Revolt in Central Asia

Civil unrest is not something new in Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet republic in Central Asia, a country of outstanding natural beauty and much political strife. What appears to have been spontaneous demonstrations in the capital, Bishkek, last Wednesday quickly spread to other parts of the country, leading to the ouster of the president, the resignation of the prime minister, the dissolving of the Parliament and a change of regime by the end of the day. About 70 people are feared to have lost their lives in the day’s violent clashes between demonstrators and security forces. Among the dead is thought to be the country’s minister of the interior, who ultimately was responsible for security, an authority he has been accused of abusing.

The power, according to some reports, now rests in the hands of a former foreign minister, Roza Otunbayeva, who claims to have driven President Kurmanbek Bakiyev from power.Ms. Otunbayeva is quoted by CNN as saying, «[W]e must restore a lot of things that have been wrongly ruled.» The former minister also declared herself interim leader. Ironically, she previously helped Mr. Bakiyev oust his predecessor, President Askar Akaev, during similar revolts in 2005. She later resigned in protest when Mr. Bakiyev appointed one of his brothers as an ambassador.

Kyrgyzstan is one of the smaller and poorer of the Central Asian republics, yet it is of vital importance to the American war in Afghanistan because it acts as a rear base from which personnel and supplies are staged before heading into the war zone. Kyrgyzstan, a largely Muslim country, although secular, has tried to play down the importance of its contribution to the American war effort in Afghanistan, calling the U.S. base a «resupply area.»

The next few days will tell if the current unrest is likely to impact the U.S. presence in the country and could decide the future of the important military facility near Bishkek’s international airport. Early indications, however, lead one to think there will be no change as far as the U.S. base is concerned.

Trouble has been brewing beneath the surface in the former Soviet republic for a while now, with public discontent growing with strong disapproval of how the government was running affairs of state. Human rights activists have long complained about abuses by the government and the lack of basic human rights and press freedoms.

Things went very fast Wednesday morning as a spontaneous uprising amid waves of protest led to violent clashes between protesters and government forces. Security services seemed overwhelmed and began to flee, but not before leaving more than 70 people dead.

By the end the of the day, opposition forces claimed to be in control of the capital and other major cities in the country, and reports indicated that the president had had sought refuge in the southern part of the country.

Wednesday, history seemed to be repeating itself – only five years later – as a wave of protests very similar to those of 2005 led to yet another change of government, the third since Kyrgyzstan obtained its independence from Moscow in 1991, when President Askar Akaev assumed power. In follow-up elections in July 2005, the former prime minister, Mr. Bakiyev, won with an overwhelming majority. However, large demonstrations in April, May and November 2006 resulted in the adoption of a new constitution that transferred some of the presidential powers to the office of the prime minister and the Parliament. That victory was short-lived as in December 2006, the Parliament in Bishkek adopted a new amendment giving back some of the lost powers to the president.

What followed was the all-too-often line adopted by many authoritarian regimes; the development of Parliament, annulment of previous power-sharing laws. This allowed the president to call new elections, which to no surprise he won with an overwhelming majority. One of the major points of contention was the rising cost of electricity and other utilities and goods while salaries stagnated. This is no doubt a situation the other former Soviet republics are watching very closely today.

Claude Salhani, a political analyst specializing in the Middle East and Central Asia.