Unrest spreads across Kyrgyzstan

By bne IntelliNews March 19, 2010

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A wave of demonstrations is spreading across Kyrgyzstan as the population expresses its anger over recent utility price hikes and the privatisation of key state assets.

On March 17, 3,000 people rallied outside the Social Democratic Party's headquarters in the outskirts of Bishkek, urging the government to reverse the increase in prices for hot water and electricity introduced January 1.

Opposition activists originally planned to hold a mass rally in Bishkek's central stadium, not far from the presidency, but this was banned by city authorities nervous that the March 2005 Tulip Revolution could be repeated. As tensions increased, Prime Minister Daniyar Usenov warned on March 15 that the government has sufficient strength and resources to prevent the situation getting out of control.

It is exactly five years since a wave of protests against the regime of former President Askar Akayev erupted across Kyrgyzstan. Akayav fled the country on March 24, 2005 when tens of thousands of people demonstrated against the government and occupied state offices. His successor, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, has been credited with bringing security to the country, but many say at the expense of basic freedoms.

Demonstrators also called for the privatisations of the national telecomunications operator Kyrgyztelecom and utility Severelectro to be reversed, and for President Kurmanbek Bakiyev's son, Maxim Bakiyev, to be removed as head of the country's development agency.

In addition, demonstrators want restrictions on media freedom to be lifted and for Ismail Isakov and other opposition politicians to be released from prison. Another prominent opposition politician, former foreign minister Alikbek Jekshenkulov, was given a five-year suspended prison term on financial mismanagement charges on March 16, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported.

The largest demonstration to date was in Naryn, where an estimated 5,000 people - a 10th of the city's population - turned out on March 10. The Naryn oblast governor Almazbek Akmataliev, staff from the mayor's office and members of several opposition parties, in addition to local citizens, took part in the protest at Naryn's central stadium.

The mountainous Naryn region has been particularly hard hit by the increased tariffs for hot water and electricity, since temperatures fall below zero for eight months of the year. It is also one of Kyrgyzstan's poorest regions. Since electricity prices doubled and the cost of hot water increased five times on January 1, 2010, the population has been struggling to make ends meet. Residents of another mountainous region, Talas, are similarly affected, and have said they are also prepared to go on strike, 24.kg reported.

New blackout

In another sign the Kyrgyz government is getting nervous about the unrest, there has been a virtual news blackout on the protests. According to RFE/RL, access to its and other independent news media sites have been blocked since March 10, while state-owned media hasn't covered the demonstrations. On March 15, around 250 people including opposition politicians and rights activists demonstrated outside the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) headquarters in Bishkek, calling on it to help protect press freedom.

According to international groups including Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders, protection for human rights and press freedom have deteriorated since the July 2009 presidential elections, and attacks on journalists have increased.

Government officials argue that the price increases for utilities are needed to fund investments in Kyrgyzstan's dilapidated in infrastructure and to reduce Kyrgyzstan's dependence on its neighbours in the energy sector.

At a press conference March 15, Prime Minister Daniyar Usenov said money was urgently needed to build the Kambarata hydropower plant, install new equipment in the Batken region to end its dependence on electricity imports from Tajikistan and reconstruct a thermal power plant designed to burn a type of coal that had to be imported from Kazakhstan.

Usenov added a warning that the government would act to keep the situation under control. The right of each person to express their opinion is unquestionable, he told journalists. "But what if a person infringes upon somebody else's rights? The government would take adequate measures. We have both strength and resources to do it," Usenov told reporters.

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