Protestors overran Kyrgyzstan on Wednesday, forcing the country's president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, to evacuate the capital city of Bishkek on his presidential plane. Police fired bullets, tear gas, and stun grenades into the crowds, killing 41 people (opposition leaders say the toll is much higher, perhaps 100). The protesters, for their part, have bloodied the cops by hurling rocks, brandishing sticks, overturning vehicles, and crashing vans through gates. The opposition succeeded in taking over national television channels, though news Web sites were being blocked.
Kyrgyzstan, one of the poorest countries of the former Soviet Union and host to a strategic U.S. airbase used, isn't a regular on the international-crisis-headliner circuit. But nor is the explosion of unrest there entirely unexpected. On the surface, the protests were prompted by state-mandated hikes in the price of heating and electricity (here's a quick backgrounder on why that's so controversial). However, deeper tensions there have been simmering for some time. The "Tulip Revolution" in 2005 overthrew authoritarian President Askar Ayakev, lifting Bakiyev to power. But Bakiyev too has come under fire for authoritarianism and corruption, and has miscalculated on how far he could push his projections of power. As Eurasianet points out, a national gathering, or kurultai, held in Bishkek in late March, worked against him when participants used the forum to air criticisms of his administration.
Meanwhile, it's at the center of an even more macro-level shift in regional power plays. In the past few years, China has been making overtures to Kyrgyzstan and other countries in Central Asia, eying the bounty of energy resources underneath their soils and seeking to move them away from their historic Russian orbit. Russia, hit hard by the financial crisis, hasn't been able to keep up its traditional investments in the region. In Kyrgyzstan's case, though, it looks like they don't even want to. The Russian press has gleefully taken to bashing Bakiyev in recent months, while Russia's leaders have left Bakiyev high and dry in the past few days as his government came under attack, possibly because they wanted him to kick the Americans out from the airbase (where, ironically enough, he might be holed up now). How does this play out now that opposition leaders are the ones in control? Your move, China.