April 9, 2010:
The Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan just had another change of government, as the former reform leader, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, was accused of being a corrupt despot and chased out of the country. Another politician, former foreign minister, Roza Otunbayeva, has taken over, and promises, like Bakiyev before him, an efficient and corruption free government. The United States and Russia, meanwhile, are playing the old Cold War game of trying to buy the favor of the current government. This gets confusing at times, and embarrassing as well.
Last year Kyrgyzstan ordered the U.S. to leave the Manas air base it has been using (to support operations in Afghanistan) for the previous seven years. This came about after Russia made a financial offer that Kyrgyzstan felt it could not refuse. Russia has never been happy with U.S. aircraft operating in a Kyrgyz (former Soviet, actually) airbase. But Kyrgyzstan successfully played the old Cold War aid game, where some third country that both the U.S. and Russia wanted something from, would basically hold an auction to determine which superpower would get their way. Russia is no longer a superpower, but it does remember how to conduct itself in one of these auctions.
Russia's winning offer consisted of forgiving $180 million in debt, giving an interest free loan of $150 million (these usually don't get paid back) and a real loan worth $2 billion. All this began four years ago, when Kyrgyzstan tried to get the U.S. to increase payments for use of the 2,500 acre Manas air base, from $5 million, to $50 million a year. Local politicians had already developed a feeding frenzy around the rich Americans. Initially, the U.S. offered more money, but not nearly as much as the Russians eventually offered. Eventually, the United States responded to the Russian offer, and got to stay in Manas. But now there is a new government, which will likely hold another auction.
Russian efforts to get the U.S. out of Kyrgyzstan were interrupted five years ago when the then leader of Kyrgyzstan, pro-Russian president Askar Akayev, was driven out of power by mass demonstrations protesting government attempts to rig recent parliamentary elections. The new leader of Kyrgyzstan, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, eventually got Russia and the United States bidding against each other to determine whether or not a few dozen U.S. and NATO aircraft would continue to operate out of Manas airbase.
Russia considers the Central Asian nations, that used to be provinces of the Soviet Union, as more than just neighbors. But these five countries are all run, as dictatorships, by former Soviet bureaucrats. This arrangement is not popular with most Central Asians, and Kyrgyzstan had the most vocal population protesting the lack of democracy. Russia, learning from the beating it took in Ukraine, where it backed a dictator in the face of a popular democratic uprising, did not speak up for Akayev, and promptly tried to get cozy with a new government in Kyrgyzstan. The opposition that overthrew Akayev did not contain a lot of Islamic radicals (who believe the country should be run as an Islamic state). The Kyrgyz democrats see Islamic radicalism as a hostile force, and were willing to continue cooperation between Russia and Kyrgyzstan against Islamic terrorists. However, many Russians believe that the United States was behind the ouster of Akayev, via pro-democratic NGOs and American business investments in Kyrgyzstan. Not surprisingly, Russia has backed the reformers who have been working to overthrow Akayev's successor (the recently departed Bakiyev.)
Ultimately, Kyrgyzstan will sell out to whoever offers the most generous deal, because they desperately needed the money. Kyrgyzstan is a poor country, and the current global recession has made things worse. Meanwhile, Russia is still eager to have American and NATO cargo get shipped via Russia to Afghanistan. This is a money maker for Russia, which gets prime rates for moving these cargo containers. The U.S. believes it can convince Kyrgyzstan and Russia to let them continue to use Manas to some extent. Money will no doubt change hands. There might even be cheers. There will definitely be deals.