Kyrgyz President defiant in face of 'tulip revolution'

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The Independent Online

Askar Akayev, the embattled Soviet-era President of Kyrgyzstan, claims he is facing an attempted coup d'etat and has vowed not to let his strategically important central Asian state become engulfed in a Ukraine-style revolution.

Askar Akayev, the embattled Soviet-era President of Kyrgyzstan, claims he is facing an attempted coup d'etat and has vowed not to let his strategically important central Asian state become engulfed in a Ukraine-style revolution.

As the 60-year-old potentate spoke, Kyrgyzstan, an impoverished former Soviet republic of five million people, looked dangerously close to violent clashes, if not civil war.

The opposition, which says it is seeking to launch a revolution in the style of Ukraine or Georgia, has seized control of two large southern cities after rioting and sometimes violent stand-offs with the police.

Yesterday the opposition said it was marching on the capital Bishkek, in the north, where riot troops moved to protect government buildings. Unlike Ukraine and Georgia where crowds rallied round and listened to influential opposition politicians, Kyrgyzstan's demonstrators have no single leader, a fact that may make their behaviour more unpredictable. The opposition wants Mr Akayev's resignation on the grounds that he has stifled his political and media opponents after initially taking a democracy-friendly line. More specifically it says that parliamentary elections held last month were deeply flawed, with major opposition candidates barred from running.

As a result Mr Akayev's supporters, including two of his children, won all but six seats in the 75-seat parliament. The opposition wants the poll run again.

Mr Akayev, who has ruled the country since 1990, is due to step down in October but is widely suspected of engineering another term in power, a move that is against Kyrgyzstan's constitution. He insists he has no intention of seeking another term.

Mr Akayev appeared willing to compromise on Monday, ordering an investigation into the elections and promising negotiations. Yesterday he adopted a much tougher line, setting the stage for a showdown, though he vowed not to use force.

"Power structures can't show weakness when faced with 'colour' revolutions that are in effect coups d'etat," Mr Akayev told reporters.

The opposition in Kyrgyzstan has chosen yellow as its rallying colour of change, prompting observers to talk of a "lemon" or "tulip" revolution. Mr Akayev claims last month's elections were legitimate and said he would not be "provoked" into calling a state of emergency.

Kyrgyzstan is being closely watched by America and Russia. Both countries have military bases there, but their positions appear far less clear than in the case of Ukraine. Moscow is thought to favour Mr Akayev, while Washington is deemed to be more sympathetic to the opposition.

John MacLeod, a senior editor at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), said the situation in Kyrgyzstan was dangerously volatile.

"It looks very likely that there is going to be some kind of confrontation with the authorities. What distinguishes this from Ukraine or Georgia is the dynamic. In both those situations the parties were prepared to sit back and glower at each other for a bit, but here there are a lot of changes every day with things being captured and re-captured. The big question is what the security forces will do. Using military force would potentially be catastrophic."

Roza Otounbaieva, one of the few identifiable opposition figures and a former ambassador to the UK, told the Russian media yesterday that many security officials had already switched sides. She spoke as large crowds assembled in Osh, a city controlled by the opposition, to demand Mr Akayev's removal and to rail against levels of poverty and unemployment.

On Monday, tens of thousands of protesters armed with petrol bombs and sticks all but drove police out of Osh, having earlier gained control of nearby Jalal-Abad. "The situation is explosive and may go out of control at any moment," Kurmanbek Bakiyev, an opposition figure, said.

Mr MacLeod said Mr Akayev could only defuse the situation by offering a major concession such as re-running the election. Kyrgyzstan is regarded as crucial to central Asia's stability where energy interests intermingle with a huge illegal drugs trade and the US's fight against terror.

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