It’s pretty clear that we just saw an attempted coup in Kyrgyzstan. (A coup or a revolution, depending on how you see the opposition’s role in this.) Opposition forces have driven President Bakiev out of Bishkek, and the opposition leader, Roza Otunbayeva, has claimed the presidency.
Bakiev, however, has not left Kyrgyzstan. He’s now in Southern Kyrgyzstan, the stronghold of his power and the epicenter of the 2005 Tulip Revolution which brought him to power. He has not officially given up power – in fact he’s explicitly stated that he has not resigned. We’re still hearing gunfire in downtown Bishkek.
At this point, we’re balanced between several possible scenarios:
Scenario one – the best case
Bakiev could go quietly. Issue a statement, give up power, leave the country, and retire to Moscow or London. He has the personal wealth to sustain a pleasant life outside Kyrgyzstan. Otunbayeva would then be recognized internationally and establish relations with foreign governments. She’s been talking to Russian Prime Minister Putin, so the new administration might well be in Moscow’s orbit, but that’s not the end of the world. She has promised elections in six months, so we could see a transition to functioning democracy.
Scenario two – a bad case
Instead of going peacefully, Bakiev could use his time in Southern Kyrgyzstan to build support and gather weapons. The sporadic shooting in Bishkek could grow in frequency until it turns into urban warfare, exacerbated when Bakiev brings his troops north to the capital. In a few days, it could go from violent protests to full out civil war.
Otunbayeva seems to have the support of Russia; Bakiev could seek support from Uzbekistan. While he Uzbeks wouldn’t be willing to go visibly head to head against Russia in a proxy war, I could see them quietly supplying weapons and funding to Bakiev just to keep Russia occupied. A civil war could drag on for months, even years. Kyrgyzstan is already a poor country. Protracted violence could destroy its struggling economy, no matter who wins the war in the end.
Scenario three – another bad case
The horrible combo option: Bakiev gives way peacefully, and the precarious collation of opposition parties promptly falls apart. This coup grew from disorganized protests aimed mainly at higher utility prices. It’s not the result of a concerted movement, and the various groups supporting it don’t have a good history of working together smoothly. They’re mostly people who have held power in the past.
Dissention in the ranks could lead to anything from dysfunctional government to open warfare among the different factions. In other words, even if Bakiev leaves quietly, we could still face civil war in Kyrgyzstan.
We could also, of course, see some mixture of all these scenarios. Bakiev could put up a violent resistance for a few days and no more. The opposition coalition could hold but still govern badly. Bakiev might not get Uzbek support, or Otunbayeva might not be as close to Russia as we think.
Right now all we can do is wait. The people of Kyrgyzstan have repeatedly shown their desire for an honest, responsive government. Let’s hope they get it.