After several days of parallel power, in which opposition protesters had seized control of provinicial cities but not the capital, the government of Kyrgyzstan fell March 24. Angry protests broke out in Bishkek, the capital, and crowds repeatedly attempted to storm the White House, the central government building. At first security forces repulsed the protesters, but eventually gave way, allowing them to take the building. Reuters reported protesters hanging banners from the building’s second-story windows, and tossing government documents out to the cheering crowd below in the blood-splattered square. President Askar Akayev has disappeared from view and is believed to have fled the country. In an emergency session, parliament appointed opposition lawmaker Ishenbai Kadyrbekov as interim president to rule until new elections are held. The country’s supreme court also annulled the results of the recent contested election that sparked the protetests. Former prime minister Kurmanbek Bakiev, now a leader of the protests, pledged that new elections would be held soon. He also pledged to halt widespread looting which has broken out in the capital.
The emergence of Bakiev as voice of the opposition is somewhat ominous. Bakiev was Akayev’s prime minister when the US negotiated establishing a heavy troop presence in Kyrgyztsan after 9-11. He was also the architect of an unpopular austerity regime designed to close the country’s foreign debt. He was forced to step down after government troops opened fire on opposition protesters in March 2002, leaving five dead. Bakiev took the hit for the massacre, and afterwards (ironically) joined the opposition, becoming leader of the People’s Movement of Kyrgyzstan. (Reuters profile, March 24).
Another opposition leader freed from prison by the protesters is Felix Kulov, a former vice president who played a leading role in establishing Kyrgyzstan’s currency after independence from the USSR in 1990 but was jailed by Akayev on questionable embezzlement in 2001. (Reuters, March 24)
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, speaking in Guatemala, said he did not believe the U.S. troop presence in Kyrgyzstan would be affected by the protests. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the change in Kyrgyzstan could lead to greater democracy, but also hedged her bets: "It doesn’t happen on Day 1. This is a process that’s just beginning. We know where we want to go." (AP, March 24)