Kyrgyzstan on brink of revolution, state of emergency declared

Violent protests erupt in Kyrgyzstan. Thai government declares a state of emergency. NATO accused of civilian deaths in Afghanistan. Russia announces new anti-terror measures in the North Caucasus. All this and more in today’s security briefing.
Rukeyya Khan
7 April 2010

A state of emergency has been declared in Kyrgyzstan following violent clashed between police and anti-government protestors on Wednesday. Kyrgyz troops opened fire on demonstrators in the capital, Bishkek, outside the offices where President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was sheltering. Kyrgyzstan’s health ministry said at least forty people have died and more than 400 wounded. The opposition contends that 100 protestors have been killed.

Reuters reports that there was 'intense gunfire in the center of Bishkek and a series of blasts.' Crowds of people reportedly chanting 'Bakiyev out!' were met by riot police stood in front of the presidential palace. According to reports, some 1,000 protestors stormed the prosecutor-general's office. Demonstrators seized control of the Kyrgyz parliament and state television, though it resumed broadcasting later on Wednesday.

Fighting spread beyond the capital to other regions. In the northwestern city of Talas, protestors looted police headquarters and over-ran a government building on Wednesday. In the eastern region of Issyk-Kul, demonstrators seized the regional administration building.

It is the second day of unrest caused by mounting public anger over corruption, poverty and rising energy prices. Political disputes between the opposition and government are believed to be the immediate trigger for the fighting. Overnight, the authorities arrested senior opposition figures after opposition activists seized government buildings in Talas yesterday.

Conflicting media reports have emerged about the fate of the Kyrgyz interior minister, Moldomus Kongantiyev. Some have suggested that he was beaten and killed on Wednesday. Others maintain that protestors forced him to call his subordinates and call off the crackdown on protestors. The deputy prime minister, Akylbek Zhaparov, has reportedly been taken hostage.

Russia has called on Kyrgyz authorities to exercise restraint and settle disputes without the use of force. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who visited the country over the weekend, urged all sides to respect the rule of law. Although the Kyrgyz government has vowed to crack down 'severely' on the protests, it is unclear whether it will survive the unrest.

Demotix/Medet Tiulegenov. May not be reproduced without permission.

The openSecurity verdict: Wednesday's unrest in Kyrgyzstan is widely believed to be the result of a weakening economy combined with poverty and corruption. Last year, the Kyrgyz economy grew by just over two percent, down from eight percent a year earlier. The global economic crisis has hit the country's labourers hardest. Unemployment figures have steadily increased together with the cost of fuel and electricity. A third of the country's inhabitants live below the poverty line and the failure to tackle such endemic problems is according to some analysts the primary reason for instability. The country has also experienced a drop in remittances which accounted for approximately thirty percent of GDP in 2008.

Bakiyev, who came to power five years ago in the Tulip Revolution, has been accused of consolidating his grip on power, jailing opponents and failing to tackle corruption. Hopes for democracy in the country were all but dashed following Bakiyev's ascent to power in 2005. In a report published in 2008, the International Crisis Group said the political system had been transformed into a 'functional one-party state ruled by a small elite, with President Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s family at its core.' Instead of opening up politics, the International Crisis Group accused Bakiyev of creating a 'monopoly over economic and political patronage.' In 2009, the US state department human rights report also documented a pattern of human rights violations including arbitrary killings, torture and detention.

The legitimacy of Bakiyev's rule has also been brought into question.Last years election, in which Bakiyev secured 76 percent of the popular vote, failed to comply with the country's international commitments and widespread forgery was well-documented.

Kyrgyz authorities have been accused by rights groups of heavy-handed tactics and of cracking down on dissenting voices. Activists say rights abuses are systematic, including attacks on political opponents and journalists. On a recent visit to the country, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called on the government to protect free speech and freedom of press following the closure of an opposition newspaper and other media outlets.

Wednesday’s unrest in the country poses a number of problems for the strategic interests of the US, Russia and China. Located in the heartland of central Asia, Kyrgyzstan plays a pivotal role in efforts to contain the spread of Islamist militancy in the region. The US established a base in the country after it overthrew the Taliban government in Afghanistan in 2001. The country has been a focal point for US-Russian rivalry; last year, the Kyrgyz parliament voted to approve the closure of the US base after securing $2 billion in aid and credit from Russia. Washington later paid $180 million to keep its base active in the area. Last month, US General David Pataeus met with Kyrgyz officials to ensure that the country remains part of its sphere of influence in central Asia.

Given foreign interests in Kyrgyzstan, Bakiyev is likely to hold on to power if China, Russia and the US remain silent on the recent unrest and the country’s human rights track record. Critics of Bakiyev say that US reliance on the Manas air base has meant Bakiyev has felt little pressure to hold free elections and introduce democratic reforms. So far, the repercussions of Wednesday’s violence remain unclear.

So too are the demands of the opposition. Omurbek Tekebayev, the leader of the main opposition party, Ata-Meken, announced on Wednesday that he was negotiating with the president and demanding that he step down, adding that he wants every family in Kyrgyzstan to adopt the philosophy 'freedom or death.' Whether such rhetoric will manifest itself in real change will depend very much on how the international community responds to the crisis in the country. Should the response be a muted one, the country's fate will likely be settled by force and violence.

Thai government declares a state of emergency

Thai protestors managed to briefly enter the grounds of the country's parliament before retreating on Wednesday. An estimated 3,000 demonstrators breached the Parliament compound forcing Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's cabinet to be evacuated by helicopter. The latest escalation in protests has forced the prime minister to cancel his trip to the US where he was expected to take part in the international nuclear summit.

The red shirt movement contends that Abhisit came to power illegitimately when ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted in a 2006 coup following corruption allegations. Their escalating protests have led the prime minister to declare a state of emergency in Bangok on Wednesday. According to the BBC, the 'emergency law gives sweeping powers to the security forces and in theory bans public gatherings of more than five people.' Local hotels and businesses have complained that the weeks-old stand-off has cost them millions of dollars in lost trade. Thousands of anti-government protestors remain in Bangok and have so far shown no signs of leaving voluntarily.

NATO accused of civilian deaths in Afghanistan

A NATO air strike in the restive southern Afghan province of Helmand killed four civilians, including two women and children, according to officials yesterday. The incident occurred on Monday in the Nahr-e-Saraj area. Further civilian casualties were reported in the eastern Kapisa province where a clash between NATO troops and suspected insurgents killed two children and wounded two others. Details have also emerged of a bungled NATO mission in the village of Khataba in eastern Afghanistan in February which led to the death of five civilians. An Afghan official described the deaths as ‘barbaric’ and said that ‘apologizing will not work any more - these attacks have to stop.’ Analysts say the tension between NATO-led international forces and Afghan officials and elders could undermine efforts to defeat the Taliban.

Meanwhile, the BBC has learnt that a Taliban commander who was jailed for kidnapping foreigners in 2004 has been released early. Akbar Agha, who headed a Taliban splinter group Jaish-ul-Muslimeen (The Army of Muslims), was accused of kidnapping three UN workers in Kabul and sentenced to sixteen years in prison. He is believed to have been pardoned by President Hamid Karzai and released in August last year.

Elsewhere, the former UN deputy head of mission in Afghanistan, Peter Galbraith, has accused Hamid Karzai of being an unreliable partner to the US and said that he may be taking illegal drugs. Referring to Karzai’s recent accusations leveled against foreigners for committing electoral fraud in last year’s national elections, Galbraith said Karzai is both ‘emotional' and ‘off balance.’ Karzai is expected to meet president Barack Obama in May though White House spokesman Robert Gibbs warned that the administration would continue to ‘evaluate' his recent provocative remarks and decide if it would be ‘constructive’ to host the planned meeting.

Russia announces new anti-terror measures in North Caucasus

Russian president Dmitry Medvedev called for the adoption of a number of new anti-terror measures on Wednesday to bolster Russia's security apparatus in the volatile Caucasus region. They include the creation of a special anti-terrorism task force which is expected to be operational from 19 April and tougher punishments for those involved in aiding and carrying out terrorist activities. The initiatives are part of the Kremlin's response to attacks in Moscow and Dagestan that killed more than fifty people last week.


Photos: All Rights Reserved. C. Demotix/Medet Tiulegenov. May not be reproduced without permission.

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