President Askar Akayev's administration appears to be losing its grip on key provinces in southern Kyrgyzstan, as anti-government protesters seized control of the airports in Osh and Jalal-Abad. The heads of law-enforcement bodies in Osh also have reportedly thrown their support behind an opposition-led "People's Power" shadow government.
Authorities in Bishkek have sent out feelers for a negotiated end to the confrontations in Osh and Jalal-Abad. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Emboldened opposition leaders, however, say they will only enter into talks with Akayev himself. Kurmanbek Bakiyev, the head of an opposition coalition in Bishkek, went on to state that Akayev is reluctant to directly engage in a political dialogue. "The president is still not prepared for negotiations," Bakiyev told journalists March 21. "Let him show the initiative. If the president warms to the idea of talks, this would be a big plus. If not, this would be a big minus for him and his administration."
Bakiyev also accused Akayev's administration of trying to "provoke bloodshed and place the blame on the opposition," possibly creating a pretext for the introduction of a state of emergency in Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyz officials have adamantly denied any intention to introduce a state of emergency, which would enable the imposition of martial law.
On March 21, the US Embassy joined the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in calling for calm and negotiations. "The [US] Embassy urges both the demonstrators and the government to resolve differences peacefully and with respect for the rule of law," said a statement issued March 21. An OSCE statement issued the previous day called for an immediate dialogue.
While dodging dialogue, Akayev appeared to be probing for ways to slow the opposition's momentum. On March 21, the president sought to address a central complaint of the protest movement, meeting with the head of the country's Central Election Commission and Supreme Court and ordering an investigation into alleged voting irregularities connected with the recent parliamentary election. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. According to a presidential press service statement, Akayev stressed that "the overwhelming number of electoral contests" during the two rounds of voting on February 27 and March 13 "conformed strictly to law and did not raise any doubts," the AKIpress news agency reported. Akayev added that in electoral districts "where election results provoked extreme public reaction," voters should know "who is right and who is wrong."
Some political observers believe that Akayev's call for an election investigation may be coming too late to mollify protesters. In recent days, demonstrators' demands for Akayev's resignation have intensified. Indeed, the fast pace of events in southern Kyrgyzstan -- where anti-government protesters are quickly establishing an alternate authority dubbed People's Power -- seems to be drastically reducing the president's room for maneuver.
The confrontation between Akayev and the opposition began brewing in southern cities during the run-up to the February 27 first round of parliamentary voting. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The pace of events accelerated rapidly after March 18, when demonstrators seized the regional administration building in Osh. The take-over came a day after the third anniversary of the bloody riot in Aksy - an event that is arguably the source of the present confrontation. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
During the early hours of March 20, authorities mounted a special operation to dislodge demonstrators from the government headquarters both in Osh and Jalal-Abad provinces. Security forces regained control of both buildings amid violent confrontations with protesters. However, in both provinces, opposition forces regrouped and re-took the buildings.
Popular passions in both cities were stoked by what opposition leaders characterize as authorities' brutal behavior during the March 20 confrontations at the government buildings. Initial reports said several protesters had been killed during the special police operations, but, on March 21, opposition leaders confirmed that no deaths had occurred.
Witnesses in Osh claimed some of the security officers who carried out the operation on the regional administrative headquarters were not Kyrgyz. According to Tolekan Ismailova, a civil society activist in Osh, three police paramilitaries in opposition custody had revealed that they were Kazakhstani citizens.
By March 21, the protesters moved swiftly to consolidate their power in both Osh and Jalal-Abad. In Osh, opposition leaders proclaimed a People's Power government as the provisional authority in the province. In several instances, protesters set fire to portraits of Akayev.
More ominously for the future prospects of Akayev's administration, law-enforcement officers in southern Kyrgyzstan no longer seem to be following Bishkek's orders. AKIpress reported that the head of the People's Power authority in Osh, Anvar Artykov, held talks with regional law-enforcement officials, and received assurances that as of March 22 local security bodies would obey the provisional regional authority. Police in Jalal-Abad have likewise declared their allegiance to People's Power leaders.
Meanwhile, anti-government forces reportedly seized control of the airports in both Osh and Jalal-Abad moves apparently designed to make it difficult for the government to dispatch security troops to the two regions. Given that southern Kyrgyzstan is separated from the capital Bishkek by the Tian Shan Mountain Range, Akayev's administration would face a significant strategic obstacle if it attempted to reassert its authority via an overland operation.
The opposition appears to want to go on the political offensive, with mass protests being planned for Talas and Naryn provinces. Opposition leaders also suggested they may try to carry out a demonstration in Bishkek in the coming days.
With security officials in southern Kyrgyzstan not responding to Bishkek's directives, Akayev's chances of reasserting his authority in the region may depend on whether his opponents make a misstep. Given the tenuous nature of the opposition movement's cohesiveness, such a misstep cannot be ruled out.
Prior the election, Akayev administration officials often exploited the lack of unity among opposition leaders in implementing government policy. The disputed parliamentary election helped forge a united opposition front. Nevertheless, the protesters still have trouble speaking with one voice. For example, while Bakiyev --the titular head of the opposition coalition established shortly before the second round of voting March 13 has held out the possibility of negotiations with Akayev, another prominent opposition figure, Roza Otunbayeva, announced that talks with the president were no longer possible, and that his resignation was the only possible way out of the crisis.
Meanwhile in Russia, Dmitry Rogozin, a vocal nationalist in the Russian Duma, called on the Kremlin to intervene in the building confrontation. In an interview with Echo Moskvy radio, Rogozin suggested that Russian President Vladimir Putin's administration should consider the immediate dispatch of a CIS peacekeeping force to southern Kyrgyzstan. Political observers in Bishkek say any effort to deploy CIS peacekeepers would meet with strong resistance from Kyrgyz opposition leaders, who would deem such action as an effort by Moscow to prop up Akayev's administration and to broaden Russian influence in Kyrgyzstan.