KYRGYZSTAN: Popular Uprising brings new leadership of old regime cadres
Vladimir Beron

March 30, 2005

Opposition protests over disputed results in parliamentary elections held on February 27 and March 13 precipitated an avalanche of momentous events that resulted in the ouster of President Askar Akaev, who had ruled the Central Asian country since its independence in 1991. The Akaev regime, widely seen in the early years after the collapse of the Soviet Union as the sole bright hope for democracy among the largely autocratic Central Asian states, grew increasingly authoritarian and corrupt while the overwhelming majority of the population in this relatively small country of five million remained desperately poor.

The mounting frustration with the Akaev regime brought thousands of people out on the streets to protest election irregularities, though no one could have predicted the rapid collapse of the government. By most accounts, the speed with which events unfolded caught opposition leaders by surprise. As opposition supporters stormed and occupied government buildings without much resistance from the police, protest demonstrations turned into an uprising that spread within a week from the southern urban centers of Osh and Jalal-Abad to the capital Bishkek and Talas in the north. Indeed, the security forces made just one abortive attempt to reclaim government buildings in Osh and Jalal-Abad, which gave confidence to the demonstrators to carry their protests all the way to Bishkek.

President Akaev promptly fled Kyrgyzstan, along with his family members, shortly before demonstrators took over the seat of government in Bishkek on March 24, and the country descended into a dangerous power vacuum. As the unruly mobs went on a looting spree, the fragmented opposition faced the daunting task of restoring order and assembling an interim government in the absence of a uniting figurehead. The lack of clarity on whether the outgoing parliament or the newly elected parliamentarians should be considered legitimate further complicated matters. Moreover, as many as 20 of the 75 seats in the new assembly remained unoccupied due to disputed election results or faulty procedures.

In this highly volatile environment, the head of the People`s Movement of Kyrgyzstan, Kurmanbek Bakiev, was confirmed by the newly elected parliament as acting president and prime minister on March 28. This was an important step given that he was appointed earlier to these posts by the outgoing parliament, which dissolved itself on March 29, providing legitimacy to decisions taken by the current parliamentary members. Bakiev has experience in governance, having served previously as prime minister under Akaev.

The newly confirmed head of the government wasted no time in appointing prominent opposition members to key positions in the interim cabinet, including the co-chairwoman of the opposition bloc Ata-Jurt, Roza Otunbaeva, as acting foreign minister, Adakhan Madumarov as acting deputy premier, and Azimbek Beknazarov as acting prosecutor-general. Reports of anarchy in certain segments of the security forces underscored the necessity for acting quickly with the formation of a new administration. The same day Bakiev was confirmed in the two government posts, a group of veterans from the interior ministry called on him to urgently review the circumstances surrounding recent police management changes in Osh and Jalal-Abad. Bakiev subsequently said that the situation has degenerated to the point where arbitrary personnel changes are taking place even in the national security apparatus, and vowed to crack down hard on self-appointed officials.

The new leadership is bound to face numerous serious challenges in this very unstable transitional period, especially as it attempts to cleanse the government apparatus of senior officials closely associated with the Akaev regime. One major task is to reform state-run television and radio broadcasters without succumbing to various ills that plagued the old management, and caused widespread complaints among local and international election observers of heavy pro-government bias. On March 28, leading journalists with the National Television and Radio Corporation (NTRK) protested the appointments of Sultan Abrakhmanov as president, and Kadyr Koshaliev and Beishenbek Bekeshev as vice presidents, claiming that the new management reflects a shift toward radical Islam.

Indeed, the main issue that will define the success or failure of the new government is whether the newly forming leadership can sufficiently distance itself from the old ways of corrupt patronage that precipitated the downfall of the once promising Akaev regime. This is particularly relevant for the currently emerging top echelon of the government, given that some of the key players have at one time or another served under Akaev. Bakiev, who was sacked as premier by Akaev after taking responsibility for police units opening fire on demonstrators in southern Kyrgyzstan and killing five people in 2002, is bound to be the primary contender in early presidential elections scheduled for June 26.

His main rival is likely to be former Akaev vice president and Bishkek mayor, the current opposition Ar-Namys party chairman Feliks Kulov, who was entrusted with restoring order following the collapse of the Akaev regime. Kulov told the new parliament that he is stepping down on March 30 because his assignment to contain lawlessness was completed. However, the resignation is seen largely to be due to a disagreement with Bakiev over the appointment of Tashtemir Aitbaev to head the National Security Service. Kulov also publicly stated that he will not seek the presidency in the upcoming election, although that decision could change given the rapidly evolving political situation.

Finally, although Akaev`s political base of support is currently without a clear leader, some of his prominent officials have made clear their intentions to continue providing leadership to his many followers. On March 29, former Emergency Situations Minister Temirbek Akmataliev and former Interior Minister Keneshbek Dushebaev made highly publicized declarations denouncing Akaev`s ousting as a coup and calling for the formation of an investigating committee to probe the unconstitutional regime change. The press conference was staged a day after the former cabinet members founded the political movement Akyykat, and declared plans to take part in the June 26 presidential elections. Hence, the old guard is very much alive, and its presence can be found in both the newly forming leadership, as well as the recently ousted one that is reorganizing into the opposition.

Vladimir Beron is an International Security Analyst based in Washington, DC.