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Opinion: Score one for Moscow in Kyrgyz unrest

Russia blesses the revolution, leaving America and China on the outside looking in at events in Bishkek.

An anti-government protester gestures in front of a burning car during clashes near the presidential administration in Bishkek, Apr. 7, 2010. At least 17 people were killed and 142 injured in clashes between riot police and opposition protesters in the capital of Kyrgyzstan on Wednesday, the Kyrgyz Kabar news agency said. (Vladimir Pirogov/Reuters)

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.