A minor riot in northwestern Kyrgyzstan has spread to the capital in recent days, leaving 74 protesters dead and over four hundred wounded. The country’s president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, fled Bishkek on Wednesday while police forces unsuccessfully attempted to repress the violent uprising.
Frustration had been rising in the former Soviet republic prior to the protests over perceived corruption in the Bakiyev government and its suppression of the media. A sharp increase in utility rates prompted demonstrations in the small town of Talas in the west of the country which subsequently took hold of the capital and the eastern city of Tokmok.
The geography of the protests is no coincidence, notes Dmitri Gorenburg, given that one of the main grievances against Bakiyev was his administration’s rampant cronyism. Where the previous government was seen as being dominated by northerners, this time around, “the south was largely quiescent and the largest protests occurred in the northern cities.”
By nightfall yesterday, opposition leaders, many of whom were just released from prison, declared an interim government under the auspices of Roza Otunbayeva, a former foreign minister and ambassador to the United States. Otunbayeva is considered to be both a moderate and a pragmatic who should be able to find common ground between the country’s quarreling political factions. She fled to Russia in 2005 in response to protests that spring which brought Bakiyev to power.
The president has fled to the south but not left the country which may lead to an prolonged period of political instability. While the north appears under opposition control, the southern provinces have stayed quiet so far. “If Bakiyev refuses to step down,” warns Gorenburg, “and the south comes to his support, an extended period of dual power is possible, as there are relatively few links between the north and south and it would be difficult to move troops from one region to the other.”
A complicating factor is the US military presence in the country. The American air base at Manas, just outside the capital, is a key transit location for US forces and supplies bound for Afghanistan. Last month alone, over 50,000 coalition troops passed through Manas, according to American officials. The base was closed off on Wednesday with the intention to resume flights early this day.
Kyrgyzstan, previously very much dependent on Soviet support, is also still an ally of Russia’s and part of the Eurasian Economic Community (or EurAsEC) which Moscow promotes in order to counter China’s growing economic predominance within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The country is rich in mineral resources but has negligible petroleum and natural gas reserves. Among its mineral reserves are substantial deposits of antimony, coal, gold, uranium and other valuable metals. Metallurgy is an important industry but on the whole, the Kyrgyz economy has been stagnant for many years.