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Bishkek: Calm, but continued uncertainty

In Kyrgyzstan, who is in control: Roza Otunbayeva, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, or gangs of young men?

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.”