Deadly Riots in Kyrgyzstan Challenge Interim Government

Ten days after an interim government overthrew the president in Kyrgyzstan, riots have killed several people and mobs are seizing ethnic minorities’ land and businesses.

Moscow – Unrest is spiraling in Kyrgyzstan, and growing ethnic strife is threatening the tenuous grip of the interim government that seized power in a bloody street revolt 10 days ago.

Days of rioting around the capital, Bishkek, have left several people dead and scores injured. Mobs of impoverished Kyrgyz have targeted businesses and land owned by other ethnic minorities, particularly Russians, for seizure.

In the country’s volatile and ethnically diverse south, which was the home base of deposed President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, outright insurrection by pro-Bakiyev loyalists appears under way.

On Monday, Faizulla Rakhmanov, the governor of Jalalabad, a southern stronghold of the former president, told a rally of 1,000 supporters that they would soon move against the interim government in Bishkek. “We will restore Bakiyev’s rule,” he said. “Bakiyev … will come back.”

Mr. Bakiyev fled Kyrgyzstan last Friday and resigned his presidency after intensive international mediation. On Monday, he reportedly left his temporary exile in neighboring Kazakhstan for an undisclosed destination.

The chief of staff of the interim government, Edil Baisalov, told the Russian Interfax agency Tuesday that Bakiyev could return to Kyrgyzstan “only in the capacity of a prisoner,” charged with the deaths of at least 85 people killed by riot police during the April 7 uprising in Bishkek.

Vast Array of Problems

But the new government, headed by the liberal and multilingual former foreign minister Roza Otunbayeva, faces a vast array of problems, which some experts fear might ultimately overcome it.

“Kyrgyzstan is an extremely poor country, with deep regional divisions, that lacks any strong or developed state institutions,” says Alexander Konovalov, president of the independent Institute for Strategic Assessments in Moscow.

“It’s a mountainous country with serious land shortages. What we’re seeing now are illegal land seizures taking place, but it is happening in a very dangerous way, with mobs attacking the property of ethnic Russians, trying to take their land, homes, and businesses and make them flee,” he says. “I am not sure the interim government will be able to cope with this.”

On Monday, unrest broke out near the village of Mayevka, near Bishkek, where rioters attempted to seize land from non-Kyrgyz landowners. After what Russian media described as “bloody clashes,” the protesters moved into Bishkek and surrounding regions, where looting and violence reportedly continued through the day Tuesday.

Experts say that two “revolutions” in the past five years have unhinged the country’s legal culture and devalued respect for any governmental authority.

“After all this, the Kyrgyz population thinks that if power can be grabbed by people at the top, why can’t they seize a bit of somebody’s property or land?” says Sanobar Shermatova, a central Asia expert with the official Russian RIA-Novosti news agency. “They think they have the right to get something something for themselves.”

Security Vacuum

Some Russian experts say that the extreme weakness of the Kyrgyz state is an open invitation to chaos or Islamist extremists, who have a presence in the south of the country and next door Uzbekistan.

“Kyrgyzstan is an unstable state. The present government is weak and doesn’t control the situation, either in the provinces or in the capital,” says Andrei Grozin, a central Asia expert with the official Institute of the Commonwealth of Independent States in Moscow.

“They will have to agree on the distribution of government positions and, as the people who compose the government are different and some of them are ambitious, they are far from being united. It is becoming more difficult to agree and the problems are growing with each passing day.”