Post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan, home to America's key Manas airbase, is in turmoil and possibly on the brink of civil war after a group of political insiders, riding a popular rebellion, seized power in the capital Bishkek. Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who came to power following a similar revolt five years ago, has reportedly fled to his home town of Osh, in the country's south, where he is said to be mobilizing his supporters.
What comes next is uncertain. Roza Otunbayeva, a one-time ally of Bakiyev and former foreign minister, has declared a provisional government. But there are regional dimensions to the crisis that could influence how events unfold; Bakiyev, a southerner, was ousted by protests largely in the north of the country. There are also questions about what political accommodations can be made among the elite and what economic concessions, if any, can be made to mollify the furious Kyrgyz public.
Bakiyev, for his part, has remained defiant. "I did not and will not lay down my duties," Russia's Ria-Novosti news agency quoted Bakiyev as saying in a statement. But the president acknowledged that his influence is limited, with the Army and police apparently having abandoned him for the provisional government.
The rebellion, sparked by the tiny mountainous republic's dire economic crisis, appears to have been controlled by Kyrgyzstan's established political clans and will likely bring about a reshuffling of chairs at the top, rather than any radical change in government. Much the same occurred after the 2005 "Tulip Revolution" rode a wave of popular anger over electoral fraud and overthrew then-president Askar Akayev. Within days, a group of insiders, headed by Mr. Bakiyev, had taken full control.
Seventy-five people were killed and around 500 injured in the violent uprising that shook Bishkek on Wednesday, after apparently spontaneous protests began in the nearby city of Talas on Tuesday over spiking food prices and electricity rates spilled into the capital. Russian TV showed armed crowds, mostly comprised of young men, storming the presidential palace and parliament in the city's center. Riot troops opened fire on the protesters, causing most of the casualties, and then fled.
In a Bishkek press conference Thursday, Ms. Otunbayeva said the provisional government will work for six months to "stabilize the situation," rewrite the country's Constitution, and then hold fresh presidential elections.
"There is no Islamist component here, or anything else that's revolutionary or fundamentally different from what we saw under Bakiyev's administration," says Vladimir Zharikhin, deputy director of the official Institute of the Commonwealth of Independent States Studies in Moscow. "These are people who have been in power in the past" who are mainly angry at Bakiyev for favoring his own family and clan in awarding state positions and benefits, he says.
US base safe?
Nor is the upheaval likely to produce any geopolitical consequences, experts say. Activity at the sprawling US airbase of Manas, a key center for the resupply of NATO forces in nearby Afghanistan, was briefly halted on Wednesday. But the new interim government quickly assured Washington that there would be no precipitous change in the status of the base.
"All the rumors that we will close the base are groundless," Otunbayeva said in an interview with the independent Ekho Moskvi radio station on Thursday. "Allow us time to look into this issue, and I think we'll make a well-considered decision that is in the interests of our republic."
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin phoned Otunbayeva on Thursday to "discuss the situation" and experts say that Moscow will probably be pleased that Bakiyev is gone. Mr. Putin earlier denied any Russian involvement in the coup, telling journalists that "neither Russia, nor your humble servant, nor Russian officials have any links whatsoever to these events."
Moscow unlikely to cause trouble for Otunbayeva, Manas airbase
Last year Bakiyev had threatened to evict the US from Manas, reportedly at the behest of the Kremlin but relented after Washington agreed to more than triple the rent it paid for the airbase, which occupies a large tract of land adjacent to Bishkek's international airport.
"I think the Kremlin will be satisfied if Bakiyev is gone, because it was getting quite disappointed with him," says Alexei Malashenko, a central Asia expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "Roza Otunbayeva is a well-known quantity, and she'll be quite acceptable to Moscow. But it's not likely that anyone wants to press for the closure of Manas at this point. After all, we're into a season of warm US-Russian relations, we're cooperating on Afghanistan, and all's well. There will be no geopolitical consequences of this change."
Surrounding Otunbayeva are other longstanding members of Kyrgyzstan's political elite, including the powerful former security chief, and ex-premier Felix Kulov, who leads the Ar-Namys opposition party. Mr. Kulov told journalists on Thursday that Bakiyev has to resign and be put on trial for the killings of protesters during the rebellion. "There can be no doubt that the order to shoot to kill was given by President Bakiyev, who controlled all law-enforcement organizations in the country. Dozens of our compatriots were killed and hundreds wounded."
The revolt was spawned by a combination of factors, experts say. Unemployment in Kyrgyzstan has skyrocketed in the past year as tens of thousands of "guest workers" in Russia have lost their jobs and been compelled to return home. Prices for staples and energy have grown sharply, while an allegedly rigged presidential election last year, which gave Bakiyev 76 percent of vote, severely tarnished the credibility of Kyrgyzstan's political system.
Corruption, favoritism triggered coup
But corruption and favoritism in the president's immediate circle appear to have the been the trigger that brought established leaders like Otunbayeva and Kulov into the conspiracy to overthrow Bakiyev, experts say.
"We're talking about nepotism on an unprecedented scale," says Mr. Malashenko. "Bakiyev concentrated all power in the hands of his family, basically everything was controlled by his six brothers and two sons. One of his sons, Maksim, basically runs the whole economy. There was no room in that setup for anyone else."
Russian news agencies reported that unrest was continuing in Bishkek and other Kyrgyz cities on Thursday, while Otunbayeva warned that the ousted president was holed up in Osh, trying to rally support for a comeback.
"We have more than enough force to deal with this," Otunbayeva told Ekho Moskvi. "Bakiyev is now in Osh and in Jelalabad, in the south of the country, trying to consolidate the electorate in his support. These questions cause concern, but we are in control of the situation."
"We have no doubt that this [revolt] was a popular social protest" caused by the poor governance of Bakiyev, says Alexei Ostrovsky, head of the Russian State Duma's committee that oversees the affairs of the post-Soviet region. "We don't see any danger of an Islamist regime emerging, or any other extremism. The best way out now would be compromise, and international mediation, and Russia is ready to take part in that."