Prague, 24 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Kyrgyz demonstrators cheered Kurmanbek Bakiev during today's decisive protests in Bishkek. Shortly before demonstrators stormed the capital's presidential compound, Bakiev told protesters that rallies in the country's south were continuing peacefully -- with local government officials and opposition activists working on the same side.
"All the information is one-sided [coming from the state-run media]," Bakiev said. "In Osh and Jalal-Abad provinces, the governors -- who were truly elected by the people, at the People's Congress -- they are in full control of the situation there. There is no looting either. Police, the power structures and the military have joined the population of Osh and Jalal-Abad regions, and they are all working together."
Bakiev has since called for fresh presidential elections. Many see him as the most likely candidate to succeed President Askar Akaev.
Roza Otunbaeva, who emerged alongside Bakiev as a leading opposition figure during today's protests in Bishkek, told RFE/RL that she refuses to speculate on who might be the country's next leader.
“You know, time will tell what nominations we’ll have," she said. "Actions will define everything now. We intend to seek victory in achieving our major task -- the immediate resignation of President Akaev."
Some believe it is Otunbaeva -- a popular one-time foreign minister and co-chair of the Ata-Jurt (Fatherland) movement -- who will emerge as the likely favorite.
“On the one hand, Mr. Bakiev is a very experienced person. But he served as a prime minister only for one year. As many experts and his former colleagues believe, he is not as charismatic and popular as Roza Otunbaeva, for example, among the population of Kyrgyzstan." -- Sergei Luzyanin, Moscow Institute for International Relations
Sergei Luzyanin of the Moscow Institute for International Relations (MGIMO) tells RFE/RL that Bakiev does not have enough popular support to win the presidency.
“On the one hand, Mr. Bakiev is a very experienced person," Luzyanin says. "But he served as a prime minister only for one year. As many experts and his former colleagues believe, he is not as charismatic and popular as Roza Otunbaeva, for example, among the population of Kyrgyzstan."
Otunbaeva, however, dismisses speculation about her presidential ambitions.
“I have no claims," she said. "I am not going to run for the presidency. We're not talking about that. Our task is to overthrow the current regime.”
The 55-year-old Bakiev, a native of the southern Jalal-Abad Province, is a well-known political figure in Kyrgyzstan. Nearly a year ago (June 2004), the For People's Power opposition bloc nominated Bakiev to stand in this October's presidential election.
Bakiev says his presidential platform rests on economic growth without re-privatization. He also says any new government will have to ensure the interests of all of the country's political factions.
But Luzyanin says it remains to be seen whether the opposition will unite behind Bakiev after today's events.
“The opposition hasn't had either a single candidate, or a single strategy," Luzyanin says. "I believe there have been different tactics and approaches to the situation in Kyrgyzstan. At present, internal differences are still there. But today, on the 24th of March, when things are developing so quickly, the question of a single candidate is not very important. It will become vital tomorrow, if the opposition’s position strengthens, and the government surrenders."
Bakiev's role three years ago in the country's worst political violence may ultimately work against him.
Bakiev was prime minister in March 2002, when public demonstrations turned bloody in the Aksy district of southern Kyrgyzstan.
Protesters had gathered in Aksy in support of a popular politician, Azimbek Beknazarov, who had been jailed on what many believed were politically motivated charges. When demonstrators clashed with police, the police opened fire, killing six people.
When the police were later found to have instigated the event, Bakiev resigned. Some Kyrgyz still hold him responsible for trying to cover up the Aksy bloodshed.
Some observers, however, credit Bakiev with having a sound understanding of the country's complex economic problems.
Bakiev also has a potential asset in his wife, who is Russian and could bolster his appeal among Kyrgyzstan's Russian-speaking voters. Bakiev speaks both Kyrgyz and Russian fluently.
Whether it is Bakiev or someone else, the opposition's future presidential candidate will likely seek the endorsement of Felix Kulov, the head of the Ar-Namys (Dignity) party.
Demonstrators today released Kulov from prison, where he has been since 2001 on corruption charges. Even behind bars, Kulov remained an influential political figure.
It is not yet clear who Kulov will favor. Emil Aliev, the deputy chair of Ar-Namys, spoke to RFE/RL from Bishkek before Kulov's release:
“We agreed that at the present moment, we will not talk about the presidency," Aliev said. "The most important things for us are peace and order and the possibility of negotiations [with authorities]."
Kulov's support will prove valuable to whatever candidate or candidates the opposition puts forward. Kulov is so influential, in fact, that he may ultimately prove to be a serious rival for Bakiev or whoever else decides to run.