When People Power Boils Over
When People Power Boils Over
Opportunities and Challenges Await Kyrgyzstan’s Incoming President
Opportunities and Challenges Await Kyrgyzstan’s Incoming President
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 5 minutes

When People Power Boils Over

First Georgia, then Ukraine, now Kyrgyzstan? Like its former Soviet sisters, popular anger at fraudulent elections has provoked mass unrest in this remote Central Asian republic. But the danger is that public outrage may spiral out of control, leading not to a democratic revolution, but to chaos and possibly violent conflict. Rather than "rose" or "orange," this revolution risks being simply bloody.

The unrest in southern Kyrgyzstan follows recent parliamentary elections, full of the usual malpractice that accompanies all polls in the authoritarian states of the region. Some candidates were disqualified on dubious grounds; others suffered from clever trickery with voter lists. And many couldn't compete when government-picked candidates handed out cash bribes to voters. Popular anger at the government has now spilled onto the streets.

At first it was peaceful. A man on horseback rode around the ancient streets of Osh, the largest city in the south of the country, with a picture of President Askar Akayev on his back and the slogan "I'm for Akayev's resignation." But gradually things started slipping out of control. In another southern city, Jalalabad, protesters seized the regional administration building and occupied it for almost two weeks. The police seemed powerless to act. Similar seizures of government buildings in other towns followed, including Osh.

The government responded with an ill-planned police raid. Initially, security forces managed to get the protesters out of government buildings, but in response tens of thousands of protesters stormed the police station in Jalalabad, armed with petrol bombs, and burned it down. Security forces then went into rapid retreat. Protesters in Osh also took back control of government buildings, and they seized the airports in both Osh and Jalalabad.

Government officials and police disappeared. In much of the south of the country, there was effectively no government. Opposition protesters began to elect their own "peoples' councils," and Roza Otunbaeva, an opposition figure who formerly served as the country's ambassador to the United States and Britain, declared, "The people's power has been established." But at times it seemed that little more than a motley collection of protesters was in charge. Some of the younger ones were drunk and increasingly aggressive.

They have only one demand: the immediate resignation of President Akayev.

Mr. Akayev was once lauded by the West as a liberal reformer in an otherwise repressive neighborhood. He was feted by the international community, even as his rule at home became increasingly authoritarian. His main political opponent, Felix Kulov, is still in prison. The deaths of six peaceful demonstrators in police shootings in 2002 marked a further low point and sparked mass protests in the country's more volatile southern regions.

Massive corruption linked to his family became an irritant not just to the opposition, but also to many ordinary businessmen who were finding it harder and harder to break the family's control of the economy. Although the economy had picked up in recent years, for much of the population, particularly in the poorer southern regions, life is a constant struggle for survival. Unemployed young men form the backbone of the protesters.

Mr. Akayev is supposed to leave office this October, according to the constitution. But he seems to be looking for ways to somehow keep the family's grasp on power, both political and economic. The first step was to pack as many friends and relatives as possible into the parliament at elections in February. His son, Aidar, and daughter, Bermet, were both elected to the new body.

This increasing domination of business and politics by one family is a major part of the reason for this outbreak of popular anger. Although the Kyrgyz opposition is claiming some credit for the protests, in some cases the revolt seems to have been largely spontaneous. Although it is clear that the government is not in control in the south, most opposition leaders also seem bemused by this upsurge of revolt and not sure how to react.

The opposition has long been divided and still does not have a clear, unifying leader. Kurmanbek Bakiev, a former premier, has some support, but other regional leaders also have pretensions to the presidency. And regional divides make northerners wary of the ambitions of the south's political elite. In short, any political transition seems likely to be messy.

Without a strong opposition leadership, there is a dangerous possibility that the situation will spiral out of control. There are already concerns that criminal groups are getting involved in the protest movement. Southern Kyrgyzstan is a prime transit route for heroin from Afghanistan, and underground Islamist groups have long been active in the region.

The situation in Osh, where there is a history of interethnic tension between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, could descend into violence unless quick steps are taken. If the government overreacts by using military force, it risks provoking armed opposition that could develop into serious civil conflict. If the country's leadership refuses to compromise, existing historical and cultural divides between the north and south could become the fault line of an armed conflict.

Other regional powers, particularly neighboring Uzbekistan, will be looking on with concern that popular unrest in Kyrgyzstan might encourage their own oppositions. The region's dictators will be putting pressure on Bishkek to crack down hard on the protests. Such pressure needs to be resisted.

In the past, the international community has been too tolerant of the government's creeping authoritarianism. Indeed, in early March, the Paris Club of international creditor states was happy to write off part of Kyrgyzstan's foreign debt, something immediately seized on by President Akayev as a sign of continued international support.

Now, the international community needs to get involved to ensure that the situation does not descend into chaos. But this needs to be done carefully. Too unilateral a political intervention -- by the U.S., for example -- will merely spark more geopolitical rivalry in the region. Russia has some influence with Mr. Akayev, but Moscow is keen not to see a repeat of its humiliation in Ukraine. So getting Russia on board for any negotiations will be important but extremely difficult given Moscow's sensitivity to any political change in its backyard.

The government in Bishkek needs to be persuaded that any military response will only make the situation worse, and could provoke more violent unrest. Instead, a political process that includes President Akayev's leaving office peacefully needs to be instigated. International organizations such as the OSCE should be involved in negotiating a peaceful political transition, including free and fair presidential elections and the establishment an all-inclusive political process that would ensure political calm in the interim.

Kyrgyzstan may be a remote country of which most in the West know little, but events there could have very dangerous long-term consequences for the whole troubled region. A peaceful transition of leadership would, however, be a first for Central Asia, so a little investment by the international community into mediating Kyrgyzstan's crisis could deliver long-term, precedent-setting benefits.

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