Rivals' struggle locks Kyrgyzstan in power vacuum

Two parliaments competed for legitimacy Sunday, as stability returned to the streets.

Three days after their popular revolt toppled the country's authoritarian regime, protesters here were feeling relief and hope. But a weekend of looting and destruction - and an emerging power struggle between opposition leaders - has brought new anxieties.

Sunday, two rival parliaments competed for legitimacy, further complicating Kyrgyzstan's political future. What is clear, say observers, is that this tiny mountain republic west of China is facing its biggest test of political conviction since breaking away from the Soviet Union in 1990.

"All we can say is, so far so good," says Irusbek Omurzakov, editor of the oppositionist weekly Tribuna. "The opposition is a combination of people who were not at all prepared to take power and now have to cope with a lot of problems."

Relative calm had returned to Bishkek by Sunday, thanks largely to the reappearance of police who were aided by squads of "people's marshals," vigilante-like groups of citizens mobilized to protect shops and public buildings at night.

The provisional government, headed by ex-prime minister Kurmanbek Bakiyev, has restored order in the capital and pledged a fresh presidential election on June 26. But former security chief Felix Kulov, whom many regard as Kyrgyzstan's strongman in waiting, appears increasingly at odds with Mr. Bakiyev. Meanwhile, President Askar Akayev, who reportedly fled to Russia amid the upheaval Thursday night, has denounced the change as an "anticonstitutional coup" and refused to resign.

On Friday, Kyrgyzstan's Supreme Court, responding to charges of vote rigging, annulled the results of the March 13 election, ordering the previous legislature to continue sitting. But on Sunday, the Central Electoral Commission said the newly elected parliament was legitimate, ordering the old one to disband.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe will send constitutional and legal experts to help resolve the issue.

The two parliaments held separate sessions Sunday - in the same building - but the real dispute was between Bakiyev and Kulov. Bakiyev has expressed support for the old parliament, while Kulov backs the new one. Kulov, freed from jail Thursday, warned members of the old legislature that if they attempted to rally their supporters, "I will take measures to arrest you." He later apologized, saying he was "too tired."

Fatigue seems to be a factor elsewhere. A march on Bishkek by about 3,000 Akayev supporters from the president's home region appeared to fizzle, due either to lack of interest or an unseasonable blizzard that sprang up Sunday and blanketed the city in heavy, wet snow.

The public is still shaken over how abruptly the 15-year-old Akayev regime collapsed, after about 10,000 protesters, alleging vote rigging in the March 13 contest, stormed the presidential palace. "No one expected Akayev to just run away; it wasn't part of the plan at all," says Mr. Omurzakov. "For a while, no one was in authority. The police just left the scene, and the looters came out."

Experts say Akayev, a scientist who was elected on a wave of perestroika-era optimism in 1990, initially appeared serious about building democracy in Kyrgyzstan, home to some 5 million. But he drifted into authoritarianism, jailing rivals such as his former ally Kulov - who threatened to run against Akayev five years ago - closing down critical media outlets and, the opposition claims, trying to fix this month's elections as a prelude to extending his own term beyond the constitutional limit. "Corruption swallowed the state under Akayev," says Talant Mamitov, an economic official with the new government.

Akayev's path from democrat to dictator is similar to that of recently overthrown leaders in Georgia and Ukraine, as well as some still holding power in post-Soviet states. "What has happened here is a sign to some neighbors of Kyrgyzstan," says Murat Bayazov, an advertising agent who works with political parties. "We have finally thrown out the last vestige of the USSR, and Kyrgyzstan is free."

In the mob rule that reigned Thursday and Friday nights, most of Bishkek's shopping centers, restaurants, banks, and boutiques were trashed. In Bereket plaza, hundreds of small vendors saw their tiny rented shops destroyed.

Turat Mambetkaziyev tried to defend his cosmetics shop, but was beaten and stabbed with a shard of broken glass by attackers. "I shouted at them: 'This is my property. I am one of you,' " he recalls. "They wouldn't stop. My own neighbors and customers did this to me."

But for many, the violence was a wake-up call. "This disorder is not what we were fighting for, and we have to prevent it," says Kubanich Nurumbetov, a student at Bishkek's National University who participated in the storming of the presidential palace, but has spent every night since as a people's marshal guarding a downtown supermarket along with a dozen fellow students.

Kubanychbek Sheyitov, director of an InterAlliance, an information technology company, lost one of his computer service centers in the looting, but says these events have nevertheless given him fresh optimism.

"There was a moment of craziness, but it's great to see the community organizing to protect itself," he says. "By the second night of the rioting, lots of young people were coming out to help us defend our shops. So, we lost something, but we learned something."

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