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Now Krygyzstan – The Wilting Tulip

April 11, 2010

(related articles…

1. Eric Wahlberg `Kyrgyzstan: Another Color Revolution Bites The Dust’

2. BBC articles and video on the current crisis in Kyrgyzstan

3. Rick Rozoff `Kazakhstan: U.S., NATO Seek Military Outpost Between Russia and China’

4. Coup In Kygyrstan, Drugs from Afghanistan and US

5. US Air Base Linked to US Tolerance of Corrupt Kyrgyz Government

6. Vicker Cheterian `Kyrgyzstan Failing and an Arc of Crisis’

6. Paul Quinn-Judd `Kyrgyzstan: Saving Central Asia

7. US Opening Second Base in Kyrgyzstan (Aug. 10, 2010) interview with Rick Rozoff on `Russia Today – USA’

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Manas Air Force Base: Grand Central Station for U.S. Troops Coming and Going Through Afghanistan

According to a CNN report yesterday  (April 10, 2010) picked up by Rick Rozoff of `Stop Nato’, about 1,300 U.S. troops have been stuck at the Manas airfield in Kyrgyzstan as a result of the revolt against the former regime there, literally overthrown by thousands of angry demonstrators in Bishkek on April 8.  Sources inside the country have said that over 100 people have died and another 500 wounded in the uprising against the regime of Kumanbek Bakiyev. The fate of the base – one of the most important US military bases in Central Asia, remains unclear.

A U.S. military spokesman, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the security situation, said US  troops have been unable to move because of the suspension of U.S. military operations at the airfield. The stranded troops include those coming home from Afghanistan and others going into the war zone. The spokesman said it is not known when the airfield will reopen and it is not yet certain how the troops will be moved out. In any case, the events have thrown the Obama Administration into something approaching a panic over the fate of Manas.

Obama now finds himself in the interesting position of having to go begging to Moscow to help maintain the US base rights. Interestingly, at the same time Washington is somewhat desperately hoping to hold on to its Manas base, already there are reports that negotiations are underway with Kazakhstan to open an air base there should the Manas arrangement fall through.  Still, while a possible alternatie, Kazakhstan is not considered the most viable option. In 2008, an Office of the Inspector General report on U.S. operations in Kyrgyzstan said in relation to Manas that “it would be much more expensive to support coalition operations from another venue.” As a result, it concluded that the then annual cost of U.S. programs in Kyrgyzstan (about $150 million) was “money well spent.” Operating the base from Kazakhstan would not be the same thing.

Last year, before the current crisis broke with all its fury,  the Kyrgyz parliament voted against the U.S. and NATO presence at the air base, through which almost all U.S. personnel going into or out of Afghanistan transit. To satisfy the parliament,  the Obama Administration increased `rent’ on the base  increased from $17 million to $60million. At that time, last June, the U.S. also pledged an additional $65 million to upgrade the air base. Kyrgyzstan is one of the poorest countries in Central Asia. Maj. John Redfield of U.S.  Central Command, just last month, in March, about 50,000 U.S. troops passed through Manas on their way in and out of Afghanistan.  While the March figure seems a little out of the ordinary, on an average month, some 30,000 U.S. troops are coming and going to and from Afghanistan through Manas. Take U.S. access to Manas Air Force Base away and American  logistical access to Afghanistan becomes more complicated. The US said all flights from the Manas airbase had been halted on Friday night and that it would instead use a base in far off Kuwait to ferry servicemen to Afghanistan.

Despite the recent increase in the Manas Base `rent’, as this particular uprising seems to have a distinct anti-American flavor, it is possible that current base arrangement might change yet again.

“The political behavior of the United States has created a situation where the new authorities may want to look more to Russia than to the United States, and it will strengthen their political will to rebuff the United States,” said Bakyt Beshimov, an opposition leader who fled Kyrgyzstan last August in fear for his life.

To what was Beshimov referring?

  • For starters, the Manas base, as Eric Wahlberg aptly puts it (see link about this article) has `provided nothing to the surrounding community except for the transitting soldiers’ purchase of alcohol and soliciting of prostitutes
  • Furthermore, the killing of an unarmed Kyrgyz by a US soldier at the base’s entrance last year was bad enough, but when the US military immediately redeployed the perpetrator out of the country – a common procedure for the US military world wide –  it created a storm of nationalist protest. It was this groundswell of anti-American anger from below that forced Bakiyev to renegotiate the annual base lease with the Obama Administration for four times its previous contract.

The Kyrgyz opposition criticizes the United States for `looking the other way’ to avoid criticizing Bakiyev’s human rights record that includes disappearances, the assassination of journalists and opposition figures in order to not threaten its access to the base. There are also widespread charges of U.S. involvement in widescale corruption from base contracts as well as concern over U.S. encouraged IMF-World Bank structural adjustment policies that have driven the country to the edge of `failed state’ status in the short time that the US has had base privileges there. Manas is the only U.S. military base on the territory of what was the former Soviet Union.

The fate of Manas is up in the air as a result of an uprising in Kyrgyzstan that overthrew the government of President Bakiyev. Bakiyev was seen as pro-American. He came to power in what was dubbed `The Tulip Revolution’ but now it appears those bright colors have drained from his administration and his face as well. With Bakiyev’s departure the fate of the base is no longer assured although initial indications from the new government of Roza Otumbayeva are that the no quick changes in policy are expected. In her first statement since coming to power Otumbayeva stated `the status quo will remain.’

Still, given the fluidity of the situation and the fact that Otumbayeva

US 101 Airborne Division at Manas Air Base Headed for Afghanistan. March 2008

seems already distinctly more friendly to Moscow than Washington, that could change and at the very least, the base lease arrangement could be re-negotiated in some way. Now with the balance of power somewhat shifted, the United States might find itself in the interesting situation of having to lobby through Moscow to retain its influence in Kyrgyzstan. Further, U.S. strategic interest  in Kyrgyzstan go beyond its role as a strategic transfer point for U. S. troops to Afghanistan.  As M. K. Bhadrakumar (whose analyses of the recent military flare up in Yemen involving Saudi Arabia and the United States I found particularly well done) notes in an article in yesterday’s Asia Times:

Obama Administration insistence that the United States has no long term plans for the region ring hollow. Just one look at the map of Central Asia shows why the United States determined that $80 million annually was a small price to pay to establish its predominance in Kyrgyzstan. The country is one of the most valuable pieces of real estate in the geopolitics of the region

  • Kyrgyzstan borders on China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region. Some time ago there was a whispering campaign which said the Manas base, projected as the main supply base for US troops in Afghanistan, had highly sophisticated electronic devices installed by the Pentagon that could `peep’ into Xinjiang where key Chinese missile sites are located
  • Besides, a sizable Uyghur community lives in Kyrgyzstan and almost 100,000 ethnic Kyrgyz live in Xinjiang. Kyrgyzstan surely holds the potential to be a base camp for masterminding activities aimed at destabilizing the situation in Xinjiang
  • Furthermore, southern Kyrgyzstan lies adjacent to the Ferghana Valley, which is the cradle of Islamicist radicalism in in the region. The militant groups based in Afghanistan and Pakistan often transit through Kyrgyzstan while heading for the Ferghana Valley
  • To put it differently, for any US strategy to use political Islam to bring about regime change in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in the future, Kyrgyzstan would be extremely  valuable. Like Georgia in the Caucasus, Kyrgyzstan’s significance lies not in its natural resources such as oil and gas, but in its extraordinary geographical location, which enables it to modulate regional politics.

The dimensions of the Kyrgyz political shift are not entirely clear yet but it is obvious that the it is not the kind of `regime change’ that Washington had in mind for the Central Asian country which will now be drawn somewhat closer to Moscow. Looking at the situation on a more regional level, the change of the guard in Kyrgyzstan is not unlike the collapse of the `Orange Revolution’ in Ukraine in February. It is also likely to embolden the opposition in Georgia in search of a less confrontational posture towards Russia. With Uzbekistan never that much drawn to the U. S. protective umbrella and the Turkmen’s having just signed a major gas pipeline deal with China it appears more and more that the whole US strategy in former Soviet Central Asia is unraveling. If it is not unraveling it is certainly lost a good deal of its appeal.

The US-Bakiyev Mafia-Like Relationship; Structural Adjustment’s Role in the Kyrgyz Crisis

Bakiyev was swept into power in 2005 by massive angry demonstrations upset with the corruption and authoritarian nature of the previous regime. He was  then re-elected in what may Kyrgyz say was a corrupt election process last year. Shortly there after, this past week, he unceremoniously shown the door the same way as Bishkek citizens stormed the Parliament and other government building forcing Bakiyev to flee.  While Bakiyev’s accession to power seemed welcomed at first and enjoyed the approval of the Bush Administration, his government quickly degenerated into a circus of corruption and abuse. According to different sources, in exchange for giving the United States base access at Manas, soon after Bakiyev came to power, his family became a rather substantial beneficiary of Pentagon contracts supposedly for providing supplies to the US air base Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital. This followed a patronage pattern developed in Afghanistan. According to Bhadrakumar, some sources put the figure awarded to Bakiyev family members at more than $80 million (the figure cited above).

That did not sit well with a population already plagued with post-Soviet crushing poverty. No doubt, one of the main causes of the disturbances is the country’s widespread poverty. The Kyrgyzstan uprising was provoked in large measure by the worsening economic conditions in this country of five million where most of the working people are forced to migrate and seek work outside the country’s borders. They tend to migrate to either Russia or Kazakhstan but the remittances sent home all but dried up after the 2008 global financial meltdown. The Bakijev government’s decision to more than double the utility prices in January of this year was the proverbian straw that broke the camel’s back. In a country where the average monthly salary is $70, paying $100 or more for heating and electricity was beyond their means.

When it came to power five years ago the Bakiyev government promised land reform that would include distribution to some of the country’s many landless peasants. It didn’t happen. As events exploded last week, in the countryside many people simply expropriated farmland for their own use, and at least according to one report, have already started farming it.

A part of the US-Kyrgyzstan relation entailed closer economic relations for the poor Central Asian country. Like so many others, Kyrgyzstan was offered World Bank-IMF economic aid conditional on accepting a structural adjustment package with its usual punitive clauses targeting state assets including the elimination of subsidies and privatization of state assets. For decades now, such privatization in the world’s different poorer countries have resulted in bargain basement sale of state assets to private entities. It was such privatizations that nearly resulted in the implosion of Russia just after the collapse of communism and against which, in part, so many Latin American nations have moved left politically. Privatizations weaken a state’s ability to act not only economically but politically as well.

It cannot be accidental that so many nations today labeled `failed states’ had initiated deep structural adjustment economic policies in the period before their collapse – among them Rwanda, People’s Republic of the Congo and now more recently Yemen and Kyrgyzstan just to name a few.  Coming at a period of deepening economic crisis and mass poverty, these programs are

April 8 anti-government demonstration in Bishkek that brought down the Bakiyev Regime

almost always the opposite of what is needed to help countries’ address their economic woes. Just at a critical moment when strengthening the state might help a country survive a serious socio-economic or political crisis, structural adjustment does exactly what it was intended to do: weaken state structures to make international financial and corporate penetration easier, undermining states’ ability to resist such penetration.

With the exception of several reports in The Financial Times, few Western newspapers covered this part of Kyrgyzstan crisis. But no doubt  one of the key ingredients that brought people out into the streets of Bishkek and other Kyrgyz cities trigging the explosion of anger that brought down the Bakiyev government was the latest round of IMF directed privatizations. The subject matter was addressed in Ms. Otumbayeva’s first press conference. She promised to `return to the state’ a number of assets that were illegally privatized’ by the Bakiyev regime, including Severelectro and Vostokelectro, two electric companies the sale of which was allegedly rigged to favor allies of the president for a fraction of their worth and defraud the county. Ms. Otumbayeva continued in her remarks, asserting that the interim government would `issue a decree to return a number of assets to the state that were earlier illegally privatized for no money.  She also is committed to re-institute subsidies that would bring down recent large increases in utility prices.

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