Looters, Vigilantes Clash In Kyrgyzstan's Capital

The leaders of this week's bloody uprising in Kyrgyzstan are trying to get a hold on their control of the country. The president has fled but refuses to relinquish office. In the capital Bishkek, groups of vigilantes tried to stop looters.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

And in the remote nation of Kyrgyzstan this morning, the leaders of this week's bloody uprising are trying to get a good hold on their control of that country. The president has fled, but refuses to relinquish office. In the capital Bishkek last night, groups of vigilantes tried to stop looters. And the lingering question is: What will happen next for this strategically important country?

Joining us now is NPR's David Greene, who's been out on the streets of the capital this morning. How are you doing, David?

DAVID GREENE: I'm good, Renee. I'm talking to you from the main promenade, right near the government building. And I can't tell you how much the situation just changes here by the hour or two. I mean, last night was very tense in the capital.

There were gangs of looters driving around quickly in cars and firing guns out into the night. At one point, my hotel called me, and they'd had gone outside to see who had their curtains open. And they said close your curtains now because of the situation.

But this morning was bright, sunny. It felt like a big sigh of relief. So it's tense. But this is the Bishkek that I had read about before coming. It's a young, very energy-filled city, and we're seeing that today.

MONTAGNE: Tell us a little more about the president. He's fled, but he's not leaving office, he says.

GREENE: Yeah. We finally heard from him yesterday after a couple days of silence. President Bakiyev is somewhere in the south, which is his bastion of support. And he did a couple of interviews with news organizations.

He said that - he basically acknowledged that he doesn't have control of the country. He doesn't have any levers of power. But he said he's not backing down. He's not resigning. He still insisted that he is the elected president of this country, but he did say he's opened to talking with the opposition.

So there has been speculation and some fear here in the capital that President Kurmanbek Bakiyev might try to rally his forces down in the south and start trying to cause a disturbance and try to fight his way back to power. But there has been no evidence of that happening so far, and the president did not suggest that that was his intention yesterday.

MONTAGNE: And, David, one of the reasons this place is so interesting or could be so interesting to those in the West, is that Russians are competitive with Americans for influence there - which, you know, harks back to sort of another era, in a way.

What has been the Russian role in all of this?

GREENE: That is a huge question mark. I mean, one of the interesting things was when this new interim government came into power, one of the earliest governments to embrace it was the Russian government and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. As, I said, that the president of this country still says he's in power. Nevertheless, people from the new government are in Moscow today, talking to officials in Russia.

Russian aid has been very important in the past for Kyrgyzstan, and the new government is surely going to be asking the Russian government for support. The question is what the Russian government will ask for in return.

One thing that Russia has always wanted is to get rid of this U.S. air base in Kyrgyzstan that the Americans use to support the war in Afghanistan. And it's a very important base for the American forces. Russia just does not like the idea of the Americans having a military footprint in this former Soviet space.

And Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister, has denied any Russian involvement in this popular uprising in Kyrgyzstan so far. But there's a lot of speculation, some reports of Russian officials suggesting that now that there's been an apparent change in power here, it's time to get that base out of Kyrgyzstan.

So it's a huge question mark. But certainly, this - you can say that this feels like a proxy battle between the Americans and the Russians, whether it's overt or not from either side.

MONTAGNE: And the Russians themselves also have a base there in Kyrgyzstan.

GREENE: They do, and that's one reason that the Russians feel like it's their property. I mean, the Russians are very protective of their backyard, especially, you know, in post-Soviet times and these days. And Kyrgyzstan is no different than any of the other neighboring countries in the eyes of Russia.

MONTAGNE: David, thanks very much.

GREENE: My pleasure, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's David Greene, speaking to us from Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan.

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