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Kyrgyzstan: a Russian revolution?
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The US is on the back foot in Central Asia after Vladimir Putin appears to be winning a round in the new Great Game

Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin moved quickly today to recognise the new powers-that-be in Kyrgyzstan while disavowing any role in the overthrow of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev's regime. "Neither Russia, nor your humble servant, nor Russian officials have any links whatsoever to these events," Putin said in a typically sardonic statement that invited disbelief. As far as he was concerned, he said, opposition leader Roza Otunbayeva was "the new head of government".

But if Moscow were found to have had a hand in this latest upheaval, it would hardly come as a shock. Machiavellian Russian machinations in Kyrgyzstan, as in the other former Soviet republics of central Asia, has become the norm in the Putin era. Competition with China and the US for control of strategically important energy resources and transit routes is one key motivator. More fundamentally, Moscow still unfashionably insists on regarding this vast region as falling within its sphere of influence.

Evidence of Russian meddling in Kyrgyzstan is not hard to find. Financial and commercial blandishments dangled by Putin during a visit to Moscow by Bakiyev last year, including a $2bn loan, preceded a decision by the then president to evict the US from its Manas air base, a key staging and supply route to Afghanistan. Only some nifty footwork by the Obama administration, and a sudden Bakiyev volte-face, allowed the US to hang on to Manas.

It is unlikely that Bakiyev's apparent double-dealing endeared him to Putin, no more than his recent counter-terrorism training deal with US general David Petraeus. Perhaps not coincidentally, Russian televisions stations not usually noted for their concern for human rights have freely criticised Bakiyev and his family in recent months for corruption, nepotism and cronyism. These issues became a potent rallying cry in this week's street demonstrations.

More broadly, Putin's authoritarian example seems to have played a significant role in subverting the democratic goals of the tulip revolution of 2005 that ousted the country's first post-Soviet leader. A report published in 2008 by the International Crisis Group found that Bakiyev, having risen to power on a tide of populist sentiment, deliberately emulated Putin's "vertical power" paradigm. His aim was to eliminate centres of opposition and dissent and impose "managed democracy", Russian-style.

"Parliamentary democracy in Kyrgyzstan has been hobbled. The task of the new legislature … is to implement the president's will with minimal discussion and zero dissent. The innovations … are a good example of how the Vladimir Putin model of governance is being copied in central Asia," the ICG said.

The report highlighted Bakiyev's plans to privatise energy resources, "overweening control by the ruling family, widespread corruption, and a monopoly over economic and political patronage" as potential future flashpoints. All these factors, notably rising utility prices, played their part in provoking Kyrgyzstan's second post-cold war revolution. Russia now looks set to exploit the situation for its own purposes.

The US has good reason to take stock, too. Otunbayeva, a former foreign minister who fell out with Bakiyev, gave assurances today that the deal on the Manas base would be honoured. But Washington's self-interestedly insouciant disregard for the regime's egregious human rights abuses and disregard of democratic norms earned the US few friends among the opposition groups that now wield power.

In his pragmatic dealings with Iran, Burma's generals, North Korea and other unsavoury regimes, Obama has shown himself at home in the compromised world of realpolitik. Kyrgyzstan demonstrates how the turn-a-blind-eye approach can rapidly backfire. Even as Bakiyev was fleeing for his life on Wednesday, the US government was gearing up to entertain his heir-apparent, Maksim, on a visit to Washington.

Obama has no excuse for being unaware of what was going on. According to Human Rights Watch, several of Kyrgyzstan's best-known opposition leaders were jailed on politically inspired charges in the past year. Amid intensifying street demonstrations in March, opposition websites and independent radio stations were blocked or jammed, and the publication of three newspapers was suspended. Two prominent journalists were killed last year.

Yet it was left to the distinctly unradical figure of Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, to raise international concerns about these abuses when he visited Bishkek last weekend. His comments, outspoken by his standards, demanding that all human rights and freedoms be respected, may have helped embolden the protesters. In contrast, the US continued to look the other way until after Bakiyev finally fell.

What happens next in vulnerable, impoverished Kyrgyzstan depends on whether its new and not-so-new leaders, representing in effect the country's third attempt at a post-Soviet fresh start, prove to be any more enlightened and trustworthy than their predecessors. It would certainly help if Russia and the US, and regional powers like China and Kazakhstan, do not try to exploit the power vacuum, confine themselves to constructive advice and assistance, and stop using the country as a Great Game playboard.

After the revolution, the new leadership is promising great things. And it would be nice to think, with Roger Daltrey and the Who, that the people of Kyrgyzstan won't get fooled again.

Source >  Guardian

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