BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — In the immediate aftermath of Kyrgyzstan’s violent government overthrow this week, American interests in the strategic central Asia region may suffer a profound blow, while Russia’s authority appears ready to increase.
Thousands turned out today at a cemetery complex on the edge of Bishkek for a public burial for some of those killed in the fighting. Kyrgyzstan’s health ministry now places the number dead at 79.
But three days after thousands of protesters — some armed with weapons seized from police — overcame government security forces and drove President Kurmanbek Bakiyev from the capital, senior officials in the country’s new provisional government expressed outrage that Washington seemingly turned a blind eye to the deposed administration’s abuses. Some of them are calling for the closure of the United States' air base outside the capital — a strategic transit hub that is key to President Barack Obama’s plans to ramp up operations in nearby Afghanistan.
Azimbek Beknazarov, the new government’s vice prime minister responsible for legal matters, said that U.S. officials were apparently indifferent to Bakiyev’s human rights violations, while providing the means for the Bakiyev family to become extraordinarily rich.
“The last two-three years, Kyrgyzstan’s democratic values have been destroyed,” Beknazarov said in an interview with GlobalPost amid the debris of the looted presidential administration building, which was the focus of Wednesday’s violence.
“America closed its eyes to this,” he said. “That’s why the majority of people now think that America only needs its military base and nothing else interests it.”
Beknazarov said that the provisional government has not yet formally started to discuss whether to keep the base open, although many ordinary people are asking them take up the question. “My own personal opinion is that Kyrgyzstan doesn’t need such a base,” he said.
Meanwhile, operations at Manas air base have been curtailed sharply. A press spokesperson there said that troop transport flights have been temporarily suspended, although other “normal operations,” such as re-fueling, continue. He did not provide details why the troop flights were halted.
According to Beknazarov, who is heading up an investigation into the Bakiyev family’s financial dealings, Maxim Bakiyev, the president’s son, is allegedly involved in the sale of fuel to the U.S. air base. If true, the arrangement could possibly have netted the Bakiyev family tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars. Beknazarov could provide no evidence for that claim, however, explaining that the inquiry was only in its first days.
The air base’s fuel commission is a sensitive subject in Kyrgyzstan. Bakiyev accused his predecessor Askar Akayev — who was driven from office in a popular uprising in 2005 — of funneling millions of dollars to his family through an identical arrangement.
After Akayev fled Kyrgyzstan, Bakiyev’s government petitioned the U.S. government to look into whether the former president illegally enriched himself and his family through two companies linked to his son and son-in-law. These companies transported and sold the fuel to another sub-contractor, which then provided it to the base. Kyrgyz officials at the time demanded that Washington compensate their country for about $80 million that they said the Akayevs pocketed personally. The case was quietly dropped after a short period however.
According to Beknazarov, who authored the original request asking the U.S. to open an FBI investigation into the matter, Maxim Bakiyev simply took over the interests from Akayev’s sons.
“He was unquestionably involved,” the new vice prime minister said. “He privatized for himself the entire country.”
The country’s new prosecutor, Baitemir Ibrayev, says however that he cannot say 100 percent if Bakiyev’s son was a part of selling fuel to the base. “I don’t want to talk about this matter right now, but the entire country has been discussing it,” he said. “I believe, however, that there was an objective reason for these stories.”
“We will check everything out, determine who did what, and then present our results,” he added.
U.S. officials, in past conversations, have insisted that Washington was not going soft on the Bakiyev government for its growing authoritarian behavior and human rights abuses. They also insisted that their discussions behind closed doors were much sharper than their public statements. Moreover, when questioned in the past, they insisted that they had no knowledge of any dealings between the U.S. military and the Bakiyev family.
(President Bakiyev, for his part, speaking to the Wall Street Journal from southern Kyrgyzstan, conceded that his son might have been involved in business with the base, but said no law was broken.)
But the impression here, fair or not, runs strong among the general population that Washington coddled the Bakiyev regime for the sake of holding onto the base, which Bakiyev came close to evicting the U.S. from last year. And while America’s reputation has taken a beating, Russia’s star is now ascendant.
Russia’s state-dominated media began to run stories critical of Bakiyev some months ago, just as the Kyrgyz opposition was mobilizing its protest campaign. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was the first leader to place a call to the provisional government’s leader, Roza Otunbayeva, de facto recognizing the new government. And Russia has promised to provide significant financial support to the new regime.
This mountainous ex-Soviet state long played a much larger role on the international stage than its size or location warrants. With just 5 million inhabitants and wedged against China’s northwest border — and without any natural resources or major industry — it is nevertheless the only country in the world to host both Russian and U.S. bases.
If Kyrgyzstan’s new leaders — who promised democratic measures such as constitutional reform and fresh elections in six months — turn out to be more pliable to Russian demands, it would be the second victory for the Kremlin this year in the tug of war for influence between east and west. In February, Ukrainian voters turned out the anti-Russian government of Viktor Yushchenko and replaced him with the more Moscow-friendly Viktor Yanukovych.
But some observers believe that all is far from lost: The U.S. can still establish good relations with the Otunbayeva government.
“Being an American is not a good thing right now here,” said one Western official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press. “But this government is capable of being nice to the U.S. if the U.S. treats them right.”
“Things could be smoothed over — but some fence-mending is needed,” he said.