Popular Uprising in Strategic Kyrgyzstan Topples Regime

By Kim Murphy and David Holley

Los Angeles Times

March 25, 2005

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — In the third largely nonviolent popular revolution to topple post-Soviet leaders in a little more than a year, opposition protesters seized control of Kyrgyzstan's main government buildings Thursday and reports spread that President Askar A. Akayev had fled the country.

With thousands of cheering demonstrators swarming into the presidential headquarters, Kyrgyz opposition leaders joined those in the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Ukraine in sweeping away unpopular regimes that had stubbornly clung to power after their nations' independence in 1991.

Early today, parliament approved opposition leader Kurmanbek Bakiyev as prime minister.

State television Thursday broadcast video of documents strewn across floors of the main government building. Windows were shattered, and a succession of grinning youths plopped into the president's chair, as Akayev's car was reportedly set on fire outside. Looters struck downtown department stores, but by early this morning Bishkek appeared largely calm, with many people heading to work.

"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.

Kyrgyzstan, a mountainous republic of 5 million, is strategically situated in the heart of turbulent Central Asia, near China, Afghanistan and some of the key oil-producing nations of the Caspian Sea region. The U.S. and Russia maintain military bases in Bishkek, the capital, and both appealed for calm Thursday while taking pains to stay out of the fray.

Kyrgyzstan has seen ethnic violence and Islamic extremist militancy in the 13 years since the breakup of the Soviet Union, and those forces could be unleashed again if Kyrgyzstan is plunged into instability, analysts said.

Amid reports of looting and other lawlessness Thursday, opposition political leaders moved to form an interim governing council of the kind set up by triumphant opposition forces a week ago in the southern cities of Osh and Jalal-Abad.

Within hours of the takeover, popular former Vice President Felix Kulov was released from prison and named by the council as security minister in the new Cabinet.

He had been serving a 10-year sentence on what his supporters said were trumped-up embezzlement charges, filed after it became clear that he represented the biggest political threat to Akayev's continued political domination.

"Mr. Bakiyev is the head of the new government," Talai Okenov, a former opposition candidate for parliament, said today. "At this time, he is like the president of Kyrgyzstan."

Okenov said parliament had approved Kulov's appointment and he was confident that high police and army officials would follow Kulov's orders.

Former opposition lawmaker Ishenbai Kadyrbekov, meanwhile, was selected by the nation's parliament as its speaker.

As the heady afternoon gave way to nightfall, opposition leaders grew increasingly concerned by reports of looting in several stores and plundering of government offices and some of the luxurious residences of Akayev and his family.

Several shops went up in flames, and response was slow amid what appeared to be the near-paralysis of emergency and law enforcement services. Many witnesses said police were nowhere in evidence on Bishkek's streets.

"The situation in Bishkek … has gotten much hotter since daytime, and we now have to do something to calm the people down as quickly as possible," Roza Otunbayeva, a former Kyrgyz diplomat and opposition leader, said in a telephone interview Thursday night. "So wide is the abyss between the rich and the poor in Kyrgyzstan that ordinary people simply cannot control their rage anymore."

Akayev supporters described the situation as a criminal takeover and expressed fear of worsening instability.

"The world thinks that the opposition which has come to power is a civilized and democratic force. But what we are seeing now in the streets of Bishkek does not conform to any democratic standards," Amanbay Satybaev, head of the pro-Akayev organization For the People and With the People, said in a telephone interview.

On the downtown shopping streets that were hit by the looting, broken glass littered the sidewalks in front of major department stores and supermarkets this morning.

"They all belong to the Akayev clan," said Orolbay Omorbekov, a taxi driver.

About two dozen special police stood near an undamaged department store, but in general there were virtually no police or other security personnel on the streets. A few protesters could be seen in some windows of the government building.

In Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Thursday that the U.S. was "watching the events in Kyrgyzstan, and we are trying to help to promote a process there that will turn the developments on the ground into a democratic process that can get for the Kyrgyz people a stable government and a move towards a better democratic future."

Akayev, a 60-year-old former physicist who was elected president in 1990, the year before Kyrgyzstan's independence, was believed to have flown to nearby Kazakhstan with his family. There were some reports that he had initially set off for Russia and diverted en route.

Later, doubts were raised about whether Akayev had left at all or had merely gone into hiding in Kyrgyzstan.

Turar Sulaymanov, Akayev's representative in southern Kyrgyzstan, told the Los Angeles Times that "101%, he's not in Kyrgyzstan anymore." In Washington, the Kyrgyz ambassador said Akayev was in "a safe place" and hadn't officially resigned.

The swift and dramatic events Thursday unfolded as police looked silently on, apparently under orders not to fire on demonstrators despite an ominous warning from the interior minister a day earlier that authorities were prepared to use weapons to guarantee stability.

Attempts by the unarmed police to halt the crowd resulted in about 200 injuries, some of them among the police.

"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.

Poluektov said the resignation of the Akayev government was "a done deal."

Almost immediately, the nation's Supreme Court annulled the results of March 13 parliamentary elections, whose alleged violations sparked the popular uprisings that culminated in the fall of the government.

Opposition leaders appeared to be caught by surprise by the speed and extent of their sweep to power. In a series of telephone interviews, they said their original plan had called only for nonviolent street demonstrations in Bishkek. But those 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 Ar-Namys Party.

"The people got infuriated and charged forward in large numbers, crushing police lines and taking the White House [the 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, and chanting anti-Akayev slogans. A youthful protester climbed into a top-floor window and danced; another rode a horse through the chanting crowd at a gallop, trailing the yellow banner of pro-democracy forces.

"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."

Baisalov said the protesters never would've 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…. 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."

This morning, as many as 2,000 people were still outside the White House, some having pitched tents, but the demonstrators inside had left and an ad hoc security force was preventing others from entering.

Most of the crowd behaved calmly, though some rock throwing was reported.

Kubanychbek Abdyldaev, 47, a businessman and organizer of the ad hoc force, said, "Everything is being cleaned now. Our task is to pass all this equipment to the new power. Our final goal is to make everything clean, orderly and peaceful after Akayev has resigned."

On Wednesday, opposition leaders had discussed a compromise under which Akayev would have been allowed to serve out his term, which ends in October, provided that he promised to step down and hold new presidential and parliamentary elections at that time.

Now it will be crucial for Kyrgyzstan's various political factions to finish putting together an interim government and restore order.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei V. Lavrov urged the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which dispatched a delegation to the Kyrgyz capital even before Thursday's dramatic events, to "take a more responsible position" for assuring a peaceful resolution.

But Russian Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov emphasized that it would be wrong for Russia to interfere.

"It is an internal affair," he said. "People have come off the street and sat down. What now? There is the state and the army, salaries and pensions have to be paid and elections held. Who is going to do this? People have to sit down at the table and come to a consensus."

Until the opposition comes up with a plan, analysts said, that could be difficult.

"They won, but they don't know what to do with their victory," Bishkek political analyst Orozbek Moldaliyev said.

"They are saying that they just wanted Akayev to acknowledge that the elections were illegitimate, to hold new elections, and to resign. They were expecting it to happen legally, according to the law. But it went the other way, and now they have to deal with the problem."

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Holley reported from Bishkek and Murphy from Moscow. Alexei V. Kuznetsov of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.