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Kyrgyzstan Review, 10 years ago

[18.09.2OO2] Kyrgyz president heads to U.S., leaving country in turmoil with increasingly vocal opposition

Like many in his family, Eduard Kulov lost his job after the arrest of his brother Felix, who has been in a Kyrgyz jail on corruption charges since 1999, when he was then the strongest challenger to President Askar Akayev.
Although he praises the United States for offering asylum to nine family members, Kulov believes Washington's closer ties with Kyrgyzstan since the Sept. 11 attacks and the stationing of U.S. troops at the Manas airport here have made the president think he has a green light to suppress the opposition, keeping his brother locked in a cell in the capital Bishkek.
"If the (Sept. 11) tragedy didn't happen, Felix would be released," Kulov said Tuesday at an anti-government demonstration. The government "used that tragedy and the changed policy of the United States."
Akayev leaves Wednesday for a U.S. trip that includes a White House visit, an indication of how this mountainous former Soviet republic in Central Asia has acquired new importance. He leaves behind a country in economic and political turmoil, with an opposition that is growing bolder and been given greater cause to unify because of government assaults on human rights.
Akayev insists the opposition doesn't represent the will of the people and that he has widespread support. His office declined repeated requests for an interview before his U.S. trip.
On Tuesday, about 350 demonstrators gathered at a monument to those killed in a 1937 Stalinist purge, praying amid marble columns for an end to government repression.
The event, just outside the capital, marked the six-month anniversary of a March 17 protest in the town of Aksy, where at least five people were shot dead by police.
It was supposed to be one of the country's biggest demonstrations since its 1991 independence. But thousands of protesters traveling toward it were turned back last week in a showdown with pro-government demonstrators bused in to confront them.
"We were 50 meters from civil war," said Azimbek Beknazarov, an opposition lawmaker whose detention earlier this year galvanized the opposition.
Fearing conflict, opposition leaders agreed to end their protest march in exchange for government promises that those responsible for the March shootings would be convicted by Nov. 15 and other jailed protesters would be freed.
The fallout from the March shootings led to the dismissal of Akayev's Cabinet. In a move to calm criticism, he formed a constitutional council that is considering changes to the country's system of government -- possibly strengthening parliament and lessening the president's power.
The council, which began working earlier this month, is to issue its recommendations by Monday -- the same day Akayev meets President Bush.
Opponents fear Bush may ignore abuses in Kyrgyzstan because of the country's value as a base in the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism.
"Akayev knows western people and how to manipulate them," said Adahan Madumarov, a prominent opposition parliament member who is on the constitutional council.
An academic who was elected president of the Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan in 1990, Akayev had in the mid-1990s been viewed as the most progressive president in the region. But in recent years, he has increasingly clamped down on dissent and free expression.
At a constitutional council meeting Monday, in the presence of Akayev, opposition lawmakers and civil rights activists called for new elections and accused the government of election fraud.
Relatives of those killed in the March protest met last week with Akayev and with legislators Monday, but remained skeptical he would follow through with the promise to punish those responsible.
"Six months have passed and so far none of those responsible have been punished," said Momunbek Setimbayev, whose 31-year-old son Erkinaly was shot in the head in Aksy and died later in a hospital.
Beknazarov said the opposition's support for the U.S. presence here could change depending on how Akayev is received in Washington.
"If America thinks of itself as a democratic government that fights for human rights in the whole world, Bush shouldn't meet him," he said.
By BURT HERMAN, New Jersey Online, September 18, 2002

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