BISHKEK (Reuters) - The United States offered help to Kyrgyzstan’s new leadership and Russia pledged $50 million to replenish empty state coffers on Wednesday in a show of support that put pressure on overthrown President Kurmanbek Bakiyev.
Unrest in Kyrgyzstan, which has led to the suspension of flights from a U.S. air base used to support the war in Afghanistan, has exposed global power rivalries in the Central Asian state, where Bakiyev’s five-year rule ended abruptly a week ago.
Moscow and Washington reinforced support for the interim government, led by Moscow-educated and fluent English speaker Roza Otunbayeva, on the same day Bakiyev hinted for the first time that he may try to go into exile.
Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake, the most senior U.S. official to visit Bishkek since the April 7 uprising when troops loyal to Bakiyev opened fire on protesters, said he was optimistic about the steps taken by the new leadership.
“The United States is prepared to help,” Blake said after meeting Otunbayeva. Washington has not officially recognized the new government.
Hours later, Russia approved $50 million in aid and loans for Kyrgyzstan. The amount was only one-third of that requested, but Moscow said it could be increased if needed.
“The provisional government says the coffers are bare, that the old leadership stole the lot,” Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said after senior ministers in his government met a Kyrgyz delegation led by Otunbayeva’s deputy, Almazbek Atambayev.
“We must support our friends,” Putin said after offering a package to help Kyrgyz farmers pay for the next harvest.
Otunbayeva called for Bakiyev to be put on trial for his part in the violence in which at least 84 people were killed and 1,600 wounded.
“If we get our hands on Bakiyev, then he will be put on trial,” she said. “He has already had his chance to leave.”
Bakiyev denies ordering troops to fire into the crowds, but his brother Zhanybek Bakiyev, chief of the presidential bodyguard, has admitted doing so.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said earlier Bakiyev should step down to defuse a crisis that he said could develop into a “second Afghanistan.”
“As I understand it, Kyrgyzstan is on the verge of civil war,” Medvedev told an audience at a think tank in Washington, where he was attending a nuclear security summit.
Washington is concerned the crisis will affect its five-year lease deal with Kyrgyzstan for the use of the Manas air base. After last week’s upheaval, some members of the interim government suggested the lease may be shortened to please Moscow.
Russia also has an air base in Kyrgyzstan and has sought to evict U.S. interests from Central Asia, a formerly Soviet-ruled region between China, Afghanistan and the Caspian Sea.
The interim government says it will abide by its agreements on Manas but the pro-Russian sympathies of some senior ministers have given rise to suspicions the Kremlin may try to use the base as a lever in its relations with Washington.
Otunbayeva said she and Blake did not discuss the base.
Bakiyev, meanwhile, hinted he might leave if the government guaranteed his safety and that of his family.
“I am not clutching at my armchair and I have not said that I am not going to step down under any circumstances,” Bakiyev told reporters in his home village in southern Kyrgyzstan, after the interim government threatened to send forces to arrest him.
“If the issues of my personal safety and the safety of my family members are resolved ... and if there is stability in Kyrgyzstan, then I am ready to consider this question,” he said.
A source in the interim Defense Ministry, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Bakiyev would not be able to leave: “He doesn’t have any airplanes and all the borders are closed.”
Even if he were able to leave, he would have a limited choice of destinations. Russia and the United States say he is not welcome, while political analysts say no Western powers would grant asylum to a leader whose troops shot into crowds.
“Turkey is a possibility that is now being explored and it could also be the United Arab Emirates, where he has property,” Arkady Dubnov, a Moscow-based Central Asia analyst, said by telephone from Bishkek.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said Bakiyev had not requested asylum there, but his government was prepared to assist in efforts to resolve the crisis in Kyrgyzstan, a country with which Turkey shares ethnic and linguistic ties.
A group of human rights activists who met Bakiyev said the president was ready for a peaceful handover of power.
“He looked depressed. He had a tragic feel about him. He looked tired,” Aziza Abdirasulova, a rights campaigner who flew to meet Bakiyev in his village, told Reuters by telephone.
“He understands how tragic the situation is, that he has no right to remain president.”
Bakiyev’s change of tone, after days of defiance and hints of conflict, could open a way out of the turmoil, although fears of ethnic strife arose on Wednesday in the southern city of Jalalabad, where Bakiyev has much of his support.
At least 2,000 ethnic Uzbeks massed in the central square to protest against Bakiyev, but were drowned out by about 1,000 ethnic Kyrgyz supporters of Bakiyev rallying at the same square.
“I feel something is being cooked up. I feel that something bad is in the air,” said Muradillo, a 34-year-old Uzbek musician in Jalalabad, who gave only his first name for safety reasons.
Jalalabad is in the Ferghana Valley, a cauldron of ethnic and tribal tension in the heart of Central Asia which was the scene of violent clashes in the last days of the Soviet Union.
Uzbeks in the region demanded autonomy from the Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan, provoking a backlash that killed at least 300 people.
Additional reporting by Dmitry Solovyov in Jalalabad, Gleb Bryanski and Shamil Baigin in Moscow, Steve Gutterman in Washington, Tulay Karadeniz in Ankara; Writing by Maria Golovnina, Guy Faulconbridge and Robin Paxton; Editing by Andrew Dobbie