Originally Published 2010-04-12 00:00:00 Published on Apr 12, 2010
Trouble was brewing in this Central Asian Republic after the Bakiyev administration hiked the price of water, fuel and electricity late last year
Turmoil in Kyrgyzstan
Kyrgyzstan appears to be returning to normalcy after the violent political turmoil which forced President Kurmanbek Bakiyev to flee the capital. The opposition led by former foreign minister Roza Otunbayeva has taken charge of the administration and appears to be in control. Otunbayeva had supported Bakiyev in the 2005 Tulip Revolution which ousted President Askar Akayev. She had also served as the ambassador to both the United States and the UK.

Trouble was brewing in this Central Asian Republic after the Bakiyev administration hiked the price of water, fuel and electricity late last year. Most of the Kyrgyz utility companies were run by Bakiyev’s family members. Bakiyev’s son Maxim was alleged to have virtually usurped the powers of the Prime Minister and stories of his corruption were a legion. Rampant corruption and increasing economic hardship added to the discontent of Kyrgyz citizens resulting in violent protests.

The recent wave of protest originated in the north-western city of Talas and spread to other areas including capital Bishkek. On Wednesday (7th April) morning a large crowd assembled in front of the presidential palace in Bishkek demanding the resignation of the president. As the numbers and intensity of the protestors surged, President Bakiyev fled the capital in a private jet, presumably to the safety of his hometown Jalalabad in the southern part of the country.

Nearly 75 people were killed and approximately 1000 were injured during the violence. Otunbayeva claims that the security service and interior ministry are under the control of the interim government. She announced that the Kyrgyz parliament is suspended and the interim government will discharge the duties of the parliament and president till a new leadership is elected within six months under a new constitution.

Ousted president Bakiyev meanwhile broke his silence and spoke on Thursday to BBC’s Russian service and Ekho Moskvy radio station. He said that he is in southern Kyrgyzstan but refused to disclose his exact location and declared that he will not resign. According to him, “when a handful of armed people take the White House by force with no regard for anything whatsoever and fire in a targeted manner at the president and his cabinet and take over the control of the country in that way, these are not the legitimate authorities.” Bakiyev also offered to negotiate with the new regime but he is apparently in a weak position to do so. He admitted to the Ekho Moskvy radio that he does not “have any real levers of power”.

Meanwhile, former president Askar Akayev says that the south is not likely to back Bakiyev. He says that the possibility of a civil war does not exist in Kyrgyzstan. “The south will not back Bakiyev, I do not think there is any resistance (sic) between the south and the north as the protest mood is also strong in the south”, reports RIA Novosti.

The sudden turn of events in Kyrgyzstan has taken many observers by surprise. The opposition groups which so far appeared to be fragmented and divided came together in the wake of overwhelming popular discontent against the incumbent regime. Some observers have pointed towards a Russian connection while others counter it saying that “the limits of Russia’s soft power in Kyrgyzstan were shown up by Moscow’s failure to squeeze the Americans out of Manas”. The United States too appeared to absolve Russia from any involvement. Michael Mc Faul, President Obama’s advisor and senior director of Russian and Eurasian Affairs at the US National Security Council commented that “this is not some sponsored-by-the-Russians coup, there’s just no evidence of that.”

Prime Minister Putin denied any Russian complicity but was critical of Bakiyev. “When President Bakiev came to power, he harshly criticized the deposed President Akayev that his relatives had positions throughout the Kyrgyz economy. I have the impression that Mr. Bakiev has been stepping on the same rakes,” he said. Incidentally, Bakiyev’s son Maxim is the head of the Central Agency on Development, Investment, and Innovation which controls all financial transactions including aid and credits and overseeing major national hydroelectric and gold companies. Bakiyev’s brother Zhanysh and another son Marat are both heads of state security agencies.

Otunbayeva thanked Putin for Russia’s significant support and RIA Novosti reported that a delegation from Kyrgyzstan led by interim First Deputy Prime Minister Almazbek Atambayev  have already departed for Moscow on Friday (9th April) morning to hold talks with Russian officials.

Putin meanwhile called up the interim leader Otunbayeva showing Russia’s acceptance of the new political developments in Kyrgyzstan. According to the Prime Minister’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, “it is important that the conversation was held with her in her role as the head of the government of national confidence”. Russia also sent an extra 150 elite paratroopers to its military base at Kant, near Bishkek.

The United States too is concerned about the situation in Kyrgyzstan. The Manas air base is crucial for the American operations in Afghanistan. According to US officials although the Manas base is presently witnessing “limited operations”, support for American forces in Afghanistan “have not been seriously affected.” It is quite possible that Russia would like to see Manas vacated by the Americans. In Prague where Presidents Obama and Medvedev met on 8th April to sign the new strategic nuclear disarmament treaty some differences over Kyrgyzstan cropped up. According to Senior White House aide Michael McFaul, though Obama and Medvedev talked about a joint statement on the Kyrgyz developments, it did not materialize in the end. Reuters reported from Prague that a senior Russian official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters that “in Kyrgyzstan, there should be only one base –Russian”.

Russia appears to have an upper hand in Kyrgyzstan for now compared to the United States and China. However, it will not be easy for Russia to force the new Kyrgyz government to shut down the base as the US provides close to $ 200 million to the Kyrgyz economy-a sizeable amount for the impoverished nation. The interim leader Otunbayeva received a US envoy late on April 8th who called for respect of democratic principles. Otunbayeva meanwhile has assured "status quo would remain" regarding the bases.

China which shares a long border and $9 bn trade with Kyrgyzstan has voiced its concern on the developments in Kyrgyzstan. While a regime change may not harm Chinese interests in the country, it could delay large Chinese projects in power and mining.

Kyrgyzstan’s future depends a lot on how the new interim government will be able to fulfil its promises. There is always the danger of dissent within the leadership. Several senior members of the new governing council like Temir Sariyev-leader of the Ak-Shumkar party, Omurbek Tekebayev-former speaker and leader of Ata-Meken socialist party and Almazbek Atambayev- former Prime Minister and leader of Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan would probably be interested in presidency and they had contested earlier for the post. Current leader in charge-Otunbayeva too will be strong contender.  Any division in the opposition ranks may spell further trouble for Kyrgyzstan. Instability will increase the chances of religion getting mixed with politics in Kyrgyzstan-a possibility feared by all the key players in the region like the US, Russia and China.

Ajish P Joy is an Associate Fellow with Observer Research Foundation

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