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Swift Changes in Kyrgyzstan After Smoldering Discontent

Last week, the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek was in turmoil. The government of this tiny Central Asian republic had collapsed. Mobs rampaged through the streets, looting businesses and government buildings. And it seemed that no one was in control.

Jeff Lilley, resident director of the International Republican Institute -- a non-governmental-organization that supports democratic development around the world, was in the capital last Thursday when tensions reached the breaking point. He said “the night of the coup, there were no police on the streets, things were in complete disarray, and there was no law and order.”

Thousands of demonstrators gathered around the White House, Kyrgyzstan's government headquarters. They were upset with recent parliamentary elections that barred some opposition candidates and that many international observers considered flawed. Hundreds of young men stormed the building as security forces did little to stop them. But President Askar Akayev had already fled the country.

Civil conflict analyst Kevin Jones of the University of Maryland says a series of disappointments -- both political and economic -- have been simmering for several years even though President Akayev was elected in 1991 promising democratic reform. “Kyrgyzstan was the only country by any standard were there was an actual change of government. President Akayev was new; he wasn't the old communist leader that had been there. He represented the only changeover of all five countries [former Soviet Central Asian republics]. In comparison, Akayev looked great and was doing some things differently.”

President Akayev introduced economic reforms and multi-party democracy. Kyrgyzstan was considered an island of democracy in former Soviet Central Asia. But similar to other post-Soviet republics in the 1990s, the leader became more authoritarian. Analyst Kevin Jones says disenchantment soon replaced high expectations. “Part of that was the continual repression of democracy. You've been told you are in a democracy but it never actually lives up to that. When you are constantly told that these elections were free and fair but no one that you voted for was ever elected, that begins to build.”

Severe poverty, particularly in the south, also added to popular resentment against President Akayev's government.

The speed of the government's collapse surprised everyone, including opposition forces. Alisher Khamidov, a visiting Kyrgyz scholar at Johns Hopkins University here in Washington, says the rapid pace of the coup did not give them much time to develop a united political platform. “The opposition main leaders had some disunity and they disagree on key issues. However, the opposition was able to articulate the grievances of the people. Where they failed was in terms of disciplining their members, of organizing their protests to be more peaceful. I think from now on they can work on coming up with a common front.”

Askar Akayev's supporters challenge the legitimacy of the new government. Even though he has left the country, the Kyrgyz constitution says he continues to be president until he resigns or is removed under very specific conditions, further complicating the political crisis.

Few neighboring Central Asian countries broadcast scenes from last week's events in Kyrgyzstan. After recent political upheavals in Georgia and Ukraine swept out longstanding leaders, many analysts say officials in neighboring countries may be worried that their grip on power could be in jeopardy. The International Republican Institute's Jeff Lilley says “Kyrgyzstan’s neighbors are not considered liberal, progressive countries: for example China, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. What happens in Kyrgyzstan has repercussions here and it makes autocratic leaders in other countries nervous. How are they going to respond to this? It's a huge challenge.”

Martha Brill Olcott, a specialist on Central Asia at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, agrees. “Every time non-democratic elections lead to successful protests, it increases the stakes for the next country that tries to hold non-democratic elections. Obviously the environment around Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan has changed.”

Ms. Brill Olcott says the situation is particularly tense in Kazakhstan, where long-time President Nursultan Nazarbayev has expanded his power during the last decade. “The opposition to [Kazakh President] Nazarbayev is going to take the presidential elections much more seriously when they come up in 2006.”

Many observers say Kyrgyzstan's political future depends on how well the opposition is able to develop and establish a viable government. For now, as personalities and interests jostle for control, diplomats warn the political crisis is far from over.