Kyrgyzstan Revolution Topples Government

Kyrgyz Coup

Kyrgyzstan’s capital is under siege in a brutal riot that appears to have ousted Kurmanbek Bakiyev, the brutal leader who himself came to power in the Tulip Revolution.

Clifford Levy for NYT:

Large-scale protests appear to have overthrown the government of Kyrgyzstan, an important American ally in Central Asia, after violence between riot police officers and opposition demonstrators on Thursday killed at least 17 people.

The country’s president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, fled the capital, Bishkek, on his plane, and the opposition declared that it was forming its own government.

Other reports are less decisive but clearly the city is under seige. Peter Leonard for AP:

Thousands of protesters furious over corruption and spiraling utility bills seized government buildings and clashed with police Wednesday in Kyrgyzstan, throwing control of the Central Asian nation into doubt. Police opened fire on demonstrators, killing dozens and wounding hundreds.

The eruption of violence shattered the relative stability of this mountainous former Soviet republic, which houses a U.S. military base that is a key supply center in the fight against the Taliban in nearby Afghanistan. The unrest in Kyrgyzstan did not appear likely to spread across former Soviet Central Asia, however.

The chaos erupted after elite police at government headquarters in the capital, Bishkek, began shooting to drive back crowds of demonstrators called onto the streets by opposition parties for a day of protest.

The crowds took control of the state TV building and looted it, then marched toward the Interior Ministry, according to Associated Press reporters on the scene, before changing direction and attacking a national security building nearby. They were repelled by security forces loyal to President Kurmanbek Bakiyev.

Since coming to power in 2005 on a wave of street protests known as the Tulip Revolution, Bakiyev has ensured a measure of stability in this predominantly secular Muslim nation, but many observers say he has done so at the expense of democratic standards while enriching himself and his family. Over the past two years, Kyrgyz authorities have clamped down on free media, and opposition activists say they have routinely been subjected to physical intimidation and targeted by politically motivated criminal investigations. Many of the opposition leaders once were allies of Bakiyev.

FT‘s Isabel Gorst adds,

Mr Bakiyev declared a state of emergency and said a curfew would be enforced between 8pm and 6am in Bishkek and three other regions.

Omurbek Tekebaev, an opposition leader, said as many as 100 people had been killed, but the number could not be independently verified and the government said at least 17 had been killed and more than 180 injured.

In Talas, a town in the impoverished north, Moldomusa Kongantiyev, interior minister, and Akylbek Zhaparov, first deputy prime minister, were severely beaten by a crowd of protesters, the Ferghana news service reported.

Eyewitnesses said plumes of smoke were starting to envelop Bishkek, where anger has been mounting against Mr Bakiyev’s increasingly repressive regime.

The American Conservative‘s Daniel Larison reminds Americans of our role:

The news out of Kyrgyzstan is awful, and the latest events there should serve as yet another reminder that the Bakiyev regime has been significantly worse for Kyrgyzstan than the government Western governments and media outlets were so happy to see overthrown in yet another “color” revolution. Of all the governments challenged by “people power” protests in the last decade, Akayev’s was probably the most inoffensive and Akayev himself was a fair sight better than some of the other Central Asian rulers Washington continues to embrace to this day.

Indeed, while Bakiyev’s rule has been distasteful, the Obama administration has continued cozying up to the regime.  Expediency has trumped love of democracy in this case, as  we desperately wanted to maintain access to a key supply route critical to our success in Afghanistan.   CSM’s Dan Murphy:

The instability highlights both Kyrgyzstan’s vital role for the US war in Afghanistan and the compromises both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have made to deal with an increasingly unsavory regime.

Critics of Mr. Bakiyev inside and outside of the country charge that US reliance on the Manas Air Base means that Bakiyev feels little pressure to make democratic reforms or hold free elections.

The US relies on Manas Air Base (renamed the "Transit Center at Manas" in 2009) to supply NATO forces in Afghanistan. Russia also has an air base in Kyrgyzstan.

Bakiyev’s parliament voted to kick the foreigners out of the base in 2009, but Bakiyev later relented after the US promised to increase its annual rent for the base to $60 million. At around the same time, Russia provided $2 billion in loan guarantees for Kyrgyzstan, which some analysts say was an inducement to convince Bakiyev to close the US base. The US contributes a further $90 million or so annually to the Kyrgyz government.

While that may reflect political reality — Manas is the only air base the US has access to in Central Asia – it has meant dealing with a regime accused of a host of human rights abuses.

(For more background on the Manus issue, see previous posts: "Kyrgyzstan Closing U.S. Base Key for Afghanistan," "Wanted: New Afghan Supply Routes," "Manas Air Base to Stay Open After All," "Kyrgyzstan Reverses U.S. Base Closing," and "Central Asia Key to Afghan Success.")

Murphy goes on to detail said abuses at length and points to the State Department’s "2009 Human Rights Report: Kyrgyz Republic" issued just last month.

It’s no secret that Kyrgyzstan (or, as our State Department calls it, "the Kyrgyz Republic") is a less-than-democratic society.  Bakiyev’s reelection was widely considered fraudulent.  But, more often than not, we’re forced to deal with the people who control the levers of power in a given state. 

UPDATE (2:35):  FP’s Josh Keating reports on rumors that Bakiyev is taking refuge at Manus.  Yes, "it would be ironic."

UPDATE (4:57):  CNN Breaking:

Kyrgyzstan’s former foreign minister said Wednesday she is in charge of an interim government following protests that have driven President Kurmanbek Bakiev from office. "I hope we have control of the whole situation, but at the same time I must tell you that there is a lot of work," Roza Otunbayeva, who called herself the country’s interim leader, told CNN.

No independent confirmation of the claim was immediately available. Earlier Wednesday in Washington, the U.S. State Department said it believed Bakiev was still in charge.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. Photo credit: Reuters Pictures.

Image: Kyrgyz-Coup.programthumb.jpg