Kyrgyzstan President Says He Will Not Step Down
Published: April 8, 2010
MOSCOW — A transitional government in Kyrgyzstan declared that it was in charge on Thursday, a day after deadly protests forced the president to flee the capital. But the president himself insisted that he would not step down, issuing veiled threats from an unknown location that suggested the country, the site of a vital American military base, could face renewed instability.
The Lede Blog: Kyrgyz Protest Video (April 7, 2010)
Times Topics: Kyrgyzstan | Kurmanbek S. Bakiyev
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The New York Times
The day’s events were dominated by two compelling and contrary figures in Kyrgyz politics: the interim leader, Roza Otunbayeva, a bespectacled former diplomat who once taught Marxist-Leninist theory before embracing Western mores; and Kurmanbek Bakiyev, the streetwise president, who has long been steeped in the country’s clan rivalries and boasted in an interview last year that he feared “absolutely nothing.”
Ms. Otunbayeva, 59, took the stage first, calling a news conference with her opposition colleagues to issue a series of directives that she said would calm the country after Wednesday’s violence, which left 68 people dead and more than 400 wounded. The streets of the capital, Bishkek, were relatively quiet on Thursday, but the damage, including widespread looting, was apparent.
“You can call this a revolution. You can call this a people’s revolt,” she said. “Either way, it is our way of saying that we want justice and democracy.”
Like her colleagues at the news conference, Ms. Otunbayeva — who once backed Mr. Bakiyev before breaking with him early in his tenure — urged the president to acknowledge that he was through and to resign.
But a few hours later, Mr. Bakiyev, 60, emerged to make clear that he had no intention of doing so.
Mr. Bakiyev left the capital on Wednesday after thousands of opposition protesters, infuriated by rising utility costs and a government they saw as repressive and corrupt, seized control of important government buildings, including the television stations.
On Thursday, he issued a statement saying that the opposition was solely responsible for the violence the day before. Then he gave an interview to a radio station in Moscow in which he maintained that he had widespread support among the Kyrgyz people, though he conceded that he no longer commanded the government.
“In a few days it will become evident that those who imagined themselves as leaders — they are unable to lead,” he said. “They have pushed the country into such an abyss, into such a mess, that they will have to answer for it.”
All the while, Mr. Bakiyev offered no hint as to his whereabouts. Opposition leaders speculated that he had retreated to the south of Kyrgyzstan, where he has longstanding family ties. They said they were worried that he would try to gather supporters and try to retake the capital, though that seemed unlikely for now — the armed forces, the security services and the police appear to have pledged loyalty to the interim government.
Mr. Bakiyev’s proclamations seemed to fall on deaf ears in Bishkek, where Ms. Otunbayeva announced that the interim government would administer the affairs of state for six months before the presidential election.
Ms. Otunbayeva said the status of the American military base in Bishkek, which plays an important role in supplying the war effort in Afghanistan, would not immediately change, though she warned that the issue was still being debated in the interim government.
In interviews on Thursday, opposition politicians said that Ms. Otunbayeva, a former foreign minister and ambassador to the United States and Britain, was chosen as interim leader because she is considered to be a compromiser who is not politically ambitious and does not have a strong base of domestic support, having spent so many years abroad. The politicians, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the situation was in such flux, said they believed that she would be unable to amass power, leaving the field open for the presidential election.
Aleksandr Knyazev, a prominent political expert in Bishkek and a former student of Ms. Otunbayeva’s, said he thought of her as highly conscientious and honest. He said that she seemed more European than Central Asian, and that she spoke better Russian and English than Kyrgyz.
“She does not understand the Kyrgyz mentality and lacks clan support,” Mr. Knyazev said. “I doubt that she will run for president. Judging by her skills, she would make a good Parliament speaker.”
While Kyrgyz politicians struggled for control, the United States and Russia on Thursday also seemed to be maneuvering for advantage in Kyrgyzstan, which is the only country in the world that has both American and Russian military bases. The Kremlin has long been bothered by the presence of the Americans in a region it calls part of its zone of influence.
Mr. Bakiyev had repeatedly sought to pit the United States and Russia against each other in order to extract more financial aid from both. Last year he upset the Kremlin when he agreed to evict the American base, then changed his mind after the Obama administration agreed to a steep increase in the rent and other favors.
In recent months, Mr. Bakiyev’s relations with Russia collapsed, and the Russian government increased the cost of energy that it provided to Kyrgyzstan. Russia’s state-controlled news media, which is widely followed in Kyrgyzstan, had also been conducting an intense campaign against Mr. Bakiyev, portraying him as a corrupt dictator.
On Thursday, Russia reached out to the opposition, effectively recognizing it as the government. Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin spoke with Ms. Otunbayeva, and a senior Russian lawmaker, Sergei M. Mironov, called another prominent Kyrgyz opposition leader, Omurbek Tekebayev.
It did not appear that the United States took similar steps, though the State Department said that diplomats from the American Embassy in Bishkek were meeting with opposition leaders.
At her news conference, Ms. Otunbayeva said the interim government was examining the agreements governing the American base.
“We still have some questions about it,” she said. “Give us time and we will listen to all the sides and solve everything.”
Mr. Tekebayev said in a telephone interview that any decisions on the base would be made collectively by the opposition. He said he had a positive attitude toward the United States, but he acknowledged that the opposition had lingering resentments over what he said was the willingness of American diplomats to overlook Mr. Bakiyev’s human rights record in order to protect the base.
“The U.S. government does not and did not criticize Bakiyev, or express any negative opinions about him,” Mr. Tekebayev said. “The embassy here was warned several days ago that this would happen. They knew it, and they didn’t do anything about it.”