Opinion: Score one for Moscow in Kyrgyz unrest

NEW YORK — The conspiracy mongers should be having a field day. Just a few months before the expiration of a fragile agreement granting the U.S. military access to a strategically vital airbase in the Kyrgyz city of Manas — a base that represents the lynch pin of the Afghan war’s logistical chain — an opposition rising ousts the president and installs as caretaker the former Kyrgyz ambassador to the United States.

The violent clashes that overthrew the government of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev on Wednesday did, indeed, place former envoy to Washington Roza Otunbayeva in the cat-bird seat. She quickly announced that elections would be held within six months, announced the dismissal of parliament and promised to do nothing that would disrupt the flow of troops, ammunition and supplies to the U.S.-led war on Afghanistan.

How very convenient, I hear you saying. Even as President Barack Obama was signing a new strategic nuclear reduction treaty with his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, the risk that Manas would suddenly be pinched off has been postponed. And so questions naturally swirl around the less rigorously sourced corners of the web: Was there a Kyrgyz quid pro quo in the nuke deal? Did the Russians help topple Bakiyev in exchange? Or was the CIA involved?

(To be sure, yesterday's events also involved thousands of ordinary Kyrgyz in armed battle with police — some of whom gave their lives in the effort to overthrow the government. We don't know their motives or what was promised them, but GlobalPost's David L. Stern is on his way to Bishkek to find out.)

The name that matters

Before you start working on your Clancy screen play, though, understand this: In spite of her time representing Kyrgyzstan in Washington, the new interim president, Roza Otunbayeva, is a former Soviet communist party functionary who lost no time seeking recognition from the guy who really matters: Vladimir Putin.

There’s nothing wrong with facing reality, of course. Whatever the importance of Manas to America, Central Asians know from history that the U.S. will tire of the distant battle eventually, but Russia will still be there, looming to the north.

Like Putin’s Kremlin, Otunbayeva is on the record opposing the extension of the Manas agreement — ostensibly on the basis that hosting American forces on Kyrgyz territory could pull her country into a war with Iran if things on that front heat up.

What about the Russians? Speaking at a news conference in the Russian city of Smolensk, the Russian Prime Minister said “Russia has not had a hand in the uprising.” Putin noted he had already had a telephone conversation with Otunbayeva Thursday morning. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters "It is important that the conversation was held with her in her role as the head of the government of national confidence."

Vying for influence

The wrangling over Manas was an early test of Obama’s presidency. Soon after he took office, Kyrgyzstan’s parliament voted to eject Western forces following a Kremlin decision to guarantee $2 billion in loan guarantees to the Central Asian state. Obama, still barely a month into his presidency, intervened with a letter to Bakiyev asking him to reconsider and offering unspecified benefits.

The U.S., which was paying $17 million a year lease on Manas, renegotiated the deal during the first half of 2009. Ultimately, the two sides agreed on a $60 million a year payment instead, plus $36 million in construction upgrades to the base. That deal was good only for one year, however, and its future was in question.

Some human rights groups claimed the decision led Washington to de-emphasize the deteriorating political situation in the country. As Human Rights 2009 report put it, “The United States prioritized the struggle to retain its airbase at Manas airport over human rights, and did not speak out about the deteriorating situation in the first half of the year.”

Other fish to fry

Opposition groups, including the Social Democratic Party that Otunbayeva leads, no doubt agreed. She saw how the Manas deal bought American silence, and while she may prefer to focus on ensuring that Bakiyev doesn’t mount a comeback for now, it would be fair to say NATO’s access to the base at Manas is once more under threat. Alternative facilities in Kyrgyzstan’s even more repressive neighbor, Uzbekistan, were rescinded after Washington criticized a 2005 massacre of pro-democracy protesters in Andijan, and other options — including Trabzon in Turkey — have their own problems.

And it wasn't only Washington and its NATO allies watching events with dismay. China, which has increased investments in Kyrgyzstan of late and has hopes of ultimately displacing Russia as the dominant player in Central Asia, said it hoped stability would return soon. Only last week, a Chinese energy company was in talks with Bakiyev's son, who headed the country's investment and development agency, for a $300-million investment in Kyrgyzstan's northern Chui Province. Kyrgyzstan lacks the oil and gas riches of its neighbors, its economy relying primarily on agriculture and mining and still heavily dependent on Russia.

Meanwhile, Otunbayev will turn her attention to a different city — Osh, in the country’s south, where the ousted president is thought to be marshaling his support. She had been part of the “Tulip Revolution” which put Bakiyev in power in 2004, overthrowing the last Kyrgyz darling of post-Soviet-democratization-gone-wrong, the former President Askar Akayev. (Akayev was a regular guest at the Clinton White House). But Otunbayeva fell out with Bakiyev over his determination to marginalize dissenters — including herself.

Further clashes internally can’t be ruled out, but here, too, Otunbayev can rely on old friends because Manas isn’t the only foreign military operation in the country. Russia operates an air base at Kant, east of the capital city of Bishkek. Last night, Russia’s RIA news agency announced 150 Russian paratroopers had been sent there, adding to the garrison of 400 permanent troops. Unlike NATO forces in Manas, the Russians aren’t worried about offending their hosts.