Kyrgyz opposition, government work to re-establish calm

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan -- Opposition supporters and police formed joint patrols in a southern city, and President Askar Akayev said Tuesday he would not impose a state of emergency despite protests calling for his resignation over allegations of fraud in parliamentary elections.

A day after stone-throwing demonstrators stormed government buildings in southern Kyrgyzstan to underline their demand that he resign, both sides in the Central Asian nation's tense standoff appeared intent on re-establishing calm.

Politics in Kyrgyzstan are heavily clan-based, and Akayev, a northerner, has strong support in the north. If the fractured opposition coalesced enough to carry protests across the mountain range bisecting the country and toward the capital of Bishkek, tension could increase significantly in a strategically important country where both the United States and Russia have military bases.

Protests against Akayev began after the first round of parliamentary elections Feb. 27 and grew after the March 13 runoffs that the opposition and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said were seriously flawed.

Final term

Akayev, 60, has ruled Kyrgyzstan for 15 years and is prohibited from seeking another term. The opposition has accused him of manipulating the vote to gain a compliant legislature that would amend the constitution to allow a third term. Akayev has denied that.

The new parliament convened Tuesday, indicating that Akayev was unwilling to give credence to complaints the election was unfair.

In an address to parliament a day after opposition protesters took control of Osh, the country's second-largest city, and several other towns in the impoverished south, Akayev said their action was "a direct threat to the people and the government. The opposition is directed and funded from outside."

Akayev previously has alleged that opposition forces were getting international funding, an echo of allegations that the uprisings in Ukraine and Georgia in 2003 and 2004 were Western-backed. Unlike those rebellions, Kyrgyzstan's opposition forces have so far lacked unity and charismatic leadership.

Georgia's Rustavi-2 television said Tuesday a senior Georgian lawmaker who helped stage the 2003 "Rose Revolution" was in southern Kyrgyzstan.

Givi Targamadze, the head of the Georgian parliament's defense committee, was shown in video from the town of Jalal-Abad. He also was in Ukraine last year during "Orange Revolution" protests that followed a fraudulent presidential election.

In an address to the nation later Tuesday, Akayev said negotiations were possible, but "the mandatory requirement before we can start talks with those who have organized all illegal actions is restoration of legal order and the work of government agencies."

Earlier in the day, his spokesman, Abdil Seghizbayev, described the protests as part of a criminal attempt to seize power.

"Criminal elements connected to the drug mafia are in complete control of the situation in Osh and Jalal-Abad, and are struggling to gain power," Seghizbayev said. Osh is a major transit point for drugs from Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

"The role of extremist and terrorist organizations is increasing in the country's south," Seghizbayev said, but he wouldn't elaborate.

Osh is adjacent to Uzbekistan's Fergana Valley, where the Taliban-allied Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan conducted incursions in 1999 and 2000 with the apparent aim of establishing a fundamentalist Islamic state. But there were no overt indications of a religious component to the Osh protests.

The United States operates a military base, used for refueling planes in Afghanistan, outside Bishkek, about 200 miles north of Osh. The Russian base, named Kant, is 12 miles east of Bishkek.

Akayev was long regarded as the most reform-minded leader in ex-Soviet Central Asia, but he has shown an increasingly authoritarian bent in recent years. In 2002, his reputation was tarnished after police killed six people protesting the arrest of an opposition lawmaker.

Russia has condemned the recent protests, with its Foreign Ministry saying "extremist forces" must not be allowed to undermine the government.

Police and opposition representatives began joint patrols of Osh on Monday night, said police Col. Ermekbai Kochorov.

Despite speculation that he would introduce emergency rule, Akayev said he was "fully committed to not taking such measures."

Seghizbayev called the protests "a putsch and a coup" engineered by criminals, the Interfax news agency reported. He also claimed protesters had seized weapons when storming a police station in Jalal-Abad. "The only wise move for the government at the moment is not to enter a confrontation," he said.

In Bishkek, several busloads of Interior Ministry troops and riot police were guarding the main square, next to the president's office and other government buildings, where several hundred pro-Akayev protesters gathered. Some held signs saying, "Askar Aykayev, we are with you," and "No to colorful revolutions" -- a reference to the Ukrainian and Georgian uprisings.

"The situation is explosive and may go out of control at any moment," the ITAR-Tass news agency quoted an opposition leader, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, as saying.

Akayev sought to stem the protests Monday by ordering an investigation into the vote-rigging allegations, but the opposition vowed to press on to force him from office.

The Central Election Commission chief, Sulaiman Imanbayev, announced what he called final election results Tuesday. He said results in 71 of the 75 electoral districts were legitimate, adding that one district would require a repeat vote and the other three would be disputed in court.

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