The Kyrgyz opposition might have hoped to start a velvet revolution by protesting parliamentary elections, but President Askar Akayev’s decision to use force appears to have brought the country to the verge of civil war.
Moscow, wary of sparking instability in Central Asia, is taking a more cautious role in Kyrgyzstan than it did in Georgia’s Rose Revolution and Ukraine’s Orange Revolution.
The Kyrgyz opposition, which won just six of parliament’s 75 seats in recent elections, held peaceful street demonstrations that erupted into violence when protesters started seizing government buildings in southern Kyrgyzstan last week.
The government responded by sending riot police to retake the buildings — a show of force that fueled protesters’ anger. Arming themselves with sticks, stones and Molotov cocktails, demonstrators seized more federal buildings and the airport in Osh, the country’s second-largest city. Buildings have also been seized in nearby Jalal-Abad.
Northern Kyrgyzstan, including the capital, Bishkek, backs Akayev and remains calm, but protesters on Tuesday boarded buses for Bishkek in an effort to increase pressure on the government. The opposition is demanding a revote and the resignation of Akayev, his ministers and election officials.
“The fierce confrontation may threaten the unity of the country,” said Alexei Malashenko, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center. “It may tear apart the country and set off a war between the north and south.”
Akayev has no one to blame but himself for the crisis because he ignored the opposition for too long, considering it “flabby,” Malashenko said. In a sign of Akayev’s confidence, his son and daughter ran and won in the elections, he said.
Akayev also might have underestimated the protesters’ determination, believing that the opposition would back down if he sent in riot police, said Andrei Grozin, analyst with the Commonwealth of Independent States Institute.
But the opposition’s willingness to risk a crackdown and mount a strong response came as a surprise to Akayev and observers alike. “I thought that the opposition would organize rallies but that they would not be violent,” Malashenko said. “They must have understood after the first round that their plans to win a third of the seats flopped and that they could no longer afford to act in a civilized manner.”
The opposition won only two seats in about 40 districts in the first round of elections on Feb. 27. A second round was held March 13 for the remaining districts, where no candidates had gotten a clear majority in the first vote.
Grozin said the opposition had little reason to fear retribution because the combined strength of the Kyrgyz army and police force amounts to a mere 25,000 people scattered across the country. Once the police were called in, protests persisted because of widespread discontent over the Akayev family’s control of most businesses, the pauperization of peasants and high unemployment in southern Kyrgyzstan, Grozin said.
Akayev’s hard line over the protests helped the fractured opposition — which was divided into four electoral blocs — unite behind former Prime Minister Kurmanbek Bakiyev, leader of the opposition People’s Movement, Malashenko said. “Bakiyev grew like a mushroom — literally before your eyes,” he said.
Bakiyev’s star shot up during the two weeks between the two elections as the opposition looked for someone to challenge Akayev, Malashenko said. Bakiyev was picked because he is a moderate who has the experience of running the country as prime minister from 2000 to 2002 and has support from Moscow, he said.
Grozin said, however, that the opposition had yet to select a single leader because other leaders, such as Roza Otunbayeva, the head of the Ata-Jurt Movement, are too ambitious. Otunbayeva is a former Kyrgyz ambassador to the United States and Britain, and she served as a United Nations representative to Georgia during Mikheil Saakashvili’s Rose Revolution.
Grozin said the opposition is riding a wave of protests — mostly by peasants — that were initiated by southern clan leaders, businessmen and gangland figures who want higher living standards and some control over the economy. Opposition leaders have been trying to rein in the crowds, while the crowds’ leaders have asked opposition leaders to relay their demands in possible negotiations with Akayev, he said.
Apart from violence, the Kyrgyz protests differ in other ways from what happened in Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine last year.
First and foremost, Moscow has refrained from openly supporting Akayev, and the West has shown less support for the protesters, Malashenko said.
Akayev secretly visited Moscow last weekend to seek support, but President Vladimir Putin did not meet with him, said Arkady Dubnov, a Central Asia observer with Vremya Novostei. Dubnov, citing what he described as senior Kremlin sources, said Akayev met with presidential administration officials on Sunday and returned home Monday.
A meeting with Putin would have meant that “Moscow was signaling from behind the scenes that it supports Akayev” — something that the Kremlin does not want to do, Dubnov said.
Akayev also came to Moscow in January. But since then, Moscow has also hosted his political rivals, Bakiyev and Otunbayeva — a sign that it is not putting all of its eggs into one basket, Malashenko said.
Bakiyev visited under the auspices of an obscure organization called the Society for Solidarity and Cooperation of the Peoples of Asia and Africa, and he met with Security Council head Igor Ivanov, who played a key role in convincing Georgian President Eduard Shevarnadze to step down in 2003. Otunbayeva met with a number of Russian politicians.
Like Moscow, Washington is taking a cautious approach because it does not want a headache in a region where it has a military presence, said Nikolai Zlobin, director of Russian and Asian programs at the Center for Defense Information, a think tank. “It doesn’t want to worry about the fate of the military personnel there,” he said by telephone from Washington. The United States and Russia have set up air bases near Bishkek in recent years. Washington sees its air base as a vital part of its so-called war on terror, and uses it as a springboard for missions to Afghanistan.
Zlobin said the United States also does not want a conflict in Kyrgyzstan that could pit its regional security interests against those of Russia and China.
The United States, the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have called for an end to violence.
Grozin warned that the protests might grow into an ethnic conflict between the Kyrgyz and Uzbeks who live in the south. The two sides clashed in the area for a few days in 1990, killing about 1,000 people. Grozin said a provocation could trigger a new conflict.
A way to avoid a further escalation in violence would be for Akayev to meet with the opposition and agree to concessions, including the sacking of officials who are close to him and a revision of the election results, Malashenko said.
“It’s difficult to say to how far the revision should go, but the sacrifices must be great,” he said.
Akayev ordered a review of the elections Monday — a decision that he had to make in the face of the protests but might cost him support from his clan, Malashenko said.
Bakiyev on Monday offered to hold talks Akayev, and Akayev agreed Tuesday on the condition that the opposition first restores order. Otunbayeva, however, has ruled out negotiations. Whether talks will take place is unclear, but in the meantime Kyrgyz authorities are trying to split the opposition by offering its leaders money or senior government positions, Grozin said.