April 7 became yet another day of momentous change in Kyrgyzstan. More than 70 people died during clashes with police, and roughly 1,000 were injured in anti-government protests across the country (www.diesel.elcat.kg, April 8). The scope of causalities is unprecedented in Kyrgyzstan. Spontaneous protests erupted across the country demanding the resignation of President, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who has become infamous for his corruption and authoritarianism. Opposition leaders, in turn, declared that they have formed a provisional government after seizing the government headquarters.
Bakiyev sought refuge in the southern town of Osh, after anti-government crowds flooded onto the streets in Bishkek. Through state-controlled mass media, the politician tried to spread the message that he was in full control of the government (www.akipress.kg, www.24.kg, April 7). However, he did not appear publically in person, and made no official statements. Instead, he acted through his proxies, including the Defense Minister, Bakyt Kalyev, who was responsible for negotiating with the opposition leaders.
It is crucial to examine the balance of military power between the opposition and Bakiyev supporters in order to assess the possibility of repeated violent clashes and a possible eruption of civil war in the country. Bakiyev has shown that he is not intending to leave his post without trying to suppress the opposition and the crowds by force. The country’s armed forces were structured in a way to protect the regime from possible challenges.
According to former Kyrgyz military official, Ruslan Isakov, at this point Bakiyev does not have access to weapons and artillery. “All major arms reserves were taken under the control of the opposition,” he said. However, Isakov also noted that in the past few months Bakiyev has been locating major troop concentrations to the south, probably preparing to seek refuge there.
Furthermore, reportedly, several protestors were killed with the help of professional snipers of Latvian and Chechen origin hired by Bakiyev’s brother Zhanysh. “Snipers shot right at the heads of protesters from the rooftop of government headquarters –no one in Kyrgyzstan is trained to do this,” Isakov told Jamestown.
The timing of the mass unrest is paradoxically both surprising and predictable. No one among the opposition expected that a relatively small-scale riot in the town of Talas on April 6 would result in violent protest. Similarly, Bakiyev’s popularity has been declining since he took office in 2005, and made it apparent that he was more interested in concentrating power in his hands than implementing any democratic reform. The opposition tried to organize several mass protests to oust Bakiyev, but the president always found ways of suppressing them. After chaotic riots in Talas, protests broke out spontaneously across the country. At least 10,000 people gathered in downtown Bishkek on April 7 (www.stan.kg, April 7).
The most obvious difference between the March 24, 2005 demonstrations that brought Bakiyev to power, and those on April 7, 2010 is that the latter was not coordinated by opposition leaders. Most opposition leaders were imprisoned on April 6, but released the following day. The protests therefore were more spontaneous and genuine, as people across the country raised their voice against local government and the Bakiyev regime. Importantly, the former Defense Minister, Ismail Isakov, was also released. Thanks to his strong and positive reputation among the armed forces, he was able to create a sense of control over them.
In effect, Bishkek today is controlled by the Social-Democratic Party (SDP) Member of Parliament (MP), Roza Otnbayev, the leader of the Ak-Shumkar Party, Temir Sariev, Head of the SDP, Almazbek Atambayev, and the leader of the Ata-Meken Party, Omurbek Tekebayev. It remains to be seen as to how these leaders will share power in the coming days.
Spontaneous protests across Kyrgyzstan demonstrate how Bakiyev increasingly relied on military power to suppress his opponents, and in the meantime lost his awareness of reality on the ground. Consequently, the president believed that he would be able to prevail over any challenge in the country. Bakiyev was not able to foresee the extent of anger in Talas, neither did the Interior Minister, Moldomusa Kongantiyev, know that crowds could take him hostage and severely beat him. The regime was confident that dispatching police forces and government officials would prevent the escalation of tension.
After the April 7 mass protests in Bishkek, looting broke out across the capital. Most shops, ATM machines and businesses were destroyed during the night (www.diesel.elcat.kg, April 8). Opposition leaders say they did not want to use the armed forces, in order to avoid civilian causalities, but promised to re-establish civic order the following day.
If the opposition indeed prevails over Bakiyev, it will face enormous challenges. Bakiyev has effectively destroyed the country’s existing system of checks and balances. The provisional government will need to decide whether they intend to conduct new parliamentary and presidential elections, and how power will be divided among opposition leaders. It is too early to conclude that real change has occurred in Kyrgyzstan, unless the division of power proceeds without conflict within the provisional government.
Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, has recognized the legitimacy of the provisional government, but denied that he supported the opposition leaders. However, reports suggest that Russian officials were indeed closely cooperating with Kyrgyz opposition leaders prior to the April 7 events. The Russian media has attacked the Bakiyev regime in the past few weeks and this could also have contributed to public anger (EDM, April 2). Furthermore, members of the provisional government are likely to visit Moscow soon to seek further collaboration with the Kremlin. Should instability and civil unrest continue in Kyrgyzstan, Putin will face the difficult choice of whether to intervene in the country’s domestic crisis.
Unlike Akayev, who fled to Moscow to escape angry crowds, Bakiyev’s choice of foreign refuge is limited. He is not welcome in Russia. Putin has made it clear that he will not support Bakiyev, and condemned the Kyrgyz leader’s use of the armed forces to suppress the riots. Bakiyev is unwelcome in Europe or the US –admitting him would involve supporting a dictator who deployed armed force against civilians. The leader’s relations with neighboring Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan are equally poor. Thus, the United Arab Emirates and Iran remain Bakiyev’s only plausible options.