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Kyrgyzstan Review, 10 years ago

[20.06.2OO2] Crisis not over yet for veteran Kyrgyz leader. By Olga Dzyubenko

BISHKEK, June 20 (Reuters) - Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev, once viewed as a beacon of democracy in Central Asia, is staring into a political abyss but opposition groups may not yet be strong enough to take advantage of the country in crisis.
Tensions have been running high in the mountainous ex-Soviet Central Asian state since the government resigned last month over the March deaths of five civilians in clashes with police.
And once-ignored opposition groups have spurned Akayev's invitation to participate in a broad government coalition -- a move analysts said showed his concern -- saying they would organise massive new protests in the rebellious south.
Akayev's future will also be of interest to the West, as his country currently plays host to around 2,000 U.S. and allied troops at its Manas air base, as part of the U.S.-led war on terrorism launched last year against nearby Afghanistan.
Earlier this week, thousands came out on the streets once again in southern Kyrgyzstan, demanding Akayev's resignation and punishment for those guilty of the March bloodshed. Some analysts say anti-Akayev sentiment is growing.
"In Bishkek last month I was hearing lots of people saying that Akayev should step down, and a year ago that kind of talk wasn't around at all," said Vitaly Ponomaryov at the Panorama think-tank in Moscow.
"But I don't think anything radical will happen through the summer. Maybe in the autumn we will see something," he added.
But other observers suggested that the softly spoken physicist -- in power since 1990 and once hailed by the West as the most liberal of the regional chiefs -- would survive, conforming to the teflon stereotype of Central Asian leaders. "All these protests have been rather sporadic," Arkady Dubnov, political observer with the Russian daily Vremya, told Reuters by telephone from Moscow. "The opposition does not look like a well-organised force, it has no clearly defined goal and there is no unity in its ranks."
Dubnov said he expected the crisis to drag on for weeks, or even months, as Akayev "was acting inadequately and had not taken any concrete steps to defuse tensions".
"At the same time, I don't think this crisis will topple Akayev because...then the country may plunge into chaos, and I don't think Russia or the West need that," he said.
Another key point in Akayev's favour is Washington's warm relations with Bishkek since the September 11 attacks on U.S. landmarks, despite growing U.S. concerns over the government's increasingly poor track record on democracy.
Kyrgyzstan, alongside ex-Soviet neighbour Uzbekistan, was quick to provide airbases and other military facilities for the U.S-led anti-terror coalition.
"Nobody wants to see these public concerns and disturbances in this country," said Aydin Idil, mission head for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek. "The OSCE doesn't want this at all."
The arrest of Azimbek Beknazarov, a low-profile investigator in a rural prosecutor's office and a parliamentary deputy from the Dzhalal Abad region in the south, triggered the bloody clashes with police in March.
The protests spilled over into a blockade of the country's main north-south motorway in May, and the government resigned after Akayev publicly acknowledged that senior officials were guilty of the bloodshed. He stayed on as president.
Opposition groups say Akayev, 57, is responsible for a severe economic crisis which has plunged the nation of five million into abject poverty, particularly grim in the south.
They say joining the government is pointless given the president's vast powers, which were expanded constitutionally at the legislature's expense after a 1996 national referendum.
While the new government of loyalist Nikolai Tanayev puts on a brave face amid non-stop rallies in the south and police say they are in control of the simmering region, opposition leaders trumpet Akayev's waning authority and their rising popularity.
But some diplomats and analysts say that the opposition is not strong enough to pose a serious challenge just yet.
"It is hard to say we can find any kind of united opposition here. There are just certain individuals," one diplomat said.
Under the pressure of popular protests, Beknazarov was released, but he shied away from taking on the role of a real opposition leader which many expected he would easily assume.
However, Panorama's Ponomaryov said the growth of dissident activity and the success in getting people out on the streets during the recent demonstrations would spur others to action.
"This crisis will develop further. It's not possible to maintain the status quo as it is at the moment," he said. "But it's not clear exactly what's going to happen."
Another senior Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Kyrgyzstan now found itself at a crossroads.
"There are vague rumours of autonomy (of the south), others talk of dangers of civil war, but I personally don't know which direction the Kyrgyz horse will trot in," he said of the traditionally nomadic nation.
Reuters, June 20, 2002

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