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Kyrgyzstan: In Annual Address, President Cites Foreign Policy Successes

Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev delivered his annual address to parliament and the nation. Akaev devoted much of his speech to foreign policy issues, including improved relations with Russia and China. He also discussed the country's domestic problems and explained his decision to fire the prosecutor-general.

Prague, 17 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev today gave his annual address to parliament and the nation amid what are probably Kyrgyzstan's most turbulent times since the country became independent in 1991,

Domestic criticism of Akaev and the government has become impossible to ignore. This is due, in part, to Kyrgyzstan hosting troops from the U.S.-led coalition against terrorism and allowing the coalition to use an airport outside the capital, Bishkek. While this has brought a modicum of added security, the presence of Western troops has also provided new fuel for radical Islamic groups. The shooting deaths by police of five antigovernment demonstrators in March also stirred up even more antigovernment sentiment.

Akaev started his address by saying 2002 has been very successful for Kyrgyzstan so far. The examples the Kyrgyz president gave focused on achievements in foreign policy, in particular, relations with Russia and China:

"Why am I emphasizing relations with China and Russia? Not because they are close and America is far away. The Kyrgyz are connected to Russia and China by centuries-old friendly relations."

Kyrgyzstan's relations with Russia continue to be strong, and Akaev has on numerous occasions stressed that Russia has been, is, and will for the near future remain Kyrgyzstan's best ally.

But this year has also seen the arrival of some 1,500 troops from the U.S.-led coalition against terrorism. Based at Manas airport outside Bishkek, coalition aircraft routinely fly missions over Afghanistan.

The presence of these troops has naturally led to a succession of visits from high-ranking government officials from coalition countries. It has also yielded additional help from these parties in building up Kyrgyzstan's military capabilities through training and shipments of new military equipment.

The Kyrgyz government's decision to allow international coalition troops on its territory may, in the end, help with Kyrgyzstan's biggest problem -- poverty. Last week, a donors' conference in Bishkek brought pledges of 700 million dollars in aid for the period 2003 to 2005, a far greater sum than has been promised to Kyrgyzstan at any previous donors' conference. The donors specified that 50 percent of that amount should be used to alleviate poverty. Akaev noted in his speech that some of that money will be used to alleviate poverty in Kyrgyzstan; the rest is earmarked for reconstruction and debt relief.

And, in an unprecedented episode over the weekend, the first Chinese soldiers to set foot in Kyrgyzstan in more than 150 years conducted an antiterrorism exercise with Kyrgyz forces along the Kyrgyz-Chinese border.

The exercise was aimed at helping Kyrgyzstan ready itself in case armed Islamic militants again make incursions into Kyrgyzstan, as they did in the summers of 1999 and 2000.

The bulk of Akaev's speech today was devoted to foreign policy, but he did give some attention to the domestic situation, beginning with the reason he yesterday dismissed the country's prosecutor-general, Chubak Abyshkaev:

"I was forced to do it because he couldn't fulfill the recommendations given by the (Kyrgyz) Security Council in May. He delayed and dragged things out."

Abyshkaev was sacked for not properly resolving the country's biggest domestic crisis. Protests began in early January in support of an opposition member of parliament, Azimbek Beknazarov, who was facing corruption charges. On 17-18 March, during demonstrations in Kyrgyzstan's southern Aksy district, police opened fire on antigovernment protesters, killing at least five.

Who gave the order to fire has been an issue ever since. The Kyrgyz parliament and nongovernmental organizations jointly investigated the incident in April and released a report, at first suppressed, that concluded the police and other local authorities were to blame.

The revelation only added to the list of demands being made by the demonstrators. Before April, protesters were demanding the release from jail of popular opposition figure Feliks Kulov, the dropping of charges against Beknazarov and, at times, Akaev's resignation from office.

After the report was released, demonstrators regularly called for punishing those responsible for the events in Aksy, as well as all of the previous demands.

The publication of the report led to the downfall of the government in May. The newly appointed prime minister, Nikolai Tanaev, warned several times in his first weeks in office that the country was drifting into civil war.

Akaev, the government, as well as nongovernmental organizations and opposition parties have been working on a package of amendments to the constitution, aimed at preventing further incidents such as the one in Aksy.

Akaev said at the end of his speech today that a national referendum on amendments to the constitution will be held soon.

(Naryn Idinov of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report.)