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Kyrgyzstan: Restive Days In Bishkek

Anti-Kulov protesters outside the parliament (RFE/RL) When street protests toppled Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev on 24 March, Kyrgyzstan found itself face to face not only with new hopes, but new fears as well. The looting that struck the capital on the night of 24 March, though quickly quelled, symbolized for many the danger of disorder that political upheaval brings. More recent events in Bishkek have shown that the perils may in fact be greater, and their causes deeper.

A mere summary fails to convey the significance of the events that have unfolded in Kyrgyzstan since 20 October. On that day, Tynychbek Akmatbaev, a parliamentary deputy and chairman of the legislature's committee on defense and security, was killed during an ill-advised visit to a penal colony outside Bishkek. Akmatbaev's brother accused Prime Minister Feliks Kulov of complicity in the killing and subsequently organized a days-long demonstration in the capital demanding the premier's removal. Parliament responded by forming a commission.

Criminal Boss

What all this actually means is not quite what it appears at first glance. The story begins with Tynychbek Akmatbaev's brother, Ryspek Akmatbaev. Referred to even in media reports by his first name, Ryspek is a near-legendary figure in Kyrgyzstan. Described by the news agency as a "criminal kingpin," Ryspek had been on the lam since 2001, "Moskovskie Novosti" reported on 28 October. After Akaev's fall in March, Ryspek took up an offer from then Prosecutor-General Azimbek Beknazarov to emerge from the shadows and face trial on murder charges. As part of the deal Beknazarov offered, Ryspek was allowed to await his court date not in a jail cell, but as a free man after signing an affidavit pledging not to leave the country.

One of the inmates in the penal colony where Ryspek's brother, Tynychbek Akmatbaev, met his untimely end was Aziz Batukaev, an ethnic Chechen and reputed crime boss, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Numerous reports have alluded to a feud between Batukaev and Ryspek. A clue to the origins of that feud may lie in the charges Ryspek faces. As reported on 28 October, Ryspek is charged with the 2003 murder of Khavaji Zaurbekov, who was Batukaev's brother-in-law.

The precise circumstances of Tynychbek Akmatbaev's death remain obscure and disputed. The parliamentary commission set up on 25 October to investigate the incident is supposed to report its findings by 15 November. The significance of the event lies in the impression it has created in the popular consciousness: that the brother of an underworld boss headed a parliamentary committee on defense and security, and then got whacked in a gangland beef with all the earmarks of a blood feud.

Different Kind Of Demo

Against this backdrop, Ryspek and his supporters took to the streets. Kyrgyzstan has had a banner year for demonstrations, but this one was different. As "Novye izvestiya" described it on 24 October: "They are all strapping, young, strong guys dressed in athletic clothes. There are no women among the demonstrators." With this back-up, Ryspek began to air his demands, chief among them the removal of Kulov from the post of prime minister. Ryspek told on 22 October that "[Prime Minister] Feliks Kulov is guilty. He set this up together with Aziz Batukaev."

Ryspek and his supporters put up yurts, field kitchens, and portable toilets in front of the parliament, which suddenly experienced difficulty gathering a quorum. When the legislature finally met on 25 October, it created a commission to investigate Akmatbaev's murder but declined to consider the issue of Kulov's removal, arguing that the decision belongs to the president.

The political maneuvering was not as important as the symbolism. If the sight of Ryspek and his men decamped before parliament seemed to deter lawmakers from performing their appointed duties, some parliamentarians made time to arrange a personal audience with Ryspek. They were not alone. As "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 25 October, the stream of visitors eager to pay their respects to Ryspek included "Interior Minister Muratbek Sutalinov and National Security Service head Tashtemir Aitbaev." The newspaper noted, "Television pictures of these heads of the security agencies shaking hands with the leader of a criminal group were broadcast across Kyrgyzstan." In a potent indication of the deference accorded Ryspek, parliamentary speaker Omurbek Tekebaev was only allowed to meet with him after the speaker's bodyguards surrendered their arms.

Deputy Tynychbek Akmatbaev was killed on 20 October

Ryspek's anti-Kulov demonstration acted as a magnet not only for ministers, but for the relatives of other slain legislators of dubious repute. On 10 June, businessman and deputy Jyrgalbek Surabaldiev was gunned down in Bishkek. Rumor had linked Surabaldiev to the funding of pro-Akaev provocateurs on the eve of the 24 March unrest that felled the president, although initial reactions described the murder as a business-linked contract killing. And on 21 September, a gunman shot and killed deputy Bayaman Erkinbaev, head of Kyrgyzstan's National Olympic Committee, an avid supporter of the opposition to President Akaev during the March events, and a businessman with rumored links to crime groups in the country's south.

"Yes, the relatives of Bayaman Erkinbaev and Jyrgalbek Surabaldiev want to join us," Ryspek told on 24 October. He explained, "[T]hey have documents that accuse Kulov of other murders of deputies." The relatives did, in fact, join Ryspek's demonstration, "Kommersant-Daily" confirmed on 26 October.

And there were others. Nurlan Motuev, who has seized the Kara-Keche coal mine and defied government attempts to evict him, also appeared at Ryspek's side in Bishkek, "Vechernii Bishkek" reported on 25 October. Motuev's mine seizure has been something of a media sensation in recent weeks, widely seen as proof of the central government's inability to impose its will. With Motuev's arrival in Bishkek, the picture was complete -- it was as though every symbol of lawlessness in Kyrgyz society had come together in a rebuke of parliament, the prime minister, and president.

NGO Criticism

Adding to the sense of state power under siege was the cautious response of President Kurmanbek Bakiev, who maintained a studied silence in the immediate aftermath of Akmatbaev's murder. Bakiev expressed his "complete trust" in Kulov on 26 October, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. But the president's failure to take a strong stand on the demonstration in Bishkek prompted a number of civil-society NGOs to issue a critical statement on 26 October, reported. What the NGOs, which included the Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society and Citizens Against Corruption, found particularly galling was Bakiev's willingness to meet with a delegation of Akmatbaev's relatives and supporters on 28 October, the same day Ryspek's trial was set to begin. The NGOs told the president: "You are preparing to receive a delegation of the protesters outside parliament on the first day of the trial of Ryspek Akmatbaev, who is accused of committing serious crimes, murders, and assaults. In receiving the accused, you put pressure on the court."

As it happened, 28 October witnessed an easing of tensions. The meeting between President Bakiev and Tynychbek Akmatbaev's relatives and supporters took place on 27 October, not 28 October. Topchubek Turgunaliev, the leader of the Erkindik Party, told a news conference that Ryspek did not attend the meeting. After the meeting with the president, the slain deputy's supporters agreed to end their demonstration before parliament until the investigation of Akmatbaev's murder is complete. Kulov's supporters, who had been demonstrating for several days only a few hundred meters away from Akmatbaev's backers, ended their protest as well. Parliamentary deputies set off for their districts to meet with constituents. Ryspek's trial date was postponed until 9 November. And finally, civil-society groups held a demonstration of at least 500 people in Bishkek on 28 October to express their support for the Bakiev-Kulov tandem and their opposition to the criminal world's involvement in politics.

Though the first act of the drama appears to be over, the basic issues remain unresolved. Ryspek has vowed that if he is acquitted in his upcoming trial, he will run for the parliamentary seat his brother's death has left vacant. Kyrgyzstan's judiciary does not have a strong record of independence, and Ryspek's new-found respectability and prominence, as demonstrated by his meetings with ministers and ability to mass supporters, promise a severe test of the country's anemic courts. The circumstances of Tynychbek Akmatbaev's death await clarification. Ryspek's standing demand for the removal of Prime Minister Kulov is yet another storm cloud on the horizon.

The political fallout from Tynychbek Akmatbaev's death is far from over, but the fears it has awakened are already clear. One is that the state's institutions remain as fragile today as they were when protestors overran government offices on 24 March and sent President Akaev fleeing into exile. Another is that into the resulting vacuum will rush individuals who resolve conflicts not by the force of law, but by the law of force.