Tensions have been growing in the mountainous impoverished country of 5 million people over what activists say are the repressive policies of President Bakiyev.
Mr. Bakiyev first took office in 2005 after a similar opposition uprising called the Tulip Revolution. But since then, he has consolidated power, cracking down on the opposition and independent media.
The latest violence started Tuesday in the northwest town of Talas, when opposition members stormed provincial government offices.
While the Bakiyev regime is one that few people will probably miss — its human rights record and democratic credentials leave something to be desired — I would say that it is prudent to adopt a “wait and see” attitude to whoever it is who ends up replacing him (if anyone… it’s still far from clear that Bakiyev is totally down for the count).
The post-Soviet world is notorious for replacing bad leaders with more bad leaders, and the memory of the now collapsed “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine should serve as ample enough proof that even legitimate, democratically elected leaders promising progress and reform all too often fall into the trap of corruption and end up following through on few, if any, of their promises.
My intuition tells me that this isn’t the last we’ll be hearing of Kyrgyzstan in the near future, and I’m reasonably certain that what we do hear won’t be particularly heartening.
Watch some dramatic footage of what’s happening in Kyrgyzstan here. These aren’t just run-of-the-mill protests. This is big.
Rolling updates below the fold.
Pictures. (note: some of these are not pleasant)
According to this, Bakiyev has given up power. Rough translation:
Kyrgyz president Kurmanbek Bakiyev is resigning, according to “Fergana.ru,” quoting the words of the governor of the Jalalabad region of [Kyrgyzstan]. [The governor] also promised “not to give offense to [Bakiyev’s] son,” referring to the Bakiyev family’s Jalalabad origins, according to the newspaper.
Bakiyev is expected to give a public speech today before a crowd in Jalalabad.
(Some posters on Twitter are reporting that this is not the case and that Bakiyev is attempting to consolidate support in the south of the country)
The New York Times is being criticized by some analysts for its coverage of the crisis in Kyrgyzstan on the grounds that it is focusing almost entirely on the U.S. airbase near Bishkek:
The New York Times makes its priority clear in the opening paragraph of its report, “The bloody protests against the repressive rule of the president of Kyrgyzstan which forced him to flee the capital of Bishkek could pose a threat to a pivotal American military supply line into nearby Afghanistan.”
The story makes no reference to statements of the opposition that it intends to take no action regarding the US airbase at Manas.
Very cool map of tweets from Biskhek, showing the approximate location of posters. One person writes of the opposition leaders who’ve assumed control of the country: “New sheep on the trone, [sic] amost [sic] the same as previous one, just differs in color.” Another: “#Bishkek remains calm, local people cautiously optimistic, bit too much hyperbole from media like #bbc”
Opposition leader says that in interim government will rule for 6 months and draw up a new constitution. The US military base that the NYT has been worrying about will remain. Reuters reports roughly the same thing:
“We have a caretaker government now in place, and I am the head of it,” Otunbayeva, a former foreign minister, told Reuters several hours before addressing reporters in the parliament building in Bishkek.
“It will remain in place for half a year, during which we will draft the constitution and create conditions for free and fair (presidential) elections.”
Bakiyev fled Bishkek to southern Kyrgyzstan, his traditional power base in a nation split by clan rivalries. A witness said he arrived late on Wednesday at the airport in Osh, and Otunbayeva said later he was in his home region of Jalalabad.
She said the entire country was under the control of the interim government, except for Osh and Jalalabad. Armed forces and border guards supported the new government, she said.
Thus far, the US State Department seems to be vaguely supporting Bakiyev: “Госдеп США: “мы сохраняем уверенность в том, что у власти остается законно избранный президент”
Alright. Two hours of scouring Twitter posts and RSS feeds means it’s time to sleep.
Guess all those reports of Bakiyev resigning were a little hopeful:
Mr Bakiyev, who came to power in a revolution in the Central Asian state five years ago, fled the bloody clashes in Bishkek on Wednesday reportedly to fly to the city of Osh.
He told BBC Russian he was in southern Kyrgyzstan but would not disclose the exact location.
Mr Bakiyev said he was the legitimate president and condemned the uprising, saying “armed people are strolling the streets of the capital – stealing things, looting and pillaging, killing people. And this new ‘interim government’… is completely incapable of imposing order – and they’re simply blaming the president for everything.”
But he added: “If this so-called ‘temporary’ government that has appointed itself is prepared to begin negotiation talks, then I’m prepared to listen to them.”
More confusion, too, over the status of the infamous US airbase, the status of which had earlier not been in question. Reuters is now reporting that the new Kyrgyz government, under pressure from Moscow, has suggested that it might possibly close the base:
No sooner had presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev signed an arms reduction pact in Prague as part of an effort to “reset” strained relations than a senior official in Medvedev’s delegation urged Kyrgyzstan’s new rulers to shut the U.S. base.
The official, who declined to be named, noted that Bakiyev had not fulfilled a promise to shut the Manas airbase, and said there should be only one base in Kyrgyzstan — a Russian one.
Omurbek Tekebayev, a former Kyrgyz opposition leader who took charge of constitutional matters in the new government, said that “Russia played its role in ousting Bakiyev”.
“You’ve seen the level of Russia’s joy when they saw Bakiyev gone,” he told Reuters. “So now there is a high probability that the duration of the U.S. air base’s presence in Kyrgyzstan will be shortened.”
Judging by that quote, I think Reuters’ headline “New Kyrgyz rulers hail Russia, aim to shut U.S. base” is probably overstating the case more than a little, but it’s still a shift from last night’s “the base will remain as before” talk.
On the other hand, one should take such talk with more than a grain of salt, especially given that Russia has suddenly decided to send two companies of “elite paratroopers” to a base they have in Kyrgyzstan in order “to help ensure security for Russian military personnel and their families already based there.”
Given that Russia’s invasion of South Ossetia and Abkhazia was predicated on the fiction that it was “protecting Russian citizens” (“citizens,” it should be added, that Russia created out of whole cloth by simply issuing passports to anyone who wanted them), it seems prudent to take this explanation with a grain of salt. While no one is really suggesting that Russia had anything to do with Bakiyev’s ouster, it’d be absolutely foolish to entertain the idea that Putin and Medvedev aren’t scrambling to derive as much benefit as possible from this — and what better way to flex a little regional muscle than to send a few companies of elite paratroopers into the country?
[update 04/08: 5:06pm]
Developments seem to have slowed down. Most of the Twitter traffic seems to have picked up on the same thing I mentioned earlier today — that is, the question of a Russian role in the uprising, mostly focusing on that same quote that I posted above. Interestingly, while I honed in on the paratroopers/”citizens” issue, most commentators seem to be emphasizing the phrase “Russia played its role in ousting Bakiyev,” quoted from an unnamed Kyrgyz official.
Also, the question of the airbase seems to once again be up in the air — if it ever wasn’t. I thought the Reuters headline I mentioned earlier seemed like a bit of an overstatement, and sources seem to indicate now that the opposition hasn’t said anything one way or another about the base or its status. One thing is for certain though — it would be economically disastrous for Kyrgyzstan if the base were closed unless the Russians were going to fill the void left by American dollars. Not saying that isn’t a possibility, of course, just that it’s not as easy as a simple question of anti-Americanism or undoing the deeds of the Bakiyev regime (which, incidentally, is reportedly consolidating power in the south).
Sadly, I think a lot of news agencies are quick to pick up on any anti-American angle they can, especially if it “calls into question” some element of combat operations in Afghanistan or Iraq.