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Violence in Kyrgyzstan Could Upset U.S. Regional Plans

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

As the violent suppression of protests in Kyrgyzstan's capital, Bishkek, makes international headlines, the rest of the country is bracing itself for further outbursts. An observer on the ground in southern Kyrgyzstan tells World Politics Review that since the escalation of protests that began yesterday, there has been an increased security presence in town centers and people have been advised to stay indoors.

The last straw for already disgruntled citizens may have been when the government of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev increased the price of electricity, the observer tells World Politics Review. But this opposition did not grow overnight. Tensions have long been mounting in the country whose leadership is accused of tightening its grip since gaining power in 2005 and has received criticism from the international community for human rights violations and ethnic discrimination.

As of 2009, Kyrgyzstan ranked 145 on the IMF's list of countries by GDP, just above Kenya and a few spots below Pakistan. Though the largely agriculturally based economy is supplemented by generous mineral deposits, it is lacking in energy resources such as natural gas and petroleum, unlike its wealthy neighbor Kazakhstan to the north. Despite its empty energy coffers, Kyrgyzstan is still valuable to outsiders.

The unrest could provide yet another blow to President Barack Obama's diplomatic efforts as his administration has been working with Bakiyev to strengthen ties with the majority Muslim country in an effort to keep Manas air base -- a strategic refueling point located in Kyrgyzstan's capital Bishkek -- open. Strengthened U.S.-Kyrgyz relations has also been the focus of an effort to maintain a foothold in Central Asia, a region long under Russian influence and currently the object of Chinese interest as well.

Our source on the ground has reported that many in the country are relying on news updates via phone from the micro-blogging site Twitter, as land-based Internet has been intermittently shut off and news sites have been blocked. In the first hours following the escalation in violence, the national television station went off the air, but the New York Times is now reporting that the opposition has taken over that station and is using it to call for Bakiyev and his government to step down.

Reportedly, 17 have been killed in altercations between protesters and riot police.