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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.

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 Alternative facilities in Kyrgyzstan’s even more repressive neighbor, Uzbekistan, were rescinded after Washington criticized a 2005 massacre of pro-democracy protesters in Andijan, and other options — including Trabzon in Turkey — have their own problems.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.