The president of the Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan resigned Thursday, after 10 days of unrest sparked by disputed parliamentary elections.
As protesters closed in on his residence, Sooronbay Jeenbekov abruptly stepped down, saying nothing was dearer to him than the life of each of his compatriots.
“I’m not clinging to power. I don’t want to go down in Kyrgyzstan’s history as the president who spilled blood and shot at his own citizens,” Jeenbekov said in a statement posted on the presidential website.
Jeenbekov is the third president to be overthrown in a popular uprising since Kyrgyzstan gained independence in 1991. Unlike the other four Central Asian countries that emerged from the Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan, with a population of 6.5 million, has a pluralistic, if chaotic, political life linked to its strong clan-based traditions.
The landlocked, mountainous country, which borders China, hosts a Russian air base and receives millions in financial aid from the Kremlin. For more than a decade, the United States also operated an air base in Kyrgyzstan to support operations in Afghanistan, until it was forced to close in 2014 under pressure from Russia.
The current turmoil in Kyrgyzstan centers on domestic rivalries.
The chaos began with protests against vote-buying in an Oct. 4 parliamentary election. Even after the authorities nullified the vote, the unrest continued, with one person killed and hundreds injured in clashes in the capital, Bishkek.
Supporters of a jailed former lawmaker, Sadyr Japarov, sprung him from prison, where he was serving a sentence for for kidnapping a local governor.
When Prime Minister Kuratbek Boronov resigned last week, it created a political vacuum — and an opening for Japarov.
Jeenbekov accepted Japarov as the new prime minister earlier this week. But Japarov insisted that the president step down immediately — and not, as Jeenbekov suggested, once the situation had stabilized.
After Jeenbekov resigned, the speaker of parliament, next in line for the presidency, reportedly declined to take office. Japarov told supporters in Bishkek that he was assuming the powers of the presidency, according to the order of succession.
The Kremlin has been watching these developments with alarm. Russian President Vladimir Putin has met frequently with Jeenbekov, a veteran politician who last visited Moscow at the end of September.
Russia hosts hundreds of thousands of Kyrgyz migrant workers, and Bishkek is tied to Moscow through economic and defense pacts.
Earlier this week, Dmitry Kozak, the deputy head of Putin’s administration, met with Jeenbekov and said he played a “key role” in the country’s stable development.
Following Jeenbekov’s resignation, Putin’s spokesman said that Russia will freeze financial aid to Kyrgyzstan until the situation calms down and a new government starts working.