The Central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan descended into political uncertainty on Tuesday, with the opposition claiming to have seized power in the wake of flawed parliamentary elections that stoked violence and large protests in the capital Bishkek.
Clashes between demonstrators and police flared throughout the night into Tuesday — with reports of more 600 injured and one person killed — as demonstrators stormed the country’s main government building, the White House, which holds both the office of the president and parliament.
On-scene footage from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty showed flames leaping from the building — with demonstrators smashing portraits of the country’s president, Sooronbai Jeenbekov, and destroying furnishings.
Reports said protesters seized the Kyrgyz national broadcasting facilities and state National Security building with little resistance from police.
In a statement, Jeenbekov said the opposition was trying to launch a coup but insisted he had ordered security forces not to open fire on demonstrators.
The unrest follows Sunday’s parliamentary vote that gave the majority of seats to two pro-government parties amid widespread charges of vote manipulation and bribery.
Anger over the election’s outcome also united the country’s notoriously fractious opposition — with 12 parties on the losing end of the vote urging their supporters to join together.
In swiftly moving events on the ground, opposition demonstrators stormed the mayor's office and also freed high profile prisoners from the city's main jail. Among them: former president Almazbek Atambayev, who had been serving out the early stages of an 11-year prison sentences for corruption.
His former aide, Kunduz Zholdubaeva, later posted a photo of the former Kyrgyz leader smiling on Facebook.
What role the newly-freed Atambayev might have in Kyrgyz politics going forward remained an open question Tuesday.
By mid-day Tuesday, the head of Kyrgyzstan’s election commission, Gulanara Djurabayeva announced the results of the parliamentary vote had been officially annulled.
“I think with this election campaign we discredited ourselves,” added Djrabayeva in comments carried by the Kyrgyzstan 24 news channel.
Calls for calm
In his statement Tuesday, President Jeenbekov urged an end to the protests and expressing his willingness to meet with opposition party leaders as soon as Wednesday.
Less clear was how much authority Jeenbekov still held.
Opposition politician and former senior security official Kursan Asanov reportedly also took over as acting interior minister, a ministry spokesman said, after Jeenbekov’s appointee failed to show up for work.
Yet a spokeswoman for Jeenbekov insisted in a statement on his official government website that the president was still in “control” and doing “everything to restore law and order.”
Russia’s Interfax news agency also reported that Jeenbekov was at his residence on the outskirts of Bishkek and had not fled the country.
Yet independent observers argued Jeenbekov had simply been too slow to address the mounting crisis in the wake of the vote.
“He’s the president but de-facto he’s now regarded as a no one,” said Abdumomun Mamaraimov, a media analyst, reached by VOA in Bishkek.
“Nobody wants to negotiate with him," added Mamaraimov.
The unrest in Bishkek also appeared to be the latest foreign policy setback for Russia — which has struggled to maintain influence over one-time Soviet republics that Moscow sees as within its sphere of influence.
Roiling pro-democracy protests in Belarus, the spiking conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, and lingering hostilities with Ukraine over Russia’s annexation of the Crimea peninsula in 2014 all contribute to Moscow’s power over one time Soviet satellite states, said observers in Moscow.
“It’s in ruins,” said political analyst Gleb Pavlovsky in an interview with the Echo of Moscow radio.
“There’s no talk of the President of Russia simply saying ‘Enough! Everyone back in their places. Put an end to all of this!’” added Pavlovsky.
“It’s just not like the old days.”
The Russian Embassy to Kyrgyzstan issued a statement saying it supported resolving the political standoff through legal means while ensuring domestic stability.
Meanwhile, Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for the Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, said in a statement “The secretary-general encourages all Kyrgyz actors to engage in dialogue and agree on a way forward within the constitutional framework. The United Nations stands ready to support all efforts aimed at finding a peaceful resolution of the current situation, including through the United Nations Regional Center for Preventive Diplomacy for Central Asia.”