Global Policy Forum

Kyrgyzstan Caught in US-Russia Squeeze


By M. K. Bhadrakumar*

Asia Times
November 7, 2006

What can be regarded as common between Nicaraguan presidential candidate Daniel Ortega and Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev? Hardly anything, apparently - except that Nicaragua and Kyrgyzstan are two tiny mountainous countries of 5 million people each. Yet when the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement last Thursday on the Nicaraguan elections, the Kremlin could as well have had Kyrgyzstan in mind. (Sixteen years ago, US-financed Contras battled Ortega's leftist government.)

The Russian statement expressed "surprise and concern" over the "undisguised interference" of the United States in the run-up to Nicaragua's election on Sunday. It criticized the interference by US diplomats and US-funded non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Nicaraguan politics, and said Russia was convinced that open, universal elections were the key element of any democratic process and that no obstacles should be placed in the way of the Nicaraguan people's freely declaring their will.

This was an extraordinary statement for post-Soviet Russia to make. Gone are the days of proletarian internationalism. Conceivably, Moscow was making a deliberate point about the hollowness of the United States' worldwide democracy agenda. Curiously, even as the Russian Foreign Ministry spoke out, an opposition agitation was unfolding in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, where, too, in the name of democratic reform, a US-backed coalition of political activists and NGOs was making yet another effort - the third this year alone - to bring down the elected leadership of Bakiyev and Prime Minister Feliks Kulov.

The open-ended Kyrgyz rally in Bishkek seemed determined to blockade the country's parliament building unless and until Bakiyev and Kulov quit office. But as the suspenseful weekend wore on, it became clear that short of an unexpected last-minute twist to the high-pitched drama, the agitation would fizzle out. This was much like the near-certainty being visualized by most observers that the Marxist revolutionary Ortega was destined to win back Nicaragua's presidency, despite Washington's visceral hatred of him.

Like Nicaragua, Kyrgyzstan has become a battleground of influence for US regional policy. The Kyrgyz leadership, which enjoys the broad backing of Russia and China, has faced continuous sniping from the country's disgruntled political opposition and "civil society" groups that were the erstwhile allies of Bakiyev and Kulov in the US-engineered "Tulip Revolution" of March last year.

The main charge against the Kyrgyz leadership is that it has failed to meet the "expectations" raised in the Tulip Revolution during its 18 months in power. No one ventures to spell out what these "expectations" could have been, but Bakiyev's critics allege that Kyrgyzstan continues to be mired in poverty, corruption and nepotism, and that clan politics rule supreme. They say that a disconcerting feature of the Kyrgyz situation is that criminal elements, such as the drug mafia (who formed the storm troopers of the Tulip Revolution), have not only refused to be put down once the revolutionary fervor died down, but they have been allowed covertly by the present authorities to spread their tentacles further in the country's polity. The opposition demands that Kyrgyzstan should become a parliamentary democracy rather than continue with the present presidential form of government. It foresees that Bakiyev could be harboring hidden authoritarian tendencies and, therefore, his presidential authority needs to be curbed.

The question of democratic reforms also makes good politics since it reveals a three-way split at the highest levels of leadership. Bakiyev seems to prefer a presidential form of government; Kulov a parliamentary system; and Marat Sultanov, the incumbent Speaker of parliament (which was elected during the term of ousted president Askar Akayev), seeks a system of governance that gives primacy to the legislature over the executive. In essence, what is taking place is a regrouping of the forces of the Tulip Revolution between those on the one hand who still enjoy the tacit backing of the US and on the other hand the renegade Bakiyev-Kulov team, which has chosen to defeat the very purpose of last year's "color revolution" by instead making Kyrgyz policies harmonize with the Russian and Chinese strategic goals in the region.

Last year's upheaval in Kyrgyzstan was supposed to take the country into the US orbit, as was the case in Georgia and Ukraine, but Washington belatedly realized to its great discomfiture that exactly the reverse had happened. This was brought home by Bakiyev's demand that the US should pay a decent annual rent, rather than the current US$2.5 million, for further use of Manas Air Base. Bakiyev showed the gumption eventually to drive a bargain with the Pentagon to secure an eightfold increase in the amount. To rub salt into the US wound, he also allowed at the same time the Russians to keep their Kant Air Base in Kyrgyzstan "forever" at no payment and to expand its scale. At the same time, he made it clear that the continuance of the US base would remain contingent on the exigencies of the "war on terror" in Afghanistan, and should conform to the decisions of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) "especially Russia" (to quote Kulov). The CSTO comprises Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Russia and Uzbekistan. The regional stakes are high, since Bakiyev's policies have helped integrate Kyrgyzstan with not only the CSTO but also the Eurasian Economic Community and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

From the US point of view, if Bakiyev and Kulov somehow fall out with each other, the present regime in Bishkek is bound to unravel, and with that Kyrgyz policies could be subjected to course correction. But the sustained efforts to trigger such a split at the leadership level have not borne fruit. Somehow, when the chips are down, Bakiyev and Kulov seem to hang together despite their mutual differences - of their own volition or at the prodding of invisible hands from outside.

The US has found this strange paradigm frustrating. To compound it, the Kyrgyz public does not seem to be in a receptive mood for agitational politics either, having seen their country plunge into virtual anarchy last year during the Tulip Revolution. People also seem to realize that though the government in Bishkek is ineffectual in many respects, the malaise of corruption, nepotism, authoritarianism, etc that has tarnished it is in actuality a carry-over from the past. Thus there is a widespread suspicion of politicians and their motivations in general, and public apathy was the reason the two opposition attempts this year to mobilize large-scale public rallies in Bishkek collapsed.

There is an overall cynicism in public perception in Central Asia about the US administration's passion for spreading democracy. Central Asians with their high level of social formation surely do not want to emulate the next-door example in Afghanistan in taking to Western-style democracy. Also, in overall terms, the US-backed political opposition and NGOs lack credibility as they are in one way or another former allies of Bakiyev. Some among them in fact enjoyed the sinecures of office until quite recently, while none among them could stake claim to any real inspiring counter-program to offer to the despairing Kyrgyz public - except the agenda of yet another tiresome "regime change". Besides, they seem to be incessantly quarrelsome when left to themselves.

Therefore, the scope for staging another "color revolution" in Kyrgyzstan has become seriously limited. Furthermore, unlike Akayev, who abdicated when agitators stormed government buildings in Bishkek city center in March last year, there is the likelihood that Bakiyev and Kulov will use force to quell any extra-constitutional threat to their term in office. To be sure, such an eventuality holds out serious implications for regional stability in general and for the US presence in the region in particular.

But the US does hold one trump card, namely the foothold that it has incrementally established in the sensitive southern region of Kyrgyzstan. The five-year US presence in Afghanistan and the growing US influence of late in Tajikistan apart, during the past decade or so, under the garb of developing "civil society", Washington has developed substantial pockets of influence in Kyrgyzstan's southern region. These "lily pads" of influence dramatically surged into view during the Islamist uprising in the nearby Uzbek city of Andizhan in the Ferghana Valley last year, and it took the uninitiated by surprise.

The Tulip Revolution no doubt accentuated the fault lines of Kyrgyzstan's nationality question and regionalism. Kyrgyzstan's problems of nationality and regionalism are highly complex and virtually unsolvable, except in a benign regional setting that today's Central Asia (or the deteriorating crisis in Afghanistan) hardly concedes. The ground reality is that a window of opportunity has become available since last year's "color revolution" for any external power with a purposive agenda to interfere in Kyrgyzstan's internal affairs.

The fault lines, broadly speaking, run in several directions at once. Traditionally, the levers of political power in Bishkek were held by the clans in the northern region, but Bakiyev hails from the southern region while Kulov hails from the north. The southern region includes a sizable ethnic Uzbek population (forming about 15% of Kyrgyzstan's population) that is culturally assertive, is urbanized, and resents any trends of ascendancy of Kyrgyz nationalism. The northern region is comparatively more industrialized and "Russified", unlike the largely rural southern region bordering the volatile Ferghana Valley, which is a hotbed of radical Islam. The southern region abuts Tajikistan and is a corridor for the militants and drug mafia operating out of Afghanistan, while the pull of the northern region is toward Kazakhstan and Russia. Without doubt, like his predecessor Akayev, Bakiyev uses Kyrgyz nationalism as a cementing force of national identity, but has chosen to tread a wary course by not emphasizing his regional or ethnic identity. He is nonetheless being constantly taunted by the irredentist elements based in the south and the mainstream political opposition drawn from the northern region.

Meanwhile, the latent feelings of Uzbek sub-nationalism, too, have been rearing their head. It is unclear whether outside forces are deliberately stoking the fires of Uzbek sub-nationalism for their potential to harm both Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan alike. Bakiyev has pragmatically tried to strengthen Kyrgyzstan's cooperation with Tashkent, which could help calm the nationality question in the southern region bordering Uzbekistan. The leadership in Tashkent has lent a hand in easing the pressures building up in the Kyrgyz south by recently allowing a visa-free regime for citizens of the two countries to move across the border and, second, by coordinating to mutual benefit the operations of security agencies. At the same time, Bakiyev's so-called "tandem" with Kulov helps him to limit any sense of alienation in the northern region. But all this amounts to constant tightrope-walking, is wearisome, and may prove to be too exacting.

That seems to be precisely the US calculation - destabilize the "pro-Russia" regime in Bishkek in a war of attrition to such a point that governance, let alone good governance, becomes impossible, even with the best of intentions and sincerity on the part of the present leadership. Bakiyev has unfortunately walked into this trap time and again in recent months through numerous acts of commission and omission. His dealings with the sitting parliament, for instance, could have been a great deal better. Washington is surely keenly choreographing pressure tactics against the Kyrgyz regime with a view to putting to test Moscow's reaction. Any precipitate Russian response can be singled out as Moscow's "bullying" of its weak neighbors. The Kremlin seems to realize this, and has hitherto followed a prudent course in the proxy war with Washington.

Arguably, Moscow cannot really complain about Bakiyev's policies, even if there are shortfalls in its expectations (as there are bound to be), but it has been nonetheless disinclined to be seen endorsing his policies. The lessons of the "color revolutions" in Georgia and Ukraine have been well understood in Moscow. Thus Moscow has diversified its contacts with various political constituencies in Kyrgyzstan and is careful not to be seen as partisan. Moscow certainly has encouraged the Bakiyev-Kulov "tandem" to continue, and may well continue to do what it can behind the scenes to ensure that Kyrgyz politics do not descend into anarchy, while steadily expanding and consolidating Russia's strategic gains in Kyrgyzstan in the aftermath of the abortive "color revolution" last year.

Moscow has been astutely exploiting the lack of any creative content in the United States' regional policy, especially in the all-important economic sphere. But there are limits to what Russia can do in resuscitating the Kyrgyz economy. Moscow also probably realizes that the enduring legacy of the Tulip Revolution is that the US has pushed Kyrgyzstan into the status of a faltering state, and even a restoration of the status quo ante, let alone economic progress and healthy social development, will be a long haul.

The anarchic conditions of rioting and arson that followed the US-engineered "color revolution" last year have fundamentally shaken up Kyrgyzstan's state structures and undermined the rule of law. No amount of rhetorical justification for the Tulip Revolution in the name of the US administration's democracy agenda can hide the fact that the attempt to impose lively, youthful US-style democracy on a society as old and tradition-bound as Kyrgyzstan was bound to be catastrophic.

At the same time, the Russian-Kyrgyz military exercise in the southern city of Osh last month is only the latest demonstration of Russian resolve to be involved in the threat posed to Kyrgyzstan's security and stability from militants based in Afghanistan or operating out of Tajikistan. But then that is a matter of Russia's own security, too.

About the Author: M. K. Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for more than 29 years, with postings including ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-98) and to Turkey (1998-2001).

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