Exit Strategies

The Great Game in Kyrgyzstan


With the coming of the spring thaw, it's another season of riots and intrigue in Eurasia. And amidst local power plays and rumors of Great Game covert action, Washington's color revolution program is disintegrating.

Kyrgyzstan's President Kurmanbek Bakiev, leader of the U.S.-backed "Tulip Revolution" of 2005, was forced to flee Bishkek last Wednesday as political dissatisfaction accelerated into armed clashes with police and widespread looting. Seventy-eight people were killed. In the aftermath of the uprising, the Kyrgyz opposition has seized power, and with the cooperation of the Interior Ministry seems to be bringing order back to the city center. Meanwhile Bakiev is in the southern city of Osh, announcing to anyone who will listen that he's still the president. Bakiev has called for negotiations with the opposition, though it seems a little late for that, since he's been chased out of the capital.

The Kyrgyz who took to the streets were exasperated with the regime's mismanagement, nepotism, increasing brutality and endemic corruption. Yet these phenomena are all enduring features of the political landscape in Central Asia. Whatever slogans various factions display to energize the mobs, political struggles here revolve around regionally-based clans and their patronage networks. In the case of Kyrgyzstan, add in remote and mountainous topography, an impoverished population, almost no energy resources (besides hydropower coveted by the Uzbeks) and Soviet-drawn borders designed for dysfunction. With these factors in mind, it's clear that the country is vulnerable to instability in a neighborhood contested by the great powers.

Five years ago, it was springtime for the great democratic reformer Bakiev. Then-president Askar Akaev and his associates were ousted from power largely for the same reasons that provoked the current revolt: leadership corruption, cronyism, incompetence, etc. Mostly lost to Western observers has been the crucial regional/clan dimension of the power shift.

Bakiev hails from the city of Jalalabat, located in the nation's south, and drove the northerner Akaev from power in 2005. The new president and his Tulip Revolution comrades promised to reform the state and liberalize the economy, and this satisfied his sponsors in Washington for a time. Yet Central Asian realities were unavoidable- one patronage network was replacing another to the fanfare of the Freedom Agenda.

The Tulip Revolution revealed its true nature through its mercenary leadership. The post-Akaev Kyrgyz government could not care less about talk of Euro-Atlantic norms. They needed cash to keep their clans happy. Bakiev was no ideologue in the spirit Ukraine's Viktor Yushchenko; he was just open for business, and for a time played the Russians and Americans off of each other to extract financial benefits from both sides. But the southern clans' misrule finally reached its own tipping point, and now the fed-up northerners have struck back, dealing Bakiev's regime a fatal blow.

It's not quite clear what role the major powers might have played in Kyrgyzstan's new meltdown, but events seem to be working in Russia's favor. The Russians have recognized the interim government, and Bishkek's triumphant opposition has in turn has sent an official delegation to Moscow. Rosa Otunbaeva, the interim president, also spoke with Putin by telephone and thanked him for his support. It should be noted, however, that Otunbaeva has been described as a liberal. She was present for the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia and allegedly is affiliated with a former Russian oligarch who now resides in Israel (likely suspects could include Leonid Nevzlin or Vladimir Gusinsky). Otunbaeva is obviously a keen opportunist, but it remains to be seen who will wield real power.

Moves by Russia's military and security services could give some clue as to the Kremlin's intentions on Kyrgyzstan. The General Staff has been quick to send two companies of paratroopers to the Kant airfield, where Russian fighter jets are stationed. In addition to their four military bases, the Russians maintain very good intelligence assets in the country. It's likely the FSB knew in a timely manner what was happening in both opposition and government circles. Given this, it's also possible that the upheaval in Bishkek is part of Moscow's strategy to turn the tide against US encroachment in the former Soviet space.

A turning point for Kyrgyzstan might have been when the US announced last month that it would establish a "counter-terrorism" training facility in the southern region of Batken (US Special Forces already train the Kyrgyz unit "Scorpion"). Bakiev and the Russians had previously agreed to set up a joint officer school, so one can imagine the Kremlin wasn't thrilled when it found out the Americans were about to build another facility in the country besides their logistics point at Manas. The Kyrgyz president's recalcitrance regarding ownership stakes in a torpedo production plant also didn't improve his standing with Putin and Medvedev.

Washington looks to have been generally surprised by the course of events in the Central Asian nation. The US-NATO Manas airbase has been forced to temporarily halt operations, though it tellingly went about business as usual during the 2005 Tulip Revolution. Also, the usual stories about courageous democracy activists, twittering human rights campaigners and "people power" are notably absent in the Western media. So the new takeover wasn't likely brought to Kyrgyzstan courtesy of the Open Society Institute and the National Endowment for Democracy.

Another sign that the U.S. didn't see Bakiev's ouster coming is the publicly voiced concern about the status of Manas. The interim government has stated that it could shorten the lease on the airfield, a lease Bakiev had recently re-negotiated to the tune of over $60 million a year (and a good deal more in other payments). Since Manas is a major hub for U.S.-NATO logistics into Afghanistan, the ability to shut it down provides the Russians a pressure point to keep Washington off balance in inner Eurasia.

Ultimately Moscow is looking to arrange a full US exit from the region (China wouldn't be averse to this, either, since Manas is too close for comfort to Xinjiang). US strategic planners value Kyrgyzstan for its position astride the Caspian's energy riches, and there have been intensive efforts to bring Central Asia's oil and natural gas resources into the orbit of the Pax Americana.

While the Kremlin is taking active steps to reconsolidate its sphere of interests, it's not certain that it will demand an immediate withdrawal of the U.S. presence at Manas. Putin and Medvedev might be interested in tightening the screws on Washington in order to clarify the terms on which U.S. forces can transit the region- Moscow's.

The Russians aren't stopping Obama from continuing America's costly, demoralizing and ultimately pointless engagement in the Hindu Kush. They look with apprehension at the narcotics-financed jihadism and instability that threatens from the south. But they also know intimately well what Afghan adventures herald for superpowers: the sunset of empire.