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UI visiting scholar and Kyrgyz hopes for best

BY REGINA ZILBERMINTS | APRIL 09, 2010 7:30 AM

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Five years ago, Asylbek Zhoodonbekov stood in front of government buildings in Kyrgyzstan and demanded change.

It didn’t come. In fact, it got worse.

“I really hoped but was disappointed,” the University of Iowa visiting scholar said. “I really hoped there will be a new leader, and everything will change. But for five years, it’s been worse than the president we overthrew.”

Now, opposition leaders have again overthrown the government in the nation of 5 million, declaring Thursday they would hold power for six months.

Deposed President Kurmanbek Bakiyev has refused to relinquish power, though he’s been releasing statements from an undisclosed location as the violence, which has killed dozens and wounded hundreds more, continued.

Bakiyev initially came to power after the March 2005 “Tulip Revolution” deposed President Askar Akayev; he won a landslide victory in the presidential election of July 2005. But for five years, dissatisfaction with Bakiyev has grown. In July 2009, Bakiyev gained re-election, but in an election largely regarded as fraudulent.

This week’s violence is hardly unexpected. The unrest in Kyrgyzstan, a nation critically important to U.S. strategic interests, has only grown since 2005. And UI political-science Professor Vicki Hesli says the unrest is actually a result of unrealized expectations associated with the revolution and was finally triggered by last summer’s fraudulent presidential elections.

“That was the last straw for the people of Kyrgyzstan. The precipitating event was the July 2009 manipulated election,” she said. “It’s just that it took a number of protests between that point and now, to the point the opposition was strong enough to take control of the TV station and government buildings and the like.”

Zhoodonbekov said he wasn’t surprised by this week’s events. In fact, the political and socioeconomic situation has long been close to revolution.

Before this week, he said, he called home around three times a week. Now, he calls two or three times a day and constantly reads news updates online. All his friends and family are safe.

The United States has 1,100 troops stationed at the Manas Air Force Base in Kyrgyzstan and it serves as a major support for the fighting in Afghanistan. Russia also has a base in the area.

Kyrgyzstan is the only nation to host military bases for both former Cold War foes.

President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev discussed the situation briefly at their meeting in Prague on Thursday, according to news reports.

Hesli said the shift in power may actually benefit the United States. There is no indication the existence of the base will be threatened by new leadership. And Hesli believes the new head of the interim government, Roza Otunbayeva, is likely to be a better ally to the U.S. than Bakiyev.

“She has years of diplomatic experience and good relations with the West,” Hesli said. “It could very well be a positive development in U.S. relations with Kyrgyzstan.”

For Zhoodonbekov, the most important change won’t depend on the leaders but upon changing the system itself.

“It must be the last revolution,” he said.



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