A Russian Coup in Kyrgyzstan?

The government of Kurmanbek Bakiyev, which has hosted a critical U.S. air base since 2001, is overthrown by pro-Russian forces.

Kyrgyzstan just added another chapter in its history of revolutions. The government of Kurmanbek Bakiyev, which has hosted a critical U.S. air base since 2001, has been overthrown by pro-Russian forces opposed to that presence. Russia has a legacy of manipulating internal strife among its neighbors, and this latest event is no exception.

Vladimir Putin has adamantly denied any Russian involvement in the overthrow of Bakiyev, but at least one of the new rulers of Kyrgyzstan says something different. Omurbek Tekebayev, who is in charge of writing the new constitution, has openly stated that “Russia played its role in ousting Bakiyev.” He says this as if it is common knowledge, obvious to any observer.

“You’ve seen the level of Russia’s joy when they saw Bakiyev gone. So now there is a high probability that the duration of the U.S. air base’s presence in Kyrgyzstan will be shortened,” he said on April 9.

The new government has pledged to honor the agreement, but their opposition to the base makes it probable that they will at least try to revise it. Their motivation in pursuing the base’s closure is not rooted in nationalism, as nothing is being said about the Russian base that also exists in the country. The motivation is not to rid Kyrgyzstan of foreign dominance, but to alter the current relationship with the United States.

There is no evidence yet that Russia played an on-the-ground, operational role in the uprising but there can be no doubt that Russia’s government, at the very least, actively fomented the unrest. In the weeks leading up to the revolution, the Kyrgyz government asked Russia to stop their state-run media’s offensive against Bakiyev, whose coverage saturates Kyrgyzstan’s own airwaves.

Shortly before the ousting of the government, Erica Marat of the Jamestown Foundation wrote that “potentially Russian TV channels and newspapers have a far greater propensity to mobilize Kyrgyz crowds against Bakiyev’s authoritarian regime compared with Western media broadcasting in Kyrgyzstan.” The Bakiyev regime knew that the reporting on their corruption threatened them, so they tried to prevent such news coverage from reaching the country, both from Russian and Western media sources.

Roza Otunbayeva, the opposition leader, received a friendly phone call from Putin as soon as she took power. He promised to recognize her government and build a “special relationship” between the two countries. It is easy to see why Putin would take such delight in her victory. One of her main criticisms of Bakiyev was his contentious relationship with Russia, saying that the country “must not act the way it’s acting toward Russia, which is our strategic partner and ally.”

The conflict with Russia came to a head last year when Kyrgyzstan reversed its position and agreed to renew the U.S. lease on the Manas air base. In 2005, the pro-Russian government of Uzbekistan kicked the U.S. out of the base it had in its territory, making the Kyrgyzstan site even more vital. The Obama Administration’s offer to pay Kyrgyzstan $60 million per year for the base, a three-fold increase, was too good of a deal for Bakiyev to miss.

If Russia was more involved than just undermining Bakiyev with its media, it would not be unprecedented or surprising. As I wrote last week, Russia tried to engineer a coup in Georgia in May 2009 to overthrow the Saakashvili government, and may be preparing the ground for more aggressive action in the wake of the Moscow bombings. A similar scenario where Russia supports forces in Kyrgyzstan or anywhere else nearby in order to effect policy changes is not far-fetched, but is to be expected.

The events in Kyrgyzstan have major implications for the war in Afghanistan and the American position in central Asia as a whole. Approximately 50,000 coalition soldiers passed through the base in March alone. If the base is closed, it will be hard to find an adequate replacement.

The new government can’t be described at this juncture as being inherently anti-American just yet, even though its coming to power will adversely affect the strategic position of the U.S. They may be genuine reformers, as they’ve promised to write a new constitution and to hold legitimate elections. Or, they could be frauds like Bakiyev turned out to be.

“The people that are allegedly running Kyrgyzstan…these are all people we’ve had contact with for many years. This is not some anti-American coup, that we know for sure. And this is not some sponsored-by-the-Russians coup, there’s just no evidence of that,” said Michael McFaul, a top advisor to the Obama Administration on Russian affairs.

McFaul fails to see the importance of the Russian media in the uprising, but it is true that the opposition was riding on genuine outrage over the human rights abuses, corruption, rolling back of freedom, and declining economy under Bakiyev. Ironically, he is assessed to have governed similarly to Putin, seeking to eliminate dissenters. Political opponents have been jailed and opposition media sources have been shut down. Such anger is what caused Bakiyev to come to power in 2005, and it is what caused him to lose power in 2010. The Kyrgyz opposition to the U.S. is at least partially rooted in these same sentiments.

“America closed its eyes to this,” said Azimbek Beknazarov, the new Vice Prime Minister, when he spoke about how the country’s democracy had been “destroyed” following the 2005 Tulip Revolution. “That’s why the majority of people now think that America only needs its military base and nothing else interests it.”

Jackson Diegl of The Washington Post writes that Roza Otunbayeva, the new leader, “comes as close as anyone in Kyrgyzstan does to being a liberal democrat.” Her career originates in the Soviet Union, but she took part in the 2005 revolution. As she became opposed to Bikayev, she solicited U.S. support, calling on America to “protect democracy and build democracy” by funding alternative media in her country. She promised to hold elections and to have a positive relationship with the U.S. The question is whether this is a façade, or an ironic twist of fate that Russia’s interests coincide with that of a genuine reformer.