Opposition protestors in Kyrgyzstan took over the presidential compound and other government buildings yesterday, effectively bringing President Askar Akayev’s government to collapse. We speak with the director Asia Program at the International Crisis Group. [includes rush transcript]
Yesterday opposition protestors in Kyrgyzstan took over the presidential compound and other government buildings, effectively bringing President Askar Akayev’s government to collapse. This is the third government in a former Soviet Republic to fall due to popular uprising- in the past year and a half. Georgia and most recently Ukraine also ousted their leaders in popular uprisings.
Askar Akayev had led Kyrgyztan since 1990, before it gained independence from the Soviet Union. The takeover began on Thursday morning in the outskirts of the capital, Bishkek. The Associated Press reported that about 1,000 protestors rushed towards the presidential building, entered the front and smashed the windows with stones. Akayev’s whereabouts are currently unknown though there was speculation that he may have sought sanctuary in the Russian airbase outside the capital. Both the U.S and Russia have military air bases near Bishkek and about 1,000 U.S troops are stationed there.
Robert Templer, Directs the Asia Program at the International Crisis Group.
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AMY GOODMAN: This is U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli.
ADAM ERELI: Obviously, we are following events in Bishkek and Kyrgyzstan closely. I can’t confirm for you specific movements. We’re following reports closely. But I don’t have any confirmation of the whereabouts of the President or his entourage. What I can tell you is that we’re working with our friends in the U.N., in the O.S.C.E., and the international community to urge both government officials and protesters both to refrain from violence and to engage in constructive dialogue. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe envoy, Mr. Peterle, is meeting with opposition figures in Bishkek. Our Ambassador, in coordination with the O.S.C.E. and others, plans to meet opposition figures including Mr. Bakiev and Mr. Kulov. We’ve been in contact with our Russian friends and Kyrgyzstan’s Central Asian neighbors to make sure we’re all in sync on the need for a peaceful solution. I would say our overall approach to the situation is to support the efforts of the Kyrgyz people to build a stable and prosperous democracy and to work with the other members of the international community to achieve a peaceful solution to the current situation.
AMY GOODMAN: State Department spokesperson Adam Ereli. We are turning to Robert Templer, who is the director of the Asia Program for the International Crisis Group, who joins us in our Firehouse studio. Welcome to Democracy Now!
ROBERT TEMPLER: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain the situation in Kyrgyzstan?
ROBERT TEMPLER: Well, I think for some time now the opposition has been gathering steam, partially to do with the levels of corruption, the mismanagement of this country and the degree to which Akayev has really tried to strangle any sort of political dissent or political opposition to him. He rigged the recent parliamentary elections, and that’s caused an explosion of anger, which has boiled up into this popular uprising, and we’ve seen the results yesterday.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, this is largely a Muslim country, isn’t it? What’s been the impact, obviously, of the growing unrest in other sections of the Muslim world within Kyrgyzstan?
ROBERT TEMPLER: Well, it is a Muslim country, but it’s a very secularized country on the whole. There is some links to Islamic groups in the south of the country, particularly a group called Hizb-ut-Tahrir, which is a fairly extremist organization, although non-violent organization. But most of the country is relatively moderate. The long period of Soviet rule obviously had a major impact on Islam in this region. But also, Kyrgyz are nomadic people. They don’t tend to be particularly strong Muslims. They don’t particularly – they’re not particularly dogmatic Muslims. So Islam hasn’t played a critical role in this, but there’s definitely an effort by Islamic groups in the south to try and take advantage of some of the situations going on now.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe the situation in the capital? I mean, this is now a country without a government.
ROBERT TEMPLER: Well, there was still some looting going on today. I spoke to people in our office in Bishkek, and they said that there were some police out on the streets, but they weren’t doing very much to stop looting. A lot of the big stores, a lot of which were owned by the Akayev family, have been completely stripped of all goods. A lot of things are shut up, but people are sort of wandering around the streets. It’s a very mixed atmosphere. On some levels there’s some tension, on other levels it seems to be returning to normality in some ways.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Wasn’t Akayev, when he first came to power, seen basically as a supporter of the liberalization or reforms that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union? Or what happened in trajectory of his rule?
ROBERT TEMPLER: Well, he became increasingly hard-line over the years. He did start off as a reformer. The early years were fairly democratic. And in fact, he was simply much better than any of the other leaders in Central Asia. In some ways this is – it’s a good thing that he’s gone, but it will be much better to have gotten rid of a number of other dictators in that region. He started off fairly moderate. He moved to a more hard-line position. He was encouraged in this to a certain degree by the Russians in recent years. He was encouraged by his fellow dictators across Central Asia to move to a more hard-line position. But Kyrgyzstan never really had the state structures to impose the sort of really intense police state that exists in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. It simply never had the capacity to do that. There was always an opposition. There was always an active N.G.O. community. There have always been very effective politicians there who stood in opposition to him. So he was never able to control things in the way that other Central Asian leaders have.
AMY GOODMAN: Robert Templer is with the International Crisis Group. We have to break. When we come back, I want to ask you about the U.S. and Russian vying for power in Kyrgyzstan. You’ve written also about neighboring Uzbekistan and about how the U.S. has supported the ruler there, despite tremendous human rights abuses, and what about the role in Kyrgyzstan. That’s coming up here on Democracy Now!
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, Democracynow.org, the War & Peace Report. Robert Templer is our guest, Director of the Asia Program for the International Crisis Group, in our studio. I’m Amy Goodman with Juan Gonzalez. Juan.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, I’d like to ask you: both the United States and Russia have military bases in Kyrgyzstan. That must be one of the few countries in the world that have bases by both of these military powers.
ROBERT TEMPLER: I think it’s probably the only one. There’s been a lot of competition between the two countries to a certain degree over Akayev and access to these bases. Akayev, in recent years, has tended towards the Russian side. The Russians are very much viewing this as an illegal overthrow, something that was outside of constitutional rule in Kyrgyzstan, and they’re certainly going to blame it very much on U.S. interference. Although, I spent the past four years to get trying to get people in D.C. to be interested in Kyrgyzstan, and, you know, there are maybe ten people there who actually know where it is, and then most of those are in the Pentagon. So it really hasn’t been something that’s been pushed by the U.S. government in any way. Well, having said that, the U.S. Ambassador has played a very critical role in the past few weeks. And he’s been very good at criticizing Akayev, criticizing the fraudulent elections, and pressing for an investigation into those elections.
AMY GOODMAN: Who’s the opposition?
ROBERT TEMPLER: Sorry, the –?
AMY GOODMAN: Opposition.
ROBERT TEMPLER: Well, the opposition from within the U.S.?
AMY GOODMAN: No, the opposition there. Who did he beat?
ROBERT TEMPLER: Well —
AMY GOODMAN: Or who did he rig the elections against?
ROBERT TEMPLER: The opposition is very divided. It’s a whole mix of different people. They do seem to be coming together in the past few days, and I hope that they can map out a program to hold elections. There’s no critical figure in the way that there was in Georgia or in Ukraine, so it’s very much up in the air who’s going to emerge as the leader.
AMY GOODMAN: Uzbekistan. Tell us about Uzbekistan and the U.S. role there, and then how that relates to Kyrgyzstan?
ROBERT TEMPLER: Well, Uzbekistan is simply one of the worst police states on earth. I mean, this is a country where you can be arrested for going to a mosque, for having a beard, for any sort of religious activity that strays out of the state’s definition of what it is to be a Muslim. It’s a place where people get boiled to death in prisons. And yet, this is a place that the U.S. government has a very close relationship with. There are military bases in Uzbekistan, and Karimov, the dictator there, has had a fairly close relationship with the Bush administration. There’s a lot of frustration in Washington, as well, about his failure to reform, his failure to open up the country economically and the declining social situation there. The —
JUAN GONZALEZ: And it is certainly not one of the countries that President Bush mentions when he talks about the spread of democracy or opening up in the Middle East.
ROBERT TEMPLER: No, it isn’t at all. And yet even groups like Freedom House and whatever, rank it in the same level as North Korea, in terms of its complete absence of freedom and human rights then.
AMY GOODMAN: But it has a military base, a U.S. military base.
ROBERT TEMPLER: It does have a major base that services the operations in Afghanistan.
AMY GOODMAN: And how does Uzbekistan relate to Kyrgyzstan next door?
ROBERT TEMPLER: Well, they both occupy large areas of the Ferghana Valley in the south. And there’s a real concern that Uzbekistan might intervene in southern Kyrgyzstan if the situation there disintegrates. The town of Osh, which is a major bazaar town in the south of Kyrgyzstan, has been much more chaotic than Bishkek, and there’s certainly Islamic groups vying for power there. There are criminal groups that have been operating there. And in this situation, there’s a real worry that you may see a recurrence of some of the ethnic violence that was directed against ethnic Uzbeks. If that happens, Uzbekistan might take the opportunity to intervene, and I think people will be working very hard to make sure that Uzbekistan stays out of the situation in Kyrgyzstan.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And what about the living conditions of the people in Kyrgyzstan? Clearly in Russia there has been a huge deterioration in living standards of many Russians since the collapse of the Soviet Union. What is happening in Kyrgyzstan?
ROBERT TEMPLER: Well, they have declined very seriously. They’re better than they are in a number of other neighboring countries. They’re probably better than they are in Uzbekistan now, and better than Tajikistan. But still, they have declined very markedly in the past 15 years. A lot of Kyrgyz are going to Kazakhstan and Russia for migrant work. There’s a huge array of poverty, very difficult to find jobs. Particularly problems in the south where pretty much all of the industry in the Ferghana Valley was wiped out. So, very severe problems in terms of the economy.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And is there any major investment, foreign investment or U.S. investment, in Kyrgyzstan? Any major resources that western nations might covet?
ROBERT TEMPLER: There’s quite a lot of gold, and there are a number of major gold mines there which have been very much linked to the Akayev family. They’re mostly run by Canadian companies rather than U.S. companies. But gold is probably the most significant resource. Kyrgyzstan also provides most of the water for the rest of Central Asia, and that’s going to be a critical resource that it could make more money from.
AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you very much, Robert Templer, Director of the Asia Program for the International Crisis Group, for joining us today.