A protest planned for March 24 in the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh has been canceled, organizers told RFE/RL on March 23. The rally, an anti-government protest, was being organized by El Unu, an opposition movement. The canceled gathering takes place against a backdrop of increased tensions with Uzbekistan, local elections scheduled for March 27, and alleged audio tapes of opposition politicians discussing the overthrow of the government.
Last week, ahead of Nowruz, the Persian New Year holiday that marks the beginning of spring, Uzbekistan increased security on its border with Kyrgyzstan. In particular, Uzbekistan reportedly closed at least two border crossings. The location of the closures was, to say the least, inconvenient for Kyrgyz citizens as it cut off the main route between Ala-Buka and Kerben, Kyrgyz towns in the Jalal-Abad region. The road between the two passes through a spur of Uzbekistan’s Namangan region on the north side of the famed Fergana valley. The Uzbeks claimed the closure was simply increased security ahead of the holidays; the Kyrgyz didn’t buy that explanation.
Kurbanbai Iskandarov, the Kyrgyz government’s special envoy on border issues, told Kloop that the incident was linked to a recent decision by Bishkek to deny Uzbek specialists access to a reservoir constructed by the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic in Kyrgyz territory during the Soviet Era. Ownership remains a point of contention. Per Eurasianet’s translation of the Kloop interview, Iskandarov said, “According to all the documents, this is our territory, so in the event of repair works being required, they should be carried out by the Kyrgyz side.”
While both sides seemed to have militarily backed off–Uzbekistan withdrew some of the 40 personnel that had been sent to the area–the tensions remain.
To complicate matters, ahead of the local elections two audio tapes were leaked, allegedly containing a recording of three opposition politicians discussing an overthrow of the government. According to RFE/RL the tapes began to circulate on March 21-22 and a Reuters reported noted that the audio circulating in local media had been edited. The three men said to be on the recording are noted southern political figures Duulatbek Turdunaliev, Kubanychbek Kadyrov, and Bektur Asanov. Turdunaliev was an aide to the former interim government’s interior minister Bolot Sher–who resigned in 2011 after apologizing for not being able to prevent the violent unrest between ethnic Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in the wake of the 2010 revolution ousting Kurmanbek Bakiyev. Kubanychbek Kadyrov is a former opposition lawmaker. And Asanov had been a the provisional governor of the Jalal-Abad region but was pushed from office by counter-revolutionary tides that supported the ousted president.
In Kyrgyzstan, which has experienced two revolutions in the past 11 years, government authorities are incredibly sensitive to protests. On March 22, RFE/RL reported, “some 700 supporters of the opposition gathered” in Kerben to criticize “the government for its “inability” to solve the ongoing standoff along a disputed segment of the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border.” The government, meanwhile, sent 3,000 police officers to Osh in anticipation of the planned rally, ostensibly to provide security for the local elections. Although Kerben and Osh are both are in the Jalal-Abad region, they are on opposite sides of the Fergana Valley, separated by Uzbek territory.
On March 23, Kyrgyzstan’s intelligence agency–the State National Security Committee–said the recordings of the opposition politicians talking governmental overthrow had been confirmed as authentic. According to RFE/RL Asanov said the tapes were “an attempt to blackmail the opposition.”
In any case, the March 24 rally was canceled. 24.kg reported that El Unu called off the gathering due to the border tensions and “one more reason of abandoning Kurultai [people’s assembly] idea was the message of possible provocations.”
This series of events–border tensions, planned opposition protests, local elections, talks of coups–are together a worrying combination, but one that is not unfamiliar in the country.