Kyrgyzstan Turmoil Puts US Base and Afghan War in Balance
Kyrgyzstan Turmoil Puts US Base and Afghan War in Balance
LONDON: History repeated itself last week in the small, mountainous Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan. Popular street protests overthrew the government of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, much as his predecessor, Askar Akayev, was unseated in the so-called Tulip Revolution, in March 2005, following rigged parliamentary elections.
Where history may not be a guide is what happens to the controversial US military base in the country and the critical role it serves for the Afghan war. Like so many small nations Kyrgyzstan’s fate has become deeply enmeshed with politics of big neighbors and an interconnected world. The latest uprising that ended the administration of Bakiyev resulted from repression by the very man who won the presidency in a free and fair poll by promising to curtail presidential powers and eradicate corruption. An interim cabinet led by former foreign minister Roza Otunbayeva won de facto recognition from Russia and a discussion of emergency financial aid for the cash-strapped republic – which could lead to closure of a US military base that rankles Moscow.
Faced with the still unrepentant Bakiyev holed up in his home village of Teyit near the southern city of Jalalabad, Otunbayeva’s cabinet is unlikely to consider the future of the base near Bishkek anytime soon. Leased by Akayev to the Pentagon in the wake of Washington’s attack on Afghanistan’s Taliban regime in October 2001, it has since become a crucial link for refueling warplanes and ferrying military personnel and supplies.
Though the Kremlin gave a green light to Central Asian republics on cooperating with Washington to combat Islamist extremists in Afghanistan, it felt uneasy about a US military base in a former Soviet republic. To placate President Vladimir Putin of Russia, on which Kyrgyzstan was – and is – economically dependent, Akayev allowed the Kremlin to open a base at a former Soviet military pilot training school at Kant, 12 miles east of Bishkek, in October 2003.
Like two other former republics of the Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan was drawn into a color revolution that toppled pro-Russian governments: After the Rose revolution in Georgia (November 2003) and Orange revolution in Ukraine (December 2004) – encouraged by Western agencies – Kyrgyzstan had its turn later in 2005.
In Kyrgyzstan, since November 2003, the Washington-based Freedom House operated a printing press in Bishkek, financed by the US State Department, to provide an alternative to Kyrgyz newspaper and magazine editors to print publications without government support. Aware of the impact that the non-governmental agencies were having on the February 2005 parliamentary poll, the authorities cut power to the printing plant. The US embassy intervened, procuring portable generators to run the presses. Among its beneficiaries was the opposition daily, Moya stolitsa novosti (My Capital News), which managed to print 200,000 copies of a special issue.
The opposition had a fair chance of defeating the Akayev camp because of the weak economy and rampant corruption. Agriculture was languishing, and its cattle population had shrunk to a fraction of the pre-independence era. By mid-2001, the country’s foreign debt at $2 billion was a third higher than its annual GDP.
High unemployment drove many Kyrgyz men – fluent in Russian and educated under the Soviet system – to work in Russia. In 2006, their remittances accounted for more than a quarter of the GDP. Given 74 years of rule under the Soviet system, the Russian influence in Kyrgyzstan persists in several ways. Russian-language publications and TV channels are more popular than their Kyrgyz counterparts. In Bishkek, with one-fifth of the national population, residents have access to a dozen Russian-language TV channels.
The Kyrgyz government’s dependence on Russia has gone further. Hit by the 2008 global credit crunch, Bakiyev appealed to the Kremlin for help in February 2009. Russia wrote off $180 million debt, provided an emergency loan of $300 million, with a promise of $1.7 billion investment in Kyrgyz hydroelectric projects. (To handle the Russian loan, Bakiyev put his 32-year-old son Maxim in charge of the specially established Central Agency for the Development of Investment and Innovation. Maxim has since been accused of misusing the funds.
Payback for the Kremlin’s financial aid was ending the Pentagon’s lease of the Manas air base. Arguing that the US mission in Afghanistan had outlasted its original objectives and that NATO strikes caused an unacceptable rise in civilian casualties, Bakiyev gave the Pentagon six-months notice to quit the base. This happened at a time when NATO’s supply route from Pakistan through the Khyber Pass was repeatedly ambushed by the resurgent Taliban.
Intense lobbying by the Obama administration led Bakiyev to reverse his decision in June 2009 after having received financial aid from Moscow, and extend the lease for a year – but with strict conditions: Annual rent rose from $17.5 million to $60 million. The facility, Pentagon’s Manas Air Base, was renamed “Transit Center at Manas International Airport,” with security handled by the Kyrgyz government. In early July the rubber-stamp parliament endorsed Bakiyev’s decision, setting the scene for lucrative Pentagon contracts for aviation fuel and other services to go to Maxim and other Bakiyev relatives.
Moreover, Bakiyev extracted a promise from the White House that it would not comment on the July 23 presidential poll. Accordingly, the US State Department kept quiet while observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe criticized ballot stuffing, intimidation and media bias that awarded Bakiyev 80 percent of the vote.
Interestingly, the two most popular state-run Russian-language TV channels available in Bishkek marked the Tulip Revolution’s fifth anniversary on March 24 by highlighting Bakiyev’s misrule.
The anniversary was accompanied by rising popular discontent over a steep hike in electric rates imposed in January by the recently privatized power-generating companies sold to Maxim Bakiyev and cronies at rock bottom prices. A swiftly cobbled coalition of opposition groups called for national protest on April 7. It quickly mushroomed into regime change.
The fall of Bakiyev has reopened debate over the US base. A senior Russian official revealed that Bakiyev failed to keep his promise about the withdrawal of the American base and, that in Kyrgyzstan there should be only one base – Russian. But since the interim leader Otunbayeva has mentioned a six-month limit on changing the constitution and holding fresh elections, any decision on the future of the Manas air base must wait.
The latest colorless revolution or regime change in Bishkek underlines the close intertwining of governments, both small and large. The West may have inspired the Tulip revolution, but the success of Kyrgyz democracy depends on both domestic leadership and external economics and politics. The 9/11 attacks and consequent US involvement in neighboring Afghanistan introduced new challenges for resource-poor Kyrgyzstan. The outcome of NATO operation in Afghanistan, now reaching a crucial phase, in turn depends in part on how Kyrgyzstan reacts to the US need for the Manas base in the face of Russia’s opposition.
Small countries weigh the fortunes of great powers, trying to maximize their own gain. What happens in Kyrgyzstan has repercussions in Afghanistan, South Asia and security of the western world.
Dilip Hiro is the author of Inside Central Asia, published by Overlook Press, New York . His latest book is After Empire: The Birth of a Multipolar World, published by Nation Books, New York. Click here for the excerpt.