Kyrgyzstan: How America Gained a Base and Lost a Country

My trip to Kyrgyzstan last month was my first since June of 2005.  Those were the heady days immediately following Kyrgyzstan’s Tulip Revolution, which had brought down the kleptocratic regime of Askar Akaev, who had become increasingly corrupt and less democratic during fifteen years of running Kyrgyzstan.  Four years later, Kyrgyzstan felt quite different.

The democratic hopes–as well as the more widespread, but less focused, hopes that Akaev’s resignation would lead to a better life for the Kyrgyz people–had melted away almost entirely.  Instead, government, political, and civic leaders whom I spoke to,  many of whom I had last seen four years earlier when a sense of real change was possible, talked sadly of lost opportunities, the rise of a more repressive regime, and the violent nature of Kyrgyz politics.  Few had much hope for the future.  The presidential election, which was only a few weeks away at that time, was broadly understood as a foregone conclusion.  Most people assumed that the intimidation and fraud which had already begun would only get stronger as the voting got closer. They were right–the election saw Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev reelected with about 88% of the vote in a deeply flawed election that was neither free nor fair.

The campaign manager for Almazbek Atambaev, the major challenger to Bakiev, was a smart and energetic man who gamely tried to convince me that Atambaev was going to win, but he could barely get through this task.  There was a great deal of frustration with the unwillingness of the U.S. during the presidencies of Bush and Obama to support democracy and human rights in Kyrgyztan for fear of upsetting the Bakiev government.

A small and poor population nestled in the mountains between China and Kazakhstan, although it has few valuable natural resource, Kyrgyzstan is a country of great strategic value to the U.S.  Actually, most of Kyrgyzstan is of no strategic value to the U.S., but a few acres outside of Bishkek , the capital, are extremely important.  This, of course, is the Manas Air Force Base.  Manas is a major transport link supporting the U.S. effort in Afghanistan. Without Manas, the U.S. would have no dependable way to move many supplies and people to Afghanistan.

Not surprisingly, maintaining the use of Manas has become the top American priority with regards to Kyrgyzstan.  This has not been lost on the Kyrgyz leadership, who, like good kleptocrats, tried to sell the rights to use Manas to the highest bidder, even breaking an existing contract with the U.S. to make a better deal with Russia.  Ultimately, the US was able to retain the rights to use the base, but only after the Kyrgyz government negotiated a new deal which more than tripled U.S rent for the base and includes another roughly $100 million in other U. S. assistance.

The additional money the US will have to pay to use the base is, to some extent, the cost of doing business, but the political corner into which the U.S. has backed itself in Kyrgyzstan is far more serious.  The regime the U.S. is currently supporting, almost uncritically, is not a strong regime capable of cooperating with and meeting U.S military needs at the expense of freedom and democracy.  It is more of a typical post-Soviet regime where a few families control the country and seem more interested in enriching themselves than in building anything, leading to a weak, unconsolidated and unstable state.

U.S. support for a nasty, though far from worst, and corrupt regime is unremarkable.  The policy is noteworthy in Kyrgyzstan because the U.S. finds itself supporting an undemocratic regime that does not really need the U.S., and in so doing is pushing away what is likely to be the next group of leaders in Kyrgyzstan.  Kyrgyzstan does not need the U.S. because Russia, again a major power in the region, is competing with the U.S. for influence in Kyrgyzstan and the region.  Had things gone just a little differently, Russia would have succeeded in making Manas unavailable to the U.S., thus changing the balance of power in Central Asia and making the Afghanistan war even more difficult and unwinnable than it already seems to be.

Kyrgyzstan is a country where Russian is the lingua franca, a sizeable Russian minority lives unharassed, and where affinity for Russia remains strong among most of the population.  This gives Russia a strategic advantage as the two powers struggle for influence in Kyrgyzstan.  The Bakiev regime knows that if they want to have an undemocratic regimes supported from outside, the Russian option is much more familiar and comfortable.  The U.S. is hamstrung by having to talk enough about democracy to make the Kyrgyz government uncomfortable, while doing sufficiently little to make the Kyrgyz opposition angry and contribute to their weakness.

The U.S. may still be able to win a battle for influence with Russia, a country which continues to suffer from a weak economy, a gamut of political, social and economic problems, and a shrinking population.  But Russia is not the richest and most powerful competitor of the U.S. in Kyrgyzstan.  For the last few years Russia and the U.S. have battled for influence in Kyrgyzstan– and the winner was China.  The likelihood of a non-democratic kleptocratic government like the one in Kyrgyzstan choosing the U.S. as a patron, rather than Russia or China, seems quite small, but that is the bet the U.S has made in Bishkek.