had stood by as opposition demonstrations intensified in southern Kyrgyzstan. Protestors seized the Jalal-Abad provincial administration on 4 March and repeated the feat in Osh on 18 March. On 19 March, several leading opposition figures held a kurultai, or congress, in Osh to select a "people's governor" -- Anvar Artykov, a member of the Ata-Jurt opposition movement and an ethnic Uzbek (an important detail in Kyrgyzstan's south, which borders on Uzbekistan and is home to a large Uzbek population).

In an early-morning show of force on 20 March, police stormed the occupied buildings in the two cities, expelling and arresting protestors and detaining Artykov. But as soon as official news agencies managed to report the restoration of order, thousands of reinvigorated demonstrators massed in Jalal-Abad to retake government offices, free imprisoned protestors, and strengthen their grip on the city. Osh followed suit on 21 March. As police stations went up in flames in Jalal-Abad, the stakes suddenly rose in Kyrgyzstan's uneasy spring.
"We already control fairly large territories. It will soon be half of the country. The next goal, of course, is Bishkek, the presidential administration."

The events of 20-21 March were violent, but despite several unconfirmed reports of fatalities, both government and opposition sources insisted that no one was killed. After the police action in Jalal-Abad on 20 March, a crowd of protestors numbering in the thousands marched on the provincial headquarters of the Interior Ministry. Police fired warning shots, but retreated when protestors pelted them with rocks and Molotov cocktails, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. The building eventually burned to the ground, and antigovernment forces went on to take control of other government facilities, including the local airport, where they blocked runways to prevent possible troop deployments from elsewhere in the country. Events in Osh on 21 March produced similar results., relying on reports from Osh from its own correspondent and Irina Gordienko from Russia's "Novaya gazeta," noted that angry crowds ransacked some government offices in the morning, but that by 3:00 p.m., local time, opposition leaders and police commanders who had gone over to the opposition side managed to restore some calm.

By the evening of 21 March, a new reality prevailed in Kyrgyzstan. The central authorities of President Askar Akaev had made their bid to reassert control over the rebellious southern cities of Jalal-Abad and Osh, and they had failed. The opposition, held together more by its opposition to Akaev and assertions of fraud in 27 February and 13 March parliamentary elections than by a coordinated program or unifying figure, now controlled, however tenuously, the strongholds of the traditionally restive south. For a moment, the great cliche of Kyrgyz politics -- the north-south divide, with northerner Askar Akaev facing a primarily southern opposition -- became a tangible thing, with the rivals glaring at each other across the mountains that bisect the country.

But actual political life has a way of upending cliches even as it seemingly validates them, and the situation on 21 March suggested more than a stark standoff. Bolot Januzakov, deputy head of the presidential administration, told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service on 21 March that "the president is ready [for negotiations], the prime minister is ready...." And while Januzakov insisted that talks cannot begin while "people are breaking things [and] setting fires," he suggested that if and when those actions are stopped, "it will be possible to hold talks." Meanwhile, two of the most prominent opposition figures -- former Prime Minster Kurmanbek Bakiev, head of the People's Movement of Kyrgyzstan, and former Foreign Minister Roza Otunbaeva, co-chairwoman of the bloc Ata-Jurt -- allowed the possibility of talks, albeit only with Akaev, even as they continued to insist on the president's eventual resignation, Russia's "Kommersant-Daily" reported.

For his part, the president, who had hitherto dismissed opposition complaints of widespread fraud in recent parliamentary elections, altered his tone. At a meeting with the heads of the Central Election Commission (CEC) and the Supreme Court on 21 March, Akaev insisted that while elections had gone off in full accordance with the law in the majority of districts, the CEC and the Supreme Court must review the situation in districts where results elicited sharp responses, reported citing the presidential press office. "A separate explanation must be given for each controversial case," Akaev said.

Both the government and the opposition face paradoxes as a new day dawns in Kyrgyzstan on 22 March. As the willingness to engage in dialogue and perhaps review election results suggests, the authorities are conscious that the failed police actions in Jalal-Abad and Osh necessitate certain concessions. Russia's "Vremya novostei" even suggested, in line with various rumors circulating among the Kyrgyz opposition, that Akaev made a quick trip on 20 March to Moscow, where he received instructions to soften his hard line against the opposition. Kyrgyz officials, it should be noted, strenuously denied all rumors that Akaev was anywhere but in the country and in control.

For the opposition, the prospect of negotiations and a review of certain election results is a double-edged sword. Given that official election results put opposition representation in the new parliament at no more than 10 percent, a few reversals in high-profile races would not change the overall balance of power. Moreover, negotiations with Akaev with an eye to a compromise result would likely end up diluting the opposition's demand for the president's resignation. But if the opposition is unable to extend protests beyond the south to the capital, the resulting stalemate will surely increase pressure, both domestic and international, for a negotiated settlement.

Emboldened by its successes in Jalal-Abad and Osh and wary of a compromise that could endanger its ultimate goal, the opposition might make yet another push. In an interview with Russia's "Izvestiya" on 21 March, Otunbaeva explained what that might look like. "We already control six of seven regions in Osh Province, five of eight regions in Jalal-Abad Province, one of five regions in Naryn Province, and three of four regions in Talas Province," she said. "Izvestiya" noted that there are seven provinces in the country. "On Tuesday [22 March], we'll resolve things in Batken Province," Otunbaeva added. "We already control fairly large territories. It will soon be half of the country. The next goal, of course, is Bishkek, the presidential administration."


Photo Gallery: How The Protests Unfolded

Authorities Attempt To Contain Protests, Negotiate

Kyrgyz Police Battle With Protesters In Southern Cities

For more on the Kyrgyz elections, see RFE/RL's dedicated website Kyrgyzstan Votes 2005