07 April 2007

Anticipatory anxiety building

Tensions are mounting at the American University of Central Asia in anticipation of protests by the political opponents of President Kurmanbek Bakiev scheduled for next week in Bishkek, the capital of the Kyrgyz Republic.

The two-building campus of American University is located across the street from the Kyrgyz Parliament, in front of which about 100 anti-Bakiev activists began a hunger strike earlier this week. Friday, another group of activists, many of whom were women in traditional Kyrgyz clothing, marched with signs encouraging no repetition of the violence and looting that marked the so-called Tulip Revolution of two years ago and brought Bakiev and former Prime Minister Felix Kulov into power.

Last week, Bakiev tried to derail his critics, who are seeking constitutional reforms that include increased powers for the parliament, by appointing Almaz Atambayev as the new prime minister. Atambayev is former chair of the For Reforms movement, which organized a week of public protests against the government last November. His appointment was approved by the parliament on 30 March.

Kulov joined the opposition alliance in January and created a new group, the United Front for a Decent Future for Kyrgyzstan, which also wants to move up the next presidential election in which Kulov, presumably, would be a candidate. Five months ago, the opposition movement was demanding Kulov’s resignation along with the president’s. The protests ended when Bakiev agreed to constitutional changes that increased the power of the parliament. However, by the end of the 2006, Bakiev and his supporters in the parliament revised the constitution again, effectively reversing the reforms and restoring power to presidency

The mood at American University is one of anxiety and deep cynicism. University administration encouraging students, staff and faculty to stay in close contact in the event the school is closed on short notice next week. Some faculty members and student say they trust none of the political leaders, who they believe are motivated by only their individual self-interest. They point to Kulov’s swift transformation from government insider to chief critic as an exemplary case. Corruption is pervasive at every level of Kyrgyz society. Good grades and even degrees can be purchased at many of Bishkek’s universities. Public school teachers, who are paid the equivalent of $30 per month, less than half the median wage in this very poor Central Asian nation, look to cash and gifts from their students’ families as a source of supplemental income. It is also widely believed that many protestors are paid to participate.

There is also uncertainty about the size and scale of the nationwide planned for next week because of divisions within the opposition movement. Some of the most vocal activists from last November have said they will not participate this time around and want to give Bakiev and the new prime minister more time to create a coalition government. Bakiev, who has been accused of corruption and cronyism, claims to be willing to meet with the opposition alliance, that offered has been rejected by some critics, including Kulov.

The start date of the demonstrations has also changed in recent weeks, but the English-language press in recent days has reported they will begin nationwide Monday and will culminate Wednesday in Bishkek.

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