Bishkek: Calm, but continued uncertainty

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — The Kyrgyz capital was quieter tonight than it had been the previous two, following a violent government overthrow that left dozens dead and maybe as many as 1,000 injured, but key unanswered questions hung in the air.

President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who fled to the south after protesters stormed his presidential administration two days ago, refused to give up power, challenging the legitimacy of the self-proclaimed provisional government.

At the same time, the new leaders sent mixed messages over the fate of a key U.S. air base, which is crucial for supplying troops in nearby Afghanistan.

Kyrgyz turned out by the thousands today on the capital’s main square to mourn those killed in Wednesday's violent events. The country’s health ministry says that the death toll now numbers at least 76.

After the ceremony large numbers still milled about, and lay flowers at spots where security forces’ bullets cut down protesters. A somber mood lay over the city, and the air was acrid from the buildings that had been looted and burned.

On the gates in front of the presidential administration, its white windows now charred black, mourners had hung photos of the dead. There was also a message: “Death to Bakiyev's family and to [Prime Minister] Daniyar Usenov.”

Small groups formed spontaneously to discuss the past days’ events or the country’s political course. Bermet Kolbaeva, a seamstress, said that she supported the newly-installed government, led by Roza Otunbayeva, a sometime opposition leader and sometime foreign minister.

“[Otunbayeva] is a figure of authority among the population,” Kolbaeva said.

But large groups of tough-looking young men still controlled the city center, patrolling the area in packs. Many were drunk. Meanwhile, it was difficult to ascertain whether the police were absent or merely keeping a low profile. Stores downtown were closed or boarded up. By evening, Bishkek’s center was empty.

Otunbayeva said on television today that many of the young men were needed to counter any attempts at counter-revolution. In addition, she claimed that two bombs had been defused in the heart of the city.

In a press conference on Thursday, Otunbayeva also re-opened the tortured subject of a NATO re-fueling and transit air base at Manas airport outside the capital.

The air base is a crucial component to U.S. President Barack Obama’s plans to raise troop levels in Afghanistan, serving as a way-station for U.S. forces and a hub for non-lethal supplies.

As the route through Pakistan has become increasingly precarious, the base outside Bishkek has increased in importance. But the Kyrgyz remain ambivalent about its presence. Bakiyev, to great fanfare, announced the base’s closing while visiting Moscow early last year. Then, after difficult negotiations, he performed an about-face and said the Americans could stay.

Kyrgyz officials like that the base raises the country's political profile, as well as the $60 million per year the U.S. pays in rent. Another smaller airbase, run by the Russians, assures that this tiny mountainous nation of 5 million punches far above its weight internationally. But many ordinary Kyrgyz citizens would like to see the base closed

Otunbayeva for her part said that while the base would remain open, there were nevertheless “some questions about it.” Other members of the provisional government indicated that it could in fact be shut down.

But before the new government can enter into any negotiations with the Americans, it must first cement its hold on power. Bakiyev fled the capital, but he is not out of the picture completely. Today he conducted interviews with various agencies from his family home in the Jalal-Abad region in the country’s south. He said that he was still the legitimately elected president and had no intention of ceding control.

But for the moment it can be said that he is not entirely the country’s leader. Otunbayeva and her cohorts seem to wield more authority — albeit tenuously. Many Kyrgyz truly seem happy to see the back of Bakiyev, whose government was marked by elections deemed rigged by international observers, authoritarianism and a large number of his relatives in high positions.

“Do I trust Otunbayeva?” asked Azim, a Bishkek student who preferred to give only his first name. “Yes, I do.”

But he added: “Who else is there to trust? It’s only her and her group now.”