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Kyrgyz Rivals Vie for Legitimacy

President's Sudden Ouster Exposes Rifts Among Opposition

By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 28, 2005; Page A14

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan, March 27 -- Politicians competed for legitimacy Sunday in the aftermath of the popular uprising in Kyrgyzstan that abruptly forced longtime president Askar Akayev out of office last week. But in the handsomely carpeted corridors of power, what reigned was confusion.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) prepared to rush three constitutional experts to the tiny mountain republic to help it navigate the murky new political landscape.

A woman asks for the reopening of a highway briefly blocked by backers of ousted Kyrgyz president Askar Akayev. (Ivan Sekretarev -- AP)

"The political crisis in this country has been improved but not resolved," said Alois Peterle, an envoy for the OSCE, a 55-nation group that focuses on security issues. The experts were expected to arrive in two or three days, Peterle said at a news conference.

At issue is who can rightfully claim authority after the departure of Akayev, who had ruled the Central Asian republic of 5 million people since 1990. Akayev fled Thursday after demonstrators overran the presidential headquarters, known as the White House. The protests were sparked by recent elections that installed a parliament dominated by Akayev's cronies. The opposition has said the vote was manipulated.

The new legislature was seated earlier this month and has continued to meet on one floor of the parliament building. The old legislature has reconvened on another floor and decreed that it would govern until April 15, the five-year anniversary of its term. The old legislature also voted to schedule a presidential election for June 26.

[On Monday, the lower house of the old parliament suspended its work in an effort to end the political crisis, the Associated Press reported. Lower house speaker Ishenbai Kadyrbekov urged the old parliament's upper house to do the same.]

On Sunday, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, an opposition politician installed as acting president, said he would run for the presidency.

But a prominent rival of Bakiyev's lodged a dramatic public dissent Sunday. Felix Kulov, a former mayor of Bishkek who was jailed by Akayev, declared that the new parliament was legitimate.

"The old parliament's term has expired," Kulov, a former chief of the local KGB, told lawmakers. He warned opposition figures against mounting fresh demonstrations. A spasm of violent looting had ensued in Bishkek, the capital, after the uprising last week.

"If you get people out, I will take measures to arrest you," he said.

Kulov withdrew the threat a few moments later, after the acting prosecutor general reminded him that he was threatening the people who had just released him from jail. "I am too tired," Kulov said, offering an apology.

Kulov's outburst brought to the surface the rivalries simmering among the opposition. Kulov's Dignity party has held back from joining the coalition of opposition groups that produced Bakiyev, a former prime minister whom Kulov supporters call a latecomer to criticism of Akayev.

In the first hours after the revolution, however, the rivals appeared to be working together. Kulov agreed to take charge of security, leaving Bakiyev to assume the powers of both president and prime minister.

"They're in tandem, they could really do a good job," said Irisbek Omurzakov, editor of the pro-reform newspaper Tribuna.

Meanwhile, lawmakers conceded that they were confused by the situation.

"Every day the decisions contradict the previous day's decisions," said Marat Sultanov, a member of the former legislature who, like numerous others, believes he was unfairly disqualified from reelection by Akayev's election commission. The chairman of the commission resigned Sunday.

"Yes, I see some dangers," Sultanov said about the confusion. "I would characterize it as some underground games." Then he smiled and started down a hallway of the parliament building. "Now I have to rush off to join these games!"

Despite the intrigues, the atmosphere remained calm. The capital awoke Sunday to a carpet of snow, with no sign of the counter-demonstration that supporters of Akayev had vowed to bring to the streets. The demonstrators reportedly blocked a highway leading to Akayev's home town 40 miles from Bishkek, but the road was said to be open again by day's end.

Peterle, the OSCE envoy, acknowledged the situation could change. "The question of security is very much connected with political issues," he said.

But the envoy discounted predictions that political rivalries within the opposition were tipping the country toward chaos.

"So far, I don't see grounds for such a forecast," he said.

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