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Last Updated: Thursday, 9 November 2006, 18:52 GMT
People power forces changes in Bishkek
By Natalia Antelava
BBC News, Bishkek

Kyrgyz opposition supporters celebrate near the parliament building in Bishkek
Protesters celebrated long into the night in Bishkek
After eight days of mass protests, Kurmanbek Bakiyev is now half the president he used to be.

Bowing to the pressure from the opposition, parliament and thousands of protesters in Bishkek's main square, he has agreed to give up some of his power and give more authority to parliament.

This has never happened in Central Asia before - the region where political change is so often violent, and where democracy is, at best, a distant concept.

The last time an anti-government demonstration was held in Uzbekistan in May 2005, hundreds of people were shot by the government troops in the city of Andijan.

Two opposition leaders have been killed in Kazakhstan in 2004 alone; in Tajikistan, President Rakhmonov has just been re-elected for his third term in an election widely condemned by the international observers. And in Turkmenistan there simply is no opposition.

'Failed to deliver'

It was in March 2005 that Kyrgyzstan first showed that things could be different.

We really believed Bakiyev, but things became worse
Asygul, protester

Inspired by peaceful revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, and following rigged elections, thousands of people took to the streets and forced former President Askar Akayev to flee.

But unlike Georgia and Ukraine, their protest was chaotic, at times even violent, and the man who came to power failed to bring the change many here hoped for.

Over the past 18 months many of President Bakiyev's former allies, and supporters, turned against him.

"We really believed Bakiyev, but things became worse," said Asygul, who joined the recent protest in Bishkek's main square.

"Akayev stole so much from people and Bakiyev promised that he would give everything back. But instead he gave it all to his sons and his relatives. We no longer trust him, he broke all his promises."

And according to the opposition For Reforms movement, the biggest promise Mr Bakiyev broke was that of a constitutional reform that would curb his powers and give more authority to parliament.

'Show'

When last week the president refused - yet again - calls for an immediate constitutional change, the opposition brought thousands to the streets.

President Kurmanbek Bakiyev signs an amended constitution in Bishkek
Mr Bakiyev was forced to back down under growing pressure

As the protesters set up tents and refused to leave the square until the president either agreed to reforms or resigned, the government brought hundreds of troops to the streets, and for days it tried to dismiss the opposition demands.

"People don't really understand the difference between the parliamentary and presidential system," Secretary of State Adaham Madumarov told the BBC.

"They just need a show," he said.

'Only the beginning'

But the government may have underestimated its people.

Asygul, who is 58, took us to her village of Shapokov, just outside the capital.

map

Like much of Kyrgyzstan, Shapokov is desperately poor, there are no jobs, no drinking water, the roads are full of potholes.

Asygul's family of nine lives on less than $4 a day. They believe at least some of their problems could be fixed if their local representative in parliament had more power.

Well, he will now. As the pressure on the president grew, as demonstrators continued to shout for his resignation in the square, and as the opposition managed to get two-thirds of the country's MPs on their side, Mr Bakiyev backed down.

In a compromise draft of the constitution, he agreed to curb his powers. Among other changes, it means that the Kyrgyz leader will no longer be able to choose the government ministers.

The opposition leaders say this will help to fight corruption, but what really weakened the president, they say, is the precedent their victory has set.

"It's only the beginning of more changes and reforms," said Rosa Otunbayeva, one of the leaders of For Reforms.

"It means we can push for dismissal of Bakiyev's most corrupt minister, it means we can reform the state-controlled television station, it means we can start working towards changing the whole system," she said.

Regional worries

But can Kyrgyzstan's fragile democracy, in the region ruled by autocratic regimes, survive?

After all, the combination of a vibrant political culture and dire economic conditions can be combustive.

Even during the latest protests, that were better organised and much more peaceful than any other in Kyrgyzstan, the risk of serious confrontation remained high.

And this is what worries the outside powers.

China, Russia and the West have all heavily invested in Central Asia. They vie for influence and control over the region's resources, but are equally interested in stability here.

Stable Central Asia is as crucial to the growing Chinese investment as it is to America's only military base in the former Soviet Union - which lies just outside Bishkek and supplies Nato troops in Afghanistan.

Until now, for all of these powers keeping stability in the region meant supporting the man in power while turning a blind eye at the country's democratic record.

But in Kyrgyzstan, the rules of the game seem to be changing. Unlike anywhere else in the region, people here not only have a voice they also know how to use it.

Whoever wants stability here, whether the government or the outside world, will now have to take that into account.


VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
Protesters react to the president's decision



SEE ALSO
Kyrgyz MPs make constitution deal
08 Nov 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Clashes erupt in Kyrgyz capital
07 Nov 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Kyrgyz protesters call for change
02 Nov 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Voices from Bishkek protest rally
02 Nov 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Profile: Kurmanbek Bakiyev
11 Jul 05 |  Asia-Pacific
Kyrgyz revolution gains remain unequal
21 Mar 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: Kyrgyzstan
29 Oct 06 |  Country profiles

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