Thousands demonstrate over mayoral election in Kyrgyzstan's second city

By bne IntelliNews January 16, 2014

bne -

Reviving nationalist protest in the south of the country, Kyrgyzstan's volatile second city Osh saw a day of unrest on January 15, after long-standing mayor Melisbek Myrzakmatov lost the city's mayoral election.

Thousands took to the streets to demand that Myrzakmatov, who was sacked in December, be restored to office. Myrzakmatov is one of Kyrgyzstan's most controversial politicians because of his nationalist politics and resistance to the central government in Bishkek.

Despite a high level of support among the city's population, Myrzakmatov narrowly lost the election, taking votes from 19 of the 45 Osh city council members, while rival candidate Aitmamat Kadyrbayev received 25 votes. Myrzakmatov's supporters claim that the ballot was unfair, and have accused deputies of selling their votes.

Speaking at the demonstration, Myrzakmatov told journalists that the election was "held completely unfairly, completely unlawfully, in a way that anyone would despise," RFE/RL reports.

A new mayor, Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan candidate Kubanychbek Kulmatov, was also elected in the capital Bishkek on January 15. Former mayor Isa Omurkulov resigned in December, shortly after the Kyrgyz prosecutor general's office launched a criminal case against him for abuse of power.

As Osh council members prepared to vote early on January 15, thousands gathered in the city's central square. According to the local interior department, around 2,500 people took part in the protest, including 68 horsemen.

A heavy police presence of around 400 was deployed outside the regional administration offices to prevent protesters from entering. Several police officers were injured in clashes with protesters, who hurled stones at the administrative building.

However, the protest started to disperse after Myrzakmatov called for calm and urged supporters not to attack official buildings. "The roots of today's violations are in Bishkek and there is no sense to seize the building of Osh Mayor's Office. We will continue protest actions in the capital in spring," Myrzakmatov said, according to

By midday on January 15 most protesters had left the square. Police also prevented Myrzakmatov's supporters from carrying out a threat to block the main Bishkek-Osh road.

Myrzakmatov was sacked by Prime Minister Zhantoro Satybaldiyev on December 5 after he made a speech attacking the government during a demonstration in Osh. Shortly after he finished speaking a group of protesters tried to force their way into the regional government offices and attacked police with stones and bottles. Myrzakmatov's official term had actually come to an end in 2012, but he remained as acting mayor while legislation to turn the position into an elected post was prepared.

An ally of former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, Myrzakmatov has long been an irritant to the government in Bishkek, but has resisted previous efforts to oust him from his post. He is closely aligned with the nationalist Ata-Zhurt party, which has attracted many of Bakiyev's former supporters. Although it is represented in the Kyrgyz parliament and has been part of one coalition government since the April 2010 revolution, the party's leaders have been outspoken in their wish to topple the current regime.

Myrzakmatov enjoys a high level of popularity among ethnic Kyrgyz residents of Osh, but has been accused by the city's substantial Uzbek minority of favouring the Kyrgyz majority both politically and economically. He has also been accused of complicity in the June 2010 ethnic riots in Osh and other southern Kyrgyz towns, which left more than 400 Uzbeks dead and sent tens of thousands fleeing across the border into Uzbekistan.

Since the revolution, there have been fears in Bishkek that Myrzakmatov and other nationalist leaders could use their power base in the south to destabilise the country - either by attempting to take control of the region or marching on the north to overthrow the government.

In a previous standoff with Bishkek in August 2010, Myrzakmatov said in an interview with Russia's Kommersant that decrees from the interim government then headed by Rosa Otunbayeva had "no legal standing in the south". After criticism from government officials, Myrzakmatov's supporters took to the streets threatening to torch both government buildings and the temporary Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) headquarters.

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