x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 29 July 2017

Election pledge by Kyrgyz coup leaders after president flees

The opposition in Kyrgyzstan declared an interim government after bloody clashes in which dozens of people died and the president fled the capital of the impoverished Central Asian country.

The opposition politician Isa Omurkulov speaks to protesters yesterday at the Kyrgyz seat of government in the capital, Bishkek.
The opposition politician Isa Omurkulov speaks to protesters yesterday at the Kyrgyz seat of government in the capital, Bishkek.

MOSCOW // The opposition in Kyrgyzstan declared an interim government yesterday after bloody clashes in which dozens of people died and the president fled the capital of the impoverished Central Asian country. Kyrgyzstan's former foreign minister, Roza Otunbayeva, has taken over as the head of the new government, which dissolved the parliament yesterday and called on Kurmanbek Bakiyev, the ousted president, to formally resign.

Mr Bakiyev, who had fled the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, to his native region in the south of the country, showed no signs of backing down. He said in a statement that he would not resign and called for the opposition to be punished "to the fullest extent of the law." Ms Otunbayeva, who helped to lead the so-called Tulip Revolution in 2005 that catapulted Mr Bakiyev into power, said the interim government would rule for six months to draw up a new constitution and organise new elections. The new government has the support of the police and the military, Ms Otunbayeva told a news conference in Bishkek.

World leaders have issued cautious statements calling all sides to refrain from violence. Seventy-five people have died and more than a thousand were injured as a result of clashes, Kyrgyz health officials said yesterday.  But the interim government received tacit support from the Russian leadership, with Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister, vowing to provide humanitarian support to Kyrgyzstan in a telephone conversation with Ms Otunbayeva, Mr Putin's office said in a statement yesterday.

Ms Otunbayeva told the Russian premier that "the people's government created by her is fully in control of the situation in Kyrgyzstan, as well as the law-enforcement agencies and armed forces", the statement said. "At the same time, she said that the situation in the country remains complicated, and Kyrgyzstan needs economic support." Mr Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told RIA-Novosti that "the conversation was held with Otunbayeva in her capacity as the head of a national confidence government".

Moscow sees Kyrgyzstan and other former Soviet republics as its traditional sphere of influence, but its relationship with Mr Bakiyev has been rocky ever since the 2005 coup that forced Kyrgyzstan's first post-Soviet president, Askar Akayev, into exile in Russia. The coup was the last of the so-called "colour revolutions", preceded by revolts in Georgia and Ukraine, respectively, that saw the ascent of western-leaning leaders suspicious of Russian domination in the region.

The presence of a US military base in Kyrgyzstan has rankled the Kremlin, which is wary of western military outposts on its borders. "Russia was really disappointed with the Bakiyev government," said Mirsulzhan Namazaliev, a political analyst and director of the Central Asian Free Market Institute, a Bishkek-based NGO. "He promised a lot to Russia but didn't deliver, including closure of the US base."

The turmoil this week has raised fears about the fate of the US base, Manas, which is a key transit point for US-led coalition forces deployed in Afghanistan. Kyrgyz opposition groups have been frustrated with what they see as the White House's coddling of Mr Bakiyev, whom they accuse of rights abuses and corruption, in order to keep the base operating. Ms Otunbayeva said yesterday, however, that the new government would not rush to decide the fate of the base.

"Its status quo will remain in place," she told a news conference. "We still have some questions on it. Give us time and we will listen to all the sides and solve everything." The US charge d'affaires in Bishkek held talks with Ms Otunbayeva yesterday and urged calm and respect for "democratic principles". The Pentagon said yesterday that the turmoil had not "seriously affected" US support for its forces in Afghanistan. "Currently there are limited operations at the Manas airfield," the Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said.

Russian analysts said the regime change could mark the beginning of improved co-operation between Russia and Kyrgyzstan. "This will bring hope for a more honest relationship with Russia, which is one of the biggest donors to Kyrgyzstan," said Alexei Vlasov, an expert on post-Soviet affairs with Moscow State University.  "Furthermore, Ms Otumbayeva is a known quantity in Russia, so I think we can expect a reset - to use a phrase that's fashionable these days - in Russian-Kyrgyz relations."

Mr Vlasov said any new Kyrgyz government will certainly understand it will have to play a balancing act given the respective interest in the country from the US, Russia, the EU and China. Tensions had been running extremely close to the surface in Kyrgyzstan, with opponents accusing Mr Bakiyev of corruption and nepotism. He had placed immense power over the country's economy in the hands of his son, Maksim. But it was a drastic hike in utility fees that appeared to cause the hostility to boil over.

Police reportedly fired live ammunition into large groups of protesters but were eventually overpowered by the crowds in Bishkek. Video footage showed unruly mobs commandeering police vehicles and tanks and assaulting men in police and military uniforms.  Mr Namazaliev, the Bishkek-based political analyst, said in a Skype interview that crowds yesterday had torched the home of Maksim Bakiyev and set fire to the government building. 

Last night, gunfire rang out across the capital as police battled looters who targets shops in the city centre. "Police are not acting against [the] new government," Mr Namazaliev said. "They are working together with them to crack down on the looters." In a statement posted yesterday on the news portal 24.kg, Mr Bakiyev said: "I have not relinquished and will not relinquish power." "I, as the guarantor of the Constitution of Kyrgyzstan, declare that in the case of further destabilisation, all the responsibility will lie with the leaders of the opposition, who will be punished according to the fullest extent of the law," the statement said.

The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, said yesterday he is dispatching Jan Kubis, the former Slovakian foreign minister, as an urgent special envoy to Kyrgyzstan. Mr Kubis is to arrive on Friday, the report said. The UN chief had visited Kyrgyzstan several days ago and said he could sense the tension in the country. Askar Akayev, the former Kyrgyz president who was ousted in the 2005 Tulip Revolution that led to Mr Bakiye's five-year reign, told the Russian state news agency RIA-Novosti yesterday that Mr Bakiyev was in danger of suffering the same fate as Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who was executed along with his wife in a 1989 military coup.

"[T]he people today are taking a very harsh line against him," Mr Akayev was quoted as saying. "A very sad fate awaits him - the fate of Ceausescu." Mr Akayev, who studied in Leningrad and Moscow during Soviet times, fled to Moscow after his overthrow. It remained unclear yesterday, however, where Mr Bakiyev might seek refuge. "No one will take him because he has not established friendly relations with a single neighbouring country," Mr Akayev told RIA-Novosti. 

Mr Vlasov, of Moscow State University, speculated that Mr Bakiyev could flee to Switzerland or a country in the Middle East. Mr Bakiyev's son was on his way to Washington to meet with US officials as his father's government was overthrown. Philip Crowley, spokesman for the US state department, told a news conference in Washington on Wednesday that he expected US officials to have "extensive bilateral consultations" with Maksim Bakiyev and Kadyrbek Sarbayev, the elder Bakiyev's foreign minister.

"I think we'll use that opportunity to consult with them on the situation in Bishkek," Mr Crowley said. Mr Namazaliev said the younger Bakiyev got out of the country just in time. "He was lucky." cschreck@thenational.ae * With additional reporting by agencies