Los Angeles Times
March 24, 2005
Thousands of opposition protesters seized control of Kyrgyzstan's main government structures today, prompting President Askar Akayev to flee the country as cheering crowds swept through the presidential administration building and danced giddily in the windows of power.
In the third non-violent popular revolution to topple post-Soviet leaders in the last year, Kyrgyzstan's opposition leaders joined those in Georgia and Ukraine in sweeping from power an unpopular regime that had stubbornly clung to power since the nation's independence in 1991.
"The revolution found its logical end. Literally, the people took it on themselves. The power of the youth basically overcame everything," said Edil Baisalov, a pro-democracy activist and head of the Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society.
Opposition political leaders moved quickly to form an interim coalition governing council of the kind that has been in place for a week in the southern cities of Osh and Jalal-Abad, where protesters last week seized control of the regional governments.
Within hours of the takeover, popular former Vice President Feliks Kulov was released from prison, where he has been held on corruption charges since it became clear that he represented the biggest political threat to Akayev's political domination of this mountainous republic of 5 million in the heart of Central Asia.
Kulov, who is widely seen as a potential new leader on whom the nation's still-fractured opposition could agree, immediately addressed an enthusiastic crowd in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek.
The swift and dramatic events unfolded in early afternoon as police looked silently on, apparently under orders not to fire on demonstrators despite the interior minister's ominous warning a day earlier that authorities were prepared to use weapons to guarantee stability.
"Cracking down on the opposition and dispersing the crowd which gathered in front of the government building this morning would have meant that human blood would have had to be shed. And this was something that we could not agree to under any circumstances," Boris Poluektov, first vice chairman of the National Security Service, said in a telephone interview.
"Who would ever dare use weapons against their own people?" he said. "The new authorities, namely the opposition, are in charge of the situation now."
Poluektov said the resignation of the Akayev government was "a done deal."
Akayev, a 60-year-old former physicist who was elected president in the year before Kyrgyzstan's independence, was believed to have flown to nearby Kazakhstan with his family, though there were some reports that he had initially set off for Russia.
U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld raised questions about whether Akayev had left the country at all.
"I have been following reports in the press and in intelligence reports, and the intelligence reports do not verify what you say in those press reports," Rumsfeld said in Guatemala.
Almost immediately, the Supreme Court annulled the results of the March 13 parliamentary elections, where alleged fraudulence had sparked the popular uprisings that culminated in the apparent fall of the government.
Itar-Tass news agency quoted the court's chairman, Kurmanbek Osmonov, as saying that the court declared illegitimate the Central Election Commission's approval of the new 75-member parliament.
Leaders of the political opposition were convening a joint session of the old parliament and the new one and were expected to announce a new interim chief of state. They appealed for calm and said every attempt would be made to ensure a smooth transition to a new authority.
Opposition leaders appeared to be almost caught by surprise by the speed and extent of their sweep to power. In a series of telephone interviews, they said the original plan called only for nonviolent street demonstrations in Bishkek.
Their plans were upturned when Akayev supporters, reportedly mobilized from an athletic organization controlled by a member of the president's family, began hurling stones at the protesters, and the crowd became enraged. Its numbers quickly grew from several hundred to more than 40,000, witnesses said.
"The athletes dashed into the crowd of protesters, delivering blows left and right, beating the protesters up. This was way more than our people were prepared to take from the regime," said Emil Aliev, vice chairman of the Arnamyz (Honor) Party.
"The people got infuriated and charged forward in large numbers, crushing police lines and taking the White House [seat of government] by storm," he said. "It was an unforgettable sight — a human wave carrying the flags of the opposition, pouring into the stronghold of tyranny and oppression!"
Once inside the building, he said, protesters began hugging one another, laughing and exchanging congratulations, in addition to chanting anti-Akayev slogans.
"It took us five years, and this victory is finally ours," Aliev said. "It is an inexplicable feeling to see all this happen in just one day. Just yesterday, Akayev's interior minister was threatening to use force against us, and already today, Akayev himself has had to run away from the people."
Baisalov insisted that the demonstrators never would have seized power had the athletes, whom he described as government provocateurs and "thugs," not turned to violence.
"The whole blame is on Akayev. There was room for negotiations, there was time for negotiations, but he just overestimated himself and underestimated the level of the protests," Baisalov said. "A day earlier, a week, he could have prevented everything. Just last night, the opposition leaders wanted to see him, but Akayev refused to see them. He could have stayed on. The blame rests on him."
On Wednesday, opposition leaders had discussed a compromise under which Akayev would have been allowed to serve out his term until October, provided he guaranteed to step down and hold presidential and parliament elections at that time.
Now, it will be crucial for Kyrgyzstan's various political factions to settle quickly on an interim government. The nation has seen interethnic violence and Islamic extremist militancy in the 14 years since the breakup of the Soviet Union, and all those forces could be unleashed again if Kyrgyzstan is plunged into instability, analysts said.
Because of its strategic location near China, Afghanistan and some of the key oil producing nations of the Caspian Sea region, both the U.S. and Russia maintain military bases in Bishkek. Both nations took pains to stay out of the fray today, and appealed for calm.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urged the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which dispatched a delegation to the Kyrgyz capital even before today's dramatic events, to "take a more responsible position" for ensuring a peaceful resolution.
"We have called for settling the conflict and refraining from attempts to solve the problem by the use of force," Lavrov said.