The session was moderated by Martha Brill Olcott, Senior Associate of the Carnegie Endowment.
"This point in time is the most difficult for our country," opened Sydykova, describing herself as a member of the opposition to Kyrgyzstan's President Askar Akaev, but above all a journalist. She recounted Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev's statement that the authorities "have lost the information war" to the opposition in the last five months, taking it as a complement to Kyrgyzstan's independent press, which faces many obstacles with few resources at its disposal.
The Kyrgyz opposition desires the resignation of the Akaev regime. After the arrest in January this year of Azimbek Beknazarov, an independent parliamentarian representing the Aksy area of the western Jalal-Abad region who had opposed President Akaev's 1999 agreement with China ceding to the Chinese 90,000 hectares of land, more than 400 people went on hunger strike in support of Beknazarov. The authorities ignored the medical condition of strikers, Sydykova said, and one, Sharali Nazarkulov, an economist and human rights activist, died on the 21st day.
On March 17, 2002, law enforcement officials fired into a crowd of Beknazarov supporters holding a peaceful investigation, killing six people. This crackdown had been planned in advance, said Sydykova. The Interior Ministry had given it the code name Typhoon, and police had been issued special handguns in advance. This loss of life set off a "tidal wave" of resentment against the Akaev regime among Kyrgyz citizens, she claimed. That evening, the throng of people in the streets of Aksy swelled from 400 to 20,000. Sydykova called the people of Aksy "heroes," for having tried to protect their elected deputy and for rallying behind his cause, the territorial integrity of Kyrgyzstan.
Many had hoped that Akaev would support an investigation into the massacre and the punishment of those responsible. Real accountability lies in Bishkek, she thought, but only low-ranking local officials were scapegoated and the head of the commission that absolved the government of all wrongdoing was recently made prime minister. Akaev's instinctive reaction to this unrest has been to label as "political extremists" those voicing dissatisfaction with his regime.
How could such a crackdown take place with US troops stationed in the country? Instead of discouraging Akaev from violating human rights, the US presence has effectively untied Akaev's hands to act as he pleases, she said, since he knows the counter-terrorism coalition cannot allow the destabilization of the region that his ouster would bring.
Akaev has announced plans for a "democratic code," to complement the country's constitution and penal and civil code. This code, Sydykova believed, would be used to regulate the public's activity and minimize individuals' ability to avail themselves of their constitutionally guaranteed freedoms. Kyrgyzstan's citizens see this on the horizon, thus the demonstrations against Akaev continue, unsanctioned, and further crackdowns are "likely."
Opposition groups have launched a signature campaign to rally support for a nationwide referendum on two questions: (1) to accept or abolish the transfer of land to China, and (2) whether to hold immediate parliamentary and presidential elections.
On the border issue, Sydykova explained that there was no need for Akaev to renegotiate the border with China, since the line was agreed upon more than a century ago by the Russian and Chinese empires (Kyrgyzstan is the legal successor to the Soviet Union, just as the Soviet Union inherited the international agreements of Imperial Russia), long before the Soviet-era, by choice or by accident, misplaced those documents, setting off a decades-long border dispute.
On US State Department assistance winning the abolishment of Decree 20, which restricted media freedoms, and in funding an independent publishing house, Sydykova expressed a concern that this was "too little, too late." Now, independent newspapers have the facilities to print, but few publications have survived long enough to take advantage of them. And the publishing house has promised Akaev it will comply with all laws, so it will be unable to print any publication Akaev has shut down through court order, and thus unable to truly sustain Kyrgyzstan's free press.
On the possibility of a civil war, like the one that raged in neighboring Tajikistan when the Rakhmonov government resigned, Sydykova believed that there are "no sectors of society" who wish to keep Akaev in power. The country has no wealthy oligarchs who will rally behind him to protect their financial interests. Many members of the law enforcement have indicated they have no stomach for forcefully restraining demonstrators with whose cause they agree. In Tajikistan, the Russian troops stationed there after 1991 share some responsibility for the civil war, she thought, since they propped up the government long after it had lost popular support, and she hoped that US troops in Kyrgyzstan would not do the same to protect Akaev.
Summary by Caroline McGregor, Junior Fellow, Russian and Eurasian program