Central Asia: Kyrgyzstan


April 12, 2010:  Russia was apparently behind the popular movement to overthrow  the corrupt ruler of Kurmanbek Bakiyev. In March, Russia began a major media campaign (which they knew would be picked up in Kyrgyzstan). Russia was unhappy with Bakiyev for allowing the United States to keep using the former Soviet air base at Manas. Russia thought they had a deal (involving lots of gifts and loans) with Bakiyev, but in the end Bakiyev took the Russian money, and the increased rental fees offered by the Americans as well. Russia protested, and kept trying, until a few months ago, to persuade Bakiyev to do the right thing.

The former reform leader, Kurmanbek Bakiyev was accused of being a corrupt despot and he was. But he has fled to the southern part of the country, where he insists he is still head of the country, and is trying to raise some support. This could take a while, as no one wants to start a civil war. The violence in the capital left about a hundred dead, and over a thousand injured. Some violence continues, as police clash with looters.

But with both Russia and the United States hostile to his corrupt rule, Bakiyev hasn't got many options. He has few allies inside, or outside, the country. Russia is offering aid to the new government, which has said it wants good relations with Russia, and the United States. That does not please Russia.

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 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. This was called the "Tulip Revolution", and it failed. One dictator was replaced by another.

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.

Meanwhile, Russia and China have their own plans to keeping the peace. The SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization. consisting of  Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan) was formed to improve cooperation between the troops of the nations, in the event that the larger partners (Russia and China) were called in to help with a counter-terrorism operation, or to help keep a local ruler in power. At the moment, the major goals of the SCO is to get the United States to withdraw their troops and bases from the region. Russia and China, which dominate the organization, believe American influence is threatening the dictators who dominate the governments of Central Asia. These despots are considered, at least by Russia and China, easier to deal with than democratically elected governments. China is still a communist dictatorship, while Russia is ruled by an elected, but very authoritarian, government. The SCO effort got the U.S. base in Uzbekistan closed, but the one in Kyrgyzstan remains because the Americans agreed to pay higher rent.

The corruption has caused more terrorism than Islamic radicals. For example, three years ago, Medical experts confirmed that someone had tried to poison the Prime Minister of Kyrgyzstan, Almazbek Atambayev. Terrorists are not suspected. The  chief suspects are whosever sent death threats, relating to government plans to nationalize a large semiconductor factory. Around the same time, a bomb went off in southern Kyrgyzstan, destroying the archives to two newspapers in the city of Osh. Journalists and media have been the victims of threats and attacks by gangsters and politicians who don't like what's being said about them.

The center of Islamic radicalism remains the Ferghana Valley (which runs through Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.) This fertile area has, for centuries, been a regional center of population, commerce and culture. But the three governments have kept the pressure on to the extent that exiled terrorists continue to show up in Pakistan, and other parts of the world. Counter-terrorism forces in Central Asia spend most of their time tracking down Afghan drug smugglers. The heroin trade is where the money is, and money buys guns and manpower. The Islamic terrorists have few sources of funding, and eager young men are not, by itself, sufficient to make much happen.

April 9, 2010:  Deposed leader Kurmanbek Bakiyev appears to be negotiating terms for his departure from the country. He wants a pardon for previous crimes, and the freedom to stole the hundreds of millions of dollars he and his followers stole. The new government is reluctant to let him get away with all that cash, since the government is broke.

April 8, 2010: The new government leaders say they will stick around for just six months, just long enough to organize new elections. That should not be hard to do, in a country of just 5.5 million people. Although the country is large (200,000 square kilometers), most of the people are in a few urban areas, or densely populated valleys. The new government wants to maintain good relations with the United States and Russia, and has said the American air base at Manas will remain open. Meanwhile, the U.S. has suspended flights to Manas, as a precaution. Manas is used to fly supplies into Afghanistan. The goods are delivered to Manas by truck or railroad, thus making for a short flight to nearby Afghanistan.

April 7, 2010: Demonstrations broke out in the capital of Kyrgyzstan, to protest five years of misrule by president Kurmanbek Bakiyev. Police were ordered to open fire, and this enraged the growing mob. Government buildings were seized and the government collapsed. Five years ago, Bakiyev led a peaceful revolution that chased out a pro-Russian, and very corrupt, government. But soon Bakiyev showed that he was every bit as corrupt as they guy he replaced. Unrest has been growing for the past two years, and the government has responded with harsher responses. But what really brought people into the street this time was a government order to double the price of electricity.


Article Archive

Central Asia: Current 2012 2011 2010 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004 2003 2002 2001 2000 1999



Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close