In Kyrgyzstan, Bakiyev Now Willing to Step Down

  • Share
  • Read Later
Ed Ou / Reportage / Getty Images for TIME

Embattled Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev speaks to his supporters during a rally in south Kyrgyzstan on April 12, 2010

Updated, April 13, 8.20am ET

A week after a violent uprising ran him out of the capital, Kurmanbek Bakiyev had been refusing to concede the presidency of Kyrgyzstan, holing up with his family and hundreds of bodyguards in the south of the country — specifically, in his native province of Dzhalalabad. Special-forces units loyal to the new government have reportedly been dispatched to arrest Bakiyev, who, with members of his inner circle, has been charged with ordering riot police to open fire on protesters on April 7, littering the streets around the presidential palace with bodies. Bakiyev declared that any attempt to capture and kill him would "drown Kyrgyzstan in blood." But the first signs that the ousted President was prepared to change his mind came at a news conference in his home village of Teyit Tuesday where he said he'll resign if the interim government guarantees his and his family's safety. He also proposed that Roza Otunbayeva, the head of the interim government, come to his southern home base for talks and guaranteed safety for her and other officials. But Otunbayeva's chief of staff, Edil Baisalov, rejected that idea, saying "we are not holding talks with bloody dictators." It wasn't immediately clear if that refusal also constituted a rejection of Bakiyev's call for security guarantees.

Meanwhile, Bakiyev's brother Zhanybek, the ousted head of the security service, has warned of a civil war if anyone tries to storm their compound. Is the only country in the world that hosts military bases for both Russia and the U.S. again on the edge of a bloody civil confrontation?

Otunbayeva confirmed on Friday, April 9, that arrest warrants had been issued for Bakiyev and several male relatives who held senior posts in his administration. She pledged not to use force against them but said she could not guarantee their safety from "marauders" seeking revenge for last week's slaying of protesters. "What he did calls for a serious trial," Otunbayeva told Reuters on Sunday, adding, "To be honest, we can hardly restrain those who are ready to rush there [to his stronghold] with rifles."

Zhanybek Bakiyev, who is now in charge of his brother's personal security force, reacted on Monday with the threat of civil war. "I think it would be wrong. It would be bloodshed, a civil war," he told Russia's RIA Novosti news agency. "If [the interim government's special forces] are willing to test their skills, we are ready to meet them to fight. But we are also ready for dialogue."

Despite the belligerent words, Paul Quinn-Judge, the International Crisis Group's director in Central Asia and a former Moscow bureau chief for TIME, says a civil war between the north and south of the country is very unlikely, even if Bakiyev has resources at his disposal to resist the new government. "Bakiyev may be bluffing. He may be trying to increase pressure on the government to make some concessions. But if he does decide to cause problems, his biggest weapon is not public sympathy — he has very little of that — but a very large amount of money, which he has a lot of tucked away somewhere." At his news conference Tuesday, Bakiyev outlined the conditions under which he would stand down. "I believe, first and foremost, if there is a guarantee that the roaming of these armed people ends in Kyrgyzstan, that this redistribution of property and this armed free-for-all stops," he said. "Secondly, if my personal security and that of my family and my relatives is guaranteed." Bakiyev also stated that the interim government had to "start preparing a snap presidential election to be held within two or three months."

The ousted President's brother admitted on Monday that he had ordered snipers to shoot at armed rioters near the presidential palace last week — a confession unlikely to win the family popularity points. "I ordered my men to open fire only on those who carried weapons. My conscience is clear," he told RIA Novosti. Many of the protesters were able to snatch weapons, including shoulder-mounted grenade launchers, after overpowering and beating riot police on the streets of the capital, Bishkek, and several other cities around the country. They then used the weapons to storm and loot government buildings in a day of upheaval that claimed some 80 lives and left hundreds wounded. By the following day, Bakiyev had fled to his power base in the south, and a new government had claimed power and restored a level of calm.

It remains unclear how much resistance Bakiyev will be able to muster. Alleged eyewitness reports posted on Kyrgyz Internet forums claim that Bakiyev travels around the south with an entourage of 20 bodyguards, while his home is surrounded by about 500 heavily armed men. Still, he admitted to the BBC on Saturday that he has "no real levers of power." On Saturday, he called for the U.N. to send peacekeepers to Kyrgyzstan to prevent further bloodshed. But his calls for foreign help are likely to prove futile. Both Russia and the U.S. have promised aid to the government that toppled him.

The chief concern of the U.S. is to prevent the new leadership from kicking out the U.S. air base in the northern city of Manas, which is a vital transport link for America's war in nearby Afghanistan. About 50,000 coalition troops passed through it in March alone. On Saturday, Otunbayeva assured U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that the new Kyrgyz government would abide by previous agreements to let Manas operate. But the Russian government has lobbied hard to force Kyrgyzstan to evict it, with a senior Russian official telling reporters on April 8 that "in Kyrgyzstan, there should be only one base — Russian." Since last Wednesday's upheaval, operations at the U.S. base have twice been shut down for two days amid deep concerns over security, and troops stationed there have been forbidden from leaving the base.

One of the main threats to stability now, says Quinn-Judge, is a rift in the ruling government, which lacks a charismatic leader and "is not speaking with one voice." The more hard-line elements in their ranks are calling for harsh methods to gain full control of the country and put Bakiyev on trial. "I very much hope the regime is not going to move against him. The last thing a very fledgling and inchoate regime needs is to start relying on shooters," Quinn-Judge said by phone from Bishkek. Whether the opposing forces turn to violence or not, Kyrgyzstan is still far from a return to stability, and that will leave the future of U.S. supply lines to Afghanistan in an unpredictable state.