TOPICS > Politics

Opposition Parties in Kyrgyzstan Name a New Acting President

March 25, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: David Holley, welcome. Has order been restored to the Kyrgyz capital?

DAVID HOLLEY: Well, I wouldn’t stay that order’s been restored. Things are pretty calm here in the day today, but even in the daytime there were groups of…well, a total of several thousand, mostly young men, some of them drinking, who were kind of edgy and going from building to building and acting like they might protest or whatever.

And I think some of those people tonight have been out thinking of doing some more looting; and the police and some ad hoc security forces have been trying to prevent that. So there’s a fair degree of tension, but overall in the big picture I think things are headed toward calming down.

RAY SUAREZ: Is there any sense either among those looters and protesters on the streets or among the police or other security forces, who’s in charge in Kyrgyzstan?

DAVID HOLLEY: Well, yes. I think that’s pretty clear. The former opposition is in charge now, and they met in the parliament building today; the old parliament met. The key opposition leaders were there, and one of the key opposition leaders, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, was named the acting president and acting prime minister and he went ahead and appointed various cabinet acting ministers today also.

And those people seemed to have authority over the police and the military as well now. So the new authorities are in charge now.

RAY SUAREZ: Did this all go according to a Kyrgyz constitution or were people making it up as they went along?

DAVID HOLLEY: Well, I’d say to a large degree it was made up as it went along, but in a place where the constitution isn’t tightly followed and laws aren’t always fully honored, it’s a little hard to say. So it began with this flawed election and probably there was significant impropriety in how the election was done.

So they do have a constitutional court decision on Thursday saying that the elections were invalid, which means the former parliament should be in charge and it’s the former parliament that’s approved Bakiyev coming out on top now. So there is a certain legal procedure that they can point to try to say that they’re trying to keep it within the bounds of legality.

RAY SUAREZ: And has it become clear where the former leader, Askar Akayev, is?

DAVID HOLLEY: Well, it’s not clear. He was believed pretty widely to have gone to Kazakhstan and there’s a Russian news agency report tonight saying that he did, indeed, go to Kazakhstan and that he flew out again from there today. And they’re quoting an anonymous source that they say is well informed saying that they think he went to Russia. But none of that is clear or confirmed.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, this is a former part of the Soviet Union. It’s also a neighbor of China. Have those two big countries weighed in on what they make of the state of play in Kyrgyzstan?

DAVID HOLLEY: I’m not aware of anything that China has said about it, but President Putin has expressed hope for the new authorities to restore order and stability quickly, and he has made some comments that sound fairly sympathetic to the former opposition leaders who are now the new authorities in terms of that they can be expected to maintain perfectly okay relations with Russia.

Many of the former opposition people are ones who even earlier were part of the government here and have dealt with Russia before and he noted that Russia has dealt with some of these people before and the dealings were perfectly okay.

RAY SUAREZ: What about some of Kyrgyzstan’s own neighbors, the Uzbeks, the Kazakhs, have they had an interest in how all this settles out?

DAVID HOLLEY: I think it’s safe to say the governments in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are the ones most nervous about all of this because President Akayev here actually was seen as a more open leader and more of a democrat and more of a liberal than the presidents in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

So when they see someone like Akayev having this type of popular revolt by his opposition getting thrown out of office, they, of course, can fear something worse in their countries. And on the other hand, they keep a tighter lid on the opposition, which may make it harder for something like this to happen but could also make it worse if it did happen.

RAY SUAREZ: David Holley from the Los Angeles Times, thanks for being with us.

DAVID HOLLEY: You’re welcome.

RAY SUAREZ: And for more on the situation in Kyrgyzstan we get two views. Charles William Maynes is president of the Eurasia Foundation, an organization which promotes the advancement of democratic institutions and private enterprise in 12 Eurasian countries.

And Eric Rudenshiold is director of the Europe and Eurasia Division at the International Foundation for Election Systems, a democracy development NGO. He lived in the region in the early 1990s.

Bill Maynes, this government fell really fast. Were these forces that were building up inside Kyrgyzstan for a while before exploding on to the street?

CHARLES WILLIAM MAYNES: I think you have to understand what’s happened in Kyrgyzstan. It was one of the parts of the Soviet Union that was subsidized by Moscow and they lost the subsidy, and there is no one else who’s willing to pick it up. They have borrowed heavily from the World Bank and the IMF. They have very few resources.

The American base there is one of their biggest sources of foreign exchange. Now they’ve got a Russian base. This is a country that basically depends on one gold mine and two bases in order to provide it with hard currency. And the country is also geographically positioned in a way that it is really one section is cut off from the other in wintertime, and the Uzbeks, who sit in the middle of these two wings of the country, have made it very difficult for the country to communicate, one part to communicate with the other.

So you’ve had massive poverty. Fifty percent of the country is below the poverty line. And they look at those who are more successful in the system, and in this case I think…in contrast to Georgia and Ukraine where the opposition was organized, this was a more spontaneous revolt of those people who were really upset by the deterioration in their quality of life.

RAY SUAREZ: Eric Rudenshiold, you heard Bill Maynes paint a pretty dire picture of conditions of Kyrgyzstan since the fall of the Soviet Union. But wasn’t this country also portrayed as sort of a star pupil among the central Asian republics, both politically and economically?

ERIC RUDENSHIOLD: No. Absolutely. This was the country that we all called the little Switzerland of really the former Soviet Union. This was led by a seemingly liberal president who tolerated opposition; he tolerated a moderately free press.

Many of the traditional democratic principles that we had hoped to see being fostered in post-soviet countries really were taking off in Kyrgyzstan for a number of the early years. It’s only later on, in the last five or six years, that we started to see things shut down and that openness really start to close off.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, what happened? Was there a turning point where just things didn’t work and started to go south?

ERIC RUDENSHIOLD: Well, I think you have a number of problems that took place. Privatization was left in the hands of government and, frankly, there was an awful lot of corruption that took place in this country.

It’s really far, far to the east and left to its own devices, it really, I’m afraid, suffered from too much corruption, too much “clanic” politics, which basically put friends, relatives and neighbors into positions of power in a number of places and siphoned off the wealth.

RAY SUAREZ: Bill Maynes, you mentioned Georgia and Ukraine, two recent Soviet republics that have had this kind of popular uprising. In the Ukraine, Vladimir Putin was seen as not backing the right horse. What did he do this time when things changed in Kyrgyzstan?

CHARLES WILLIAM MAYNES: Well, I think they learned. They learned their lesson. They took a diplomatic black eye in Ukraine because they bet so heavily on the wrong side and they were very careful not to do it this time.

And actually the Russian role there has been very similar to ours, which is we would like this settled peacefully, we would like the two sides to sit down and work out some kind of compromise that will lead to a government that can…that has the support of the people.

RAY SUAREZ: Is there any other place in the world that has both a Russian and an American base on its soil?

CHARLES WILLIAM MAYNES: No place. No place. Not only that, but actually when you talk to people from Kyrgyzstan, they say they’re really three groups in Kyrgyzstan: Pro-American, pro-Russian and pro-Chinese because the Chinese have moved in massively in an economic way in Kyrgyzstan.

RAY SUAREZ: How did the United States, Eric Rudenshiold, get a base on Kyrgyz soil?

ERIC RUDENSHIOLD: Well, President Akayev has been one of the few leaders who’s been very active in reaching out to the West and staying very active in the CIS, the Commonwealth of Independent States. He has been an adept politician at reaching out to both sides and really playing both sides off against each other to a degree.

And as such, when the opportunity arose to open an air base when the U.S. approached the Kyrgyz, he accepted. What’s interesting is, of course, the Russians then followed up wanting to have their own air base and he accepted that as well. So it’s sort of been a dueling compromise, but Akayev was a very skillful politician.

RAY SUAREZ: Was, by all consent. He’s out of the country now. But are there strengths on the ground in Kyrgyzstan that mean that maybe they have a shot now, a civil society, a core of leadership, democratic opposition?

ERIC RUDENSHIOLD: Well, this was a…this is a different revolution than what we saw in Ukraine and Georgia. Those revolutions were led by organized oppositions. This is a very disorganized and very heavily fractioned opposition movement, if you can call it one movement.

And these forces need now to coalesce and it appears that they’re making the right moves. They’re following the same procedures that Georgia followed; the constitutional court overturned the parliamentary elections. The old parliament then became seated again. That parliament has now appointed an acting president, an acting prime minister, and starting to appoint cabinet. So you have a court structure, a legislature, and an executive.

Russia has said that these are illegal processes but that they respect and will do business with the results of these processes. So it’s a mixed bag. They have to maintain order. Civil society certainly has reached out. And, frankly, the power from the south that we’ve seen, these young people, these disenfranchised hungry, frustrated people that have taken to the streets, they’re the ones who have to be quelled and they’re the ones who have to learn to listen to these new voices, and accept them as a ruling class.

RAY SUAREZ: For all the speed in coalescing, bringing new stability about, Bill Maynes, is there also a chance of pretty bad things, civil war?

CHARLES WILLIAM MAYNES: Well, there’s one difference that hasn’t been mentioned yet between Georgia and Ukraine on the one hand and Kyrgyzstan on the other and that is that the leader who has lost has not yet given up. Both in Georgia and Ukraine the leader who lost stepped back.

And we’re not clear that that’s going to happen yet. If it doesn’t happen, then it could be very serious. It would all depend on how…whether Akayev still has strengths in the society. And it would also depend on whether Kazakhstan in particular supported Akayev in any kind of bid for regaining power.

RAY SUAREZ: In the poorest places in this region, radical Islam has had some appeal. Is that something to be at least watched in Kyrgyzstan, Eric Rudenshiold?

ERIC RUDENSHIOLD: Well, certainly we’ve seen a rise of Islam throughout the southern regions particularly, and I think this is related to the rise of Islam throughout that Fergana Valley southern region. I don’t think anyone anticipated that this…the veneer on the leadership was going to be so thin, so when civil society pushed back that it would crack and crumble so quickly.

Will Islamic forces be able to rise up quickly and organize and be able to gain credibility and put forward a leader at a time when it’s needed? I’m not sure they’re that organized, either. Certainly Islam is a conduit for political expression in this region. But I think it’ll have difficulty articulating any concerns in this time.

RAY SUAREZ: And finally, Bill Maynes, do authoritarians in the old Soviet Union have to worry now? Today in Minsk there were demonstrators who were carrying signs praising the Kyrgyz uprising and demonstrating against President Lukashenko. Is this something that could send shock waves throughout the area?

CHARLES WILLIAM MAYNES: Well, it certainly has sent a message across the former Soviet Union; I’m afraid it will be interpreted in the wrong way. The countries that have not experienced change may see this as a reason to suppress civil society.

I would suggest that what this really shows is that if you have a leadership that is very thinly based in terms of its reaching actually deep into society, it can be easily overthrown. And the answer to that is not to suppress everything below the government, but to make efforts to try to reach out to civil society and establish real roots in the society.

And I’m hoping that over the longer run that will be the lesson. Because, yes, governments that are not well-connected with their society are vulnerable. There’s no question about it.

RAY SUAREZ: Bill Maynes, Eric Rudenshiold, thank you very much.