• The Star Staff

From hiding, head of central Asia’s only Democracy says he’s quitting

By Andrew Higgins

After more than a week in hiding following a disputed election, the president of Kyrgyzstan — Central Asia’s only democracy — on Thursday announced his plans to resign, saying that he did not want to go down in history as a leader “who shed blood and shot at his own citizens.”

In a statement issued from an undisclosed location, the president, Sooronbai Jeenbekov, said he had “taken a decision to resign,” although he did not specify whether he had already quit.

Jeenbekov vanished from view after protesters, enraged by Oct. 4 parliamentary elections that were marred by widespread vote-buying, stormed the president’s office and other government buildings in the capital, Bishkek. He was rumored to have taken refuge in a Russian military air base in the town of Kant, about 12 miles from Bishkek, but his exact whereabouts remained unclear.

His departure is the third time in 15 years that violent protests have toppled a president of Kyrgyzstan, the only country in the region with a vibrant civil society, a relatively free press and regular competitive elections for Parliament and the presidency.

The Kremlin, which in 2010 helped engineer the toppling of a Kyrgyz president who had resisted Russian pressure to shut down a since-closed U.S. air base in his country, responded coolly to the announcement Thursday. Jeenbekov has had good relations with President Vladimir Putin of Russia.

Russia is watching the events in Bishkek “very closely,” Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, told journalists in Moscow, and wants “the situation there to calm down as soon as possible.”

But he added that Russia, which suspended financial aid to Kyrgyzstan after last week’s unrest, would not resume funding until the country has a functioning government. He noted that it currently has no cabinet and that the president’s resignation cannot not take effect until approved by Parliament.

With the president apparently out of the way, his role as head of state — and commander in chief of the armed forces — will be taken by the speaker of Parliament, who has also come under mounting pressure to resign.

In what is formally a parliamentary democracy, however, the governing of Kyrgyzstan falls to Sadyr Japarov, a convicted kidnapper who was sprung from jail last week by anti-government protesters. He was named prime minister Saturday by lawmakers who gathered for an unusual and, his opponents say, illegal session without a quorum at the president’s official residence.

In announcing his resignation, Jeenbekov, who last week ordered troops into the capital to restore order, called on Japarov and rival politicians to “withdraw their supporters from the capital and give back a peaceful life to the people of Bishkek.”

Hundreds of protesters — some of them Japarov’s supporters, but also a group that included men whom observers in Bishkek described as paid thugs linked to criminal groups — gathered outside the president’s official residence Thursday to demand that Jeenbekov give up the presidency.

A group of Japarov’s followers, mostly young men, clashed violently last week with supporters of another would-be prime minister. Since that confrontation, there have been growing fears that Japarov, reviled by his critics as a bare-knuckled nationalist rabble-rouser, would again mobilize his followers if the president did not step down.

Jeenbekov, who was elected in 2017, had said that he would leave office once calm returned to the capital, which has in recent days been free of the turmoil that engulfed it last week.

Japarov, the new prime minister, has long insisted that his 2017 conviction on charges of organizing the kidnapping of a regional governor was politically motivated in a country where each new government has often jailed members of the previous one and rival politicians. Jeenbekov had his presidential predecessor, Almazbek Atambayev, arrested and jailed on corruption charges soon after taking office.

Atambayev, who was serving an 11-year sentence, was among those sprung from jail last week, along with Japarov, the new prime minister. He was rearrested Saturday.

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