Thursday, April 08, 2010

Revolution Déjà vu

Things seemed to have calmed down a bit in Kyrgyzstan, one day after the president (Kurmanbek Bakiyev) fled the capital (he's reportedly in his southern hometown of Osh, but that hadn't been confirmed last time I checked). Thankfully a leader emerged from a coalition of opposition groups, one Roza Otunbayeva [seen above] (former Ambassador to the US, and someone known for her strong opposition to corruption, the driving force behind Kyrgyz unrest ).

Bambino, as many people know, hails from Kyrgyzstan. He finally managed to get through to his family yesterday and everyone is fine, if a bit nervous. Our artists Gulnara Kasmalieva and Muratbek Djumaliev (M&G), who live in the capital, emailed early this morning to report that they too are fine, but that the damage had been done. Nearly every store or building in central Bishkek had been looted or torched.

Compared with the revolution in 2005 (the one that resulted in Bakiyev becoming president...he had strongly criticized the corruption of the previous president only to then become just as corrupt himself by most accounts), this one was much bloodier and more violent. This still from a film M&G shot of that 2005 revolution

stands in stark contrast to the awful photographs we saw from the violence yesterday, in which reports said 17 up to 100 people had been killed.

Of course the Kyrgyz people were doubly frustrated this time. Not only had they placed high hopes on Bakiyev delivering the reforms and improvements he had promised (only to see him install his relatives, including his reportedly "vicious henchman" of a son, into positions of power around him), but with the widespread poverty in the Central Asian nation---made only worse by the global recession, a series of incomprehensible hikes in utilities charges, and the fact that although Bakiyev had negotiated quite a hefty increase in the rent the US pays for the Bishkek airbase we use as a supply line into Afghanistan, most of the population never saw any of that money---the people had had enough. After Bakiyev was "re-elected" in a what most observers said was a highly fraudulent election, taking to the streets, again, apparently seemed the only way to balance things out.

This breaks my heart. The damage done to the economy by the last revolution was still evident when Bambino and I had visited in 2006 and still when he returned alone in 2008. How long it's going to take to put things back in order this time, with the whole world struggling now, is hard to say, but it leaves the population even more vulnerable.

In speculating on who's behind this revolution (we really don't know, it's only speculation), Bambino and I both suspect Russia (whereas we're both fairly sure the US was behind the previous one). For one thing, there were a lot more weapons on the streets for this takeover than the one in 2005, so we're sure someone was funding it (not many of the people we saw in photos holding those weapons looked like they could afford them on their own). Also there's this:
“The political behavior of the United States has created a situation where the new authorities may want to look more to Russia than to the United States, and it will strengthen their political will to rebuff the United States,” said Bakyt Beshimov, an opposition leader who fled Kyrgyzstan last August in fear for his life.
and this:
Paul Quinn-Judge, Central Asia project director for International Crisis Group, a research organization, said Russia had stoked anti-American sentiment in Kyrgyzstan in recent months, often over the issue of the base.
and this:
While Mr Bakiyev's relationship with the Kremlin was seen to be increasingly fragile, Mrs Otunbayeva is believed to have close ties to Moscow, which she thanked for its support in her first press conference as interim leader.
Indeed, despite Roza Otunbayeva's long ties with the US, she's not coming out with a terribly strong endorsement of our being there, which I believe she will work toward, but obviously feels the need to be careful about:
The unrest, which spread across the capital on Wednesday, seemed to pose a potential threat to a critical American air base supporting the NATO campaign in nearby Afghanistan. But Roza Otunbayeva, a former foreign minister who has emerged as head of a coalition of opposition groups, said Thursday that the supply line would not be immediately affected.

“Its status quo will remain in place,” she said at a news conference in the Parliament building. But she warned: “We still have some questions on it. Give us time and we will listen to all the sides and solve everything.”
The situation could become volatile again, though (
Bambino's not convinced the violence is over), depending on Bakiyev's next stop. Otunbayeva is convincingly dismissing his options as nil, but there are two rumors floating about. One is that he actually never left Bishkek and is hiding on the US base outside the city. This is the most dangerous situation if true, IMO. Not only would it re-ignite major violence should he try to retake power, but if he's truly the guest of the Americans there it might launch protests at the base itself. The other rumor (Bambino heard this from family) is that he has gone to Osh and is organizing his own counter-protest, 50,000 people strong, to retake the capital. I suspect, now that Bakiyev's Bishkek home has reportedly been looted, though, that he won't do more than slink away with all the money he can steal. Bambino wants the international community to bring him (and his predecessor) to trial for robbing the people of their money. I concur. The people of Kyrgyzstan deserve much better than they've gotten from their government.

Labels: kyrgyzstan, politics


Blogger Mead McLean said...

That's completely heartbreaking to hear about. Just this morning I was pondering over the fact that one rarely sees news outside of the media. It must be terrible to be in a place where news happens just beyond your front door. How bad must it get to take to the streets like that?

4/08/2010 10:19:00 AM  
Blogger Julie Sadler said...

Thanks for this description Ed. I was a bit frustrated yesterday as I roamed around the net looking for a better explanation.
It's so very sad to see all this unrest. I worry for Bambino's relatives. After all, we are all members of the same family.

4/08/2010 10:33:00 AM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

Thanks for this report, Ed. On a personal level, it's good to know that Bambino's family is safe and that your gallery artists are OK. On a larger, more political note, I saw from the many internet photos yesterday hat there were mostly men in the street (and, thus, mostly men dying). I wondered where the women were. It is heartening to see a woman, and a strong force against corruption, emerging as a leader. Please keep us posted, as the news has not covered this as well as you have. Maybe Murat should string for CNN?

4/08/2010 11:59:00 AM  
Anonymous nemastoma said...

Thank you Ed and Bambino for shedding light on the crisis from a very personal point of view.

4/08/2010 12:31:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

I thought about bambino when I heard about this, and I was expecting this thread where I can finally express my support to Bambino and his family.

Also to M&G who are so officially the only visual artists I know from the country.

Cedric C

4/08/2010 12:40:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe the reason there were so few women relates to a previous Ed post regarding violence and males. You'll see plenty of women at the forefront of marches against things like the WTO. But when things turn violent you usually don't see a lot of women tearing up pavement and grabbing things to use as weapons. I think in general men are far more likely to resort to violence. Also, while I think Ed might be correct in thinking Russia had a hand in all this my understanding is that the weapons were acquired from police that had been beaten up, abandoned their posts, military vehicles that had been commandeered, etc. The protesters were definitely outgunned yesterday- though I would imagine that situation has changed today. I'm also glad Bambino's family is safe.

4/08/2010 03:01:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

You could be right about the weapons, Anonymous. I too saw reports of protesters taking them away from police they had overtaken. There's a few images of what look like opposition snipers I've seen too, and those folks look like they came with their weapons. There were mainly only weapons in the hands of the police during the last revolution...this one was definitely more violent.

Reports in today suggest the violence continued Thursday evening, but that the interim government is getting things together. The scary unresolved issue is whether Bakiyev will relent and resign. My guess as to why he hasn't already (and I have no proof of this) is that the US is suggesting they'll recognize him if he regains power.

We do have our supply route to be concerned with, I get it, but Bakiyev and especially his son, are no friends of the people.

4/08/2010 03:10:00 PM  
Blogger Hungry Hyaena said...

Indeed, when I first read the news, I linked immediately here, hoping to find some perspective. Thanks for offering your insights, as well as those of Bambino. I'm happy to read that his Kyrgyz family and friends are alright.

4/08/2010 03:55:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just watched a Russia Today clip on YouTube. It would appear the looting has gotten completely out of control- even the local art museum was looted. The police and military have re-entered the city. Here's a link to the clip (keep in mind that Russia Today typically presents the Putin viewpoint- perhaps the Russians are creating up a scenario where they can intervene and restore calm and present themselves as the saviors? I doubt it but you never know. One thing is for certain, Putin was very unhappy with the US airbase.)

4/08/2010 03:56:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In light of USA being comfortable with Bakiev's corrupution a bit of "Russia's hand" may be not so bad idea. Putin's angry about drugs traffic to Russia from US-run Afganistan..

4/09/2010 01:12:00 PM  

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