Behind the scenes as President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a new nuclear weapons pact on April 8, the two nations parted on another new development: Russia lent tacit support for the opposition coalition that took power in nearby Kyrgyzstan in what amounted to a one-day coup, while U.S. officials hinted at alarm.
Thousands of protesters took to the streets in the former Soviet republic April 7 in planned demonstrations over state-led price gouging and corruption. But few appreciated their strength: By midnight-when the government of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev had called a curfew and ordered streets closed in Bishkek, the capital-opposition masses instead controlled the streets, government buildings, and state-run media. Bakiyev had fled.
Ruby Johnston, an American who works in Kyrgyzstan, told me she sensed that things were going from bad to worse earlier in the week, when she and a team of caregivers from Canada visited a hospital in Tokmok, a town of 60,000 east of the capital, Bishkek. Johnston and her husband Lynn lead a small organization involved in child welfare and elderly care, Lambs International.
"There was a little baby lying in a bed, awake and obviously very sick, with an IV but absolutely no one on the ward caring for him. No one." Over the years she has become accustomed to harsh conditions: At the hospital in Tokmok, most patients have to bring their own mattresses. But as Kyrgyz residents have slid further into economic and political crisis, she said she had not realized that what have long been "devastating conditions" could in one day turn the country upside down. Officials estimate up to 100 people were killed and hundreds wounded.
Johnston described the protest hours as "quite frightening," as her group made its way to the Bishkek airport to be sure they could get out of the country. Hundreds of men lined the roads, in some places pulling drivers from passenger taxi-vans called mashukas and beating them. When her group passed a well-known restaurant called Hawaii-a "very nice complex" many associate with the wealth of Bakiyev's cronies-it was in flames. Johnston said the owners had been killed.
"It felt as if our van was invisible, and we praise God we got through," she said.
Kyrgyzstan is one of the poorest countries of the former Soviet republics. With 5 million people in the mountains of Central Asia, it long has been torn by political conflict and corruption.
Bakiyev came to power in 2005 in a widely touted "Tulip Revolution" many thought would bring democracy and stability. But observers say he instead enriched himself and his family at the expense of the country. Over the past two years, Kyrgyz authorities have clamped down on open media. Earlier this month, reports Johnston, all blogs (including her own), Twitter, and Facebook accounts were closed or censored. At the same time prices, particularly utilities, doubled.
Opposition leader Roza Otunbayeva said April 8 that parliament had been dissolved and she would lead an interim government. She called on Bakiyev to resign and said new elections would be held in six months. A former ambassador to the United States who helped lead the Tulip Revolution, Otunbayeva has had strong ties to both the United States and Russia.
Kyrgyzstan is one of the closest U.S. allies in the region, and the only country to host both U.S. and Russian air bases. The U.S. base provides a key supply link to U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Russia at one time pressured Bakiyev to close the U.S. base, but instead he renewed its lease. How a new government will thread its way between the two powers may be its first challenge.