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No obvious new leader for Kyrgyzstan

It's still too early to know whether the wave of protest sweeping over Kyrgyzstan will end like similar movements in Georgia and Ukraine.  NBC's Thomas Bonifeld reports from Moscow.
Kyrgyz opposition protesters walk past a burning car in Bishkek
Kyrgyz opposition protesters walk past a burning car outside the government building in central Bishkek on Thursday.David Mdzinarishvili / Reuters

A poor, landlocked nation of five million people in Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan is the latest former Soviet republic riven by political turmoil.

The mostly Muslim country is covered by rugged and strikingly beautiful mountains. But unlike several neighboring states it does not posess significant oil and gas reserves, or pipeline routes, giving it a much lower profile in the West.

The catalyst for the current unrest was parliamentary elections earlier this year.  Both the opposition and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe describe the vote as  seriously flawed. 

Supporters of President Askar Akayev won an overwhelming victory; Akayev's son and daughter were among those elected to the parliament. As a result, the president became the focal point of the protests as opposition forces demanded he step down in the wake of the elections. 

On Thursday, it appeared they had got their wish as news agencies reported that Akayev and his family had fled Kyrgyzstan.

No ethnic dimension
A well-respected physicist and former professor, Akayev had ruled Kyrgyzstan for 15 years, coming to power before the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.  His current term in office was scheduled to expire later this year.

Viewed initially as a reformer, his popularity waned recently and opponents accused him of becoming corrupt and authoritarian.

While past conflicts in Kyrgyzstan have broken along ethnic lines — particularly between Kyrgyz and ethnic Uzbeks who make up some 14 percent of the population — this unrest seems to lack an ethnic dimension. 

It began in the southern part of the country, which typically was viewed as an opposition stronghold.  But it quickly swept the capital, Bishkek, in the north, which was considered supportive of the president.

Kyrgyzstan is the third former Soviet republic to be jolted by political shock waves recently.  Last year, opposition politicians ultimately came to power in both Georgia and in Ukraine after fraudulent elections first went against them. 

The leaders, Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia and Viktor Yushchenko of Ukraine, garnered worldwide attention as they led their supporters to comeback victories.

But Kyrgyzstan's opposition lacks a clear leader like Saakashvili or Yushchenko.  So even if  Akayev is gone for good, it's unclear who his opponents will put forward to replace him.

A U.S. ally
Georgia and Ukraine are also both key pipeline transit routes and many observers believe that is why the West, including the United States, was so vocal in its criticism of the election fraud and in its support of the opposition leaders, who were seen as friendly to the West.

Both countries provide outlets for Central Asian oil that go around Russia and away from China, two nations viewed as potential competitors to the West, particularly by the United States.

Kyrgyzstan is nevertheless an important partner for Washington.  American military forces operate in the country at Manas, a base about 20 miles from the capital.  Troop strength consists of about 800 members of the U.S. Air Force who, together with approximately 100 Spanish airmen, fly supply and airborne refueling missions connected to Operation Enduring Freedom in nearby Afghanistan.

A spokesman at the base said Thursday that the political unrest has not affected U.S. forces and that things are running as usual.

It's still too early to know whether the wave of protest sweeping over Kyrgyzstan will end like similar movements in Georgia and Ukraine. 

But the lack of a clear leader among the Kyrgyz opposition could force the movement to clear one hurdle that the Georgian and Ukrainian opposition did not face.