MOSCOW – Authorities in Kyrgyzstan on Saturday arrested a former president, banned rallies and imposed a curfew in the Central Asian nation's capital, seeking to end a week of turmoil sparked by a disputed parliamentary election.
The declaration of the 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. curfew in Bishkek followed President Sooronbai Jeenbekov's decree on Friday announcing a state of emergency in the city until Oct. 21. On his orders, troops deployed to the capital on Saturday to enforce the measure, but it's unclear whether the military and the police would obey the president's orders or side with his rivals if the political infighting escalates.
Jeenbekov has faced calls to step down from thousands of protesters who stormed government buildings a night after pro-government parties reportedly swept parliamentary seats in last Sunday's vote. The demonstrators also freed former President Almazbek Atambayev, who was sentenced to 11 years in prison in June on charges of corruption and abuse of office that he and his supporters described as a political vendetta by Jeenbekov.
Atambayev was arrested again on Saturday on charges of organizing riots, the State Security Committee said in a statement.
The turmoil marks the third time in 15 years that protesters have moved to topple a government in Kyrgyzstan, a Central Asian nation of 6.5 million people that is one of the poorest to emerge from the former Soviet Union.
As in the uprisings that ousted Kyrgyz presidents in 2005 and 2010, the current protests have been driven by clan rivalries that play a dominant role in the country’s politics.
After an initial attempt to break up protesters in the hours after the vote, police have pulled back and refrained from intervening with the demonstrations. Residents of the capital began forming vigilante groups to prevent looting that accompanied previous uprisings in the country.
Under pressure from protesters, the Central Election Commission has overturned the parliamentary vote results and protest leaders have moved quickly to form a new government. An emergency parliament session on Tuesday nominated lawmaker Sadyr Zhaparov as new prime minister, but the move was immediately contested by other protest groups, plunging the country into chaos.
On Friday, supporters of Zhaparov assailed pro-Atambayev demonstrators on Bishkek’s central square, hurling stones and bottles. A man with a pistol fired several shots at Atambayev’s car as it sped away, but the former president was unhurt. Two other politicians affiliated with Atambayev also had their cars shot at as they left the square, their party said. They weren’t injured.
Lawmakers voted again Saturday to seal Zhaparov's appointment, using proxy votes by those who were in the hall to achieve the necessary quorum.
Zhaparov told the session that the president promised him he would submit his resignation within several days. Amid the political infighting, Jeenbekov said Thursday he could step down, but only after the situation stabilizes.
The presidential decree introducing the state of emergency needs to be approved by parliament, but lawmakers didn't consider the issue at Saturday's session in apparent defiance of the president.
Jeenbekov, who kept a low profile for most of the past week, used the infighting between his foes to dig in. He met with the new chief of the military General Staff on Friday, saying that he relies on the armed forces to help restore order.
“We are witnessing a real threat to the existence of our state,” Jeenbekov said in a statement late Friday. “The peaceful life of our citizens mustn’t be sacrificed to political passions.”
Kyrgyzstan is strategically located on the border with China and once was home to a U.S. air base used for refueling and logistics for the war in Afghanistan. The country is a member of Russia-dominated economic and security alliances, hosts a Russian air base and depends on Moscow’s economic support.
The Kremlin voiced concern about the turmoil in Kyrgyzstan, emphasizing the need to quickly stabilize the situation to prevent chaos.