Protests Force Authoritarian Leader to Flee in Kyrgyzstan

By CHRISTOPHER PALA

New York Times

March 25, 2005

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan, March 24 - Protesters alleging corruption, repression and electoral fraud forced the longtime president of this central Asian country to flee his palace on Thursday, the third time a government of a former Soviet republic has been toppled in a popular uprising in a year and a half.

President Askar Akayev and his family fled Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, after crowds at a large opposition rally seized control of the presidential palace and began looting it. Kyrgyzstan's Parliament elected a former opposition lawmaker, Ishenbai Kadyrbekov, as the country's interim president. It was unclear whether the decision was legally binding, in part because of uncertainty over whether Mr. Akayev, whose whereabouts were unknown, had stepped down.

Other opposition leaders were appointed to senior posts in an interim government, whose members met to discuss keeping order and conducting a new presidential vote.

The events in this mountainous country of five million on China's border, where both Russia and the United States have air bases, follows similar uprisings in Georgia and Ukraine. The reverberations are likely to be especially felt in the most powerful former Soviet republic, Russia. (Related Article)

Scenes of protesters calling for the government's ouster highlight the contrast with Russia, where President Vladimir V. Putin is strengthening state control, and raise questions about Russia's continuing influence in its former territories. The apparent fall of the government here could also shake other authoritarian regimes in the region, including Belarus, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan.

"No one expected it would happen so fast," Balbek Tulobayev, a government official who was close to the opposition, said after protesters had occupied the palace.

Waves of protest and discontent in this mostly Muslim country have been building and spreading for several weeks, particularly since the disputed runoff elections earlier this month. Anger over the vote, together with rising discontent at deteriorating living conditions, especially in the poorer and more religious south, fueled what has been a largely disorganized yet peaceful opposition movement.

The takeover on Thursday began when two protest marches, held in the face of threats by the government that it would use force to quell unrest, converged on the White House, the main government building where Mr. Akayev had his office.

The streams of demonstrators marching from different parts of the capital filled the main square in front of the building, where organizers said they had initially planned to press their demand for Mr. Akayev's resignation.

At first the demonstrators were hesitant, eyeing the police ringed round the building. Then, a few protesters began throwing stones and the police officers quickly vanished. Some of the demonstrators entered the presidential palace, emerging at one of the palace's windows, arms raised and fists closed in a sign of victory, prompting roars of support from the crowd in the compound outside.

Inside the building, looting began.

The huge entrance hall was littered with debris and other parts of the building had been ransacked. In the small wood-paneled office on the seventh floor where Mr. Akayev ruled for nearly 15 years, protesters gave speeches and posed for pictures while others pocketed souvenirs.

A senior civil servant in a blue suit and tie stood in a corner of the office. "The president was here until the crowds gathered," he said. "Tell the world that when he left, he gave orders that no weapons should be used, even though there are plenty in the cellar."

None of the police officers visible in the square on Thursday were armed. A doctor at the main trauma hospital said that no more than 40 people had been injured, none critically.

Kurmanbek Bakiyev, one of the opposition leaders and a former prime minister, called for order.

Looting took place elsewhere in the city, too, with people converging on a shopping center said to be controlled by the Akayev family near the main square, carting away groceries and furniture. There appeared to be no moves by the authorities to stop the looters.

Mr. Akayev, the president, had apparently fled the capital after hours of negotiations, carried out by cellphone, between the protesters and his daughter Bermet. The protesters were calling on Mr. Akayev to formally resign, but in the end he left without doing so, denying the new authorities an orderly transition of power.

He and his family left the presidential compound by helicopter and headed for the nearby Russian air base, which they also later left, said Mr. Akayev's former chief of staff, Rafjan Jeenbekov. Their final destination was not immediately clear.

Mr. Akayev's rule had started on a promising note. A world-class physicist and president of the Kyrgyz academy of sciences, Mr. Akayev had made a name for himself in the last Soviet Parliament as an eloquent proponent of reform.

When the Kyrgyz Soviet power structure collapsed in 1990, the new post of president was offered to a respected novelist, Chingiz Aitmatov. He turned it down and recommended Mr. Akayev, who, alone among his Central Asian peers, went on to embrace democratic methods.

But for the last decade, poverty grew in the south while the north, where Mr. Akayev has his roots, gained a small measure of prosperity.

Meanwhile, the president's family grew wealthy and Mr. Akayev himself accumulated more and more political power. Press freedoms were curbed, charges of election fraud swelled and Mr. Akayev's popularity sank to the point where he is now being blamed, some say unfairly, for the effects of the Soviet collapse, which was particularly painful for Kyrgyzstan.

The takeovers of government buildings in the past weeks, until now mainly focused on the south, have been marked by little resistance from the authorities. In most cases, the police have melted away in the face of protesters.

That lack of enthusiasm to defend a government that had come to be known simply as "the family" has raised questions about the stability of neighboring Kazakhstan, whose population is ethnically close and whose governance has also drawn charges of generalized corruption, nepotism and vote-rigging.

In Bishkek, after nightfall the streets were filled with people and the sounds of celebratory honking. Southerners, in their typically brightly colored clothes, lay down to sleep in a park near the White House, some roasting meat over campfires. Looking tired and happy, they said they had come from Jalalabad, where the uprising began March 10.