The collapse of the regime in Kyrgyzstan--a little-known ex-Soviet Muslim republic bordering on China, with a population of only five and a half million--is important to Americans for more reasons than may be immediately apparent. The U.S. shifted major support operations for the Afghan war effort to the Manas airport base near the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek in 2005, from neighboring Uzbekistan. Leaving Uzbekistan, which then-defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld had been pondering for some time, was made urgent by a bloody massacre committed by Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov against his own citizens, in the market town of Andijon close to the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border.
Karimov alleged repeatedly that he was the first foreign leader after news of the atrocities of September 11, 2001, to call and offer support to Washington, and had promised he would never ask for money from our government. But once Americans expressed horror at the killings in Andijon, Karimov decided he wanted to be paid for use of the base at Kharshi-Khanabad. So our service men and women were moved to Manas.
Karimov’s Russian patron, Vladimir Putin, as well as the Chinese Communist rulers, then pressured Kyrgyzstan to throw us out. Last year, president Barack Obama agreed with now-deposed Kyrgyz leader Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who had ordered the Manas arrangement ended, to pay Kyrgyzstan $60 million annually for our use of the base, with a promise of $150 million in further aid. Bakiyev agreed, and Putin was clearly displeased. Russia has rushed to be first in recognizing an interim Kyrgyz government emerging from the latest events. In a widening gyre of chaos, a second revolution in Bishkek could spell more, rather than less, reinforcement of tyranny in Central Asia.
A fragile grasp on power has been taken in Bishkek by a female philosophy teacher and former Kyrgyz diplomat, Roza Otunbayeva, who was also prominent in the original “Tulip Revolution” of 2005, which installed Bakiyev. Otunbayeva has warned that Bakiyev is plotting a return. At the time of this writing, Bakiyev had fled to southern Kyrgyzstan. But Otunbayeva also appears ambivalent about the American presence at Manas. If the U.S.-led coalition has to vacate Manas, few alternatives for efficient maintenance of the effort in Afghanistan are available.
Obama’s missteps have made these challenges worse. His handling of politics in the Central Asian “stans” embodies his general naivete, inappropriate optimism, flattery, and palm-greasing in dealing with dictatorships. The habits that worked in machine-run Chicago face serious obstacles in the former Soviet empire and its neighbors, including Afghanistan, Iran, and China. The Kyrgyz crisis coincides with smiles all around in anticipation of a global nuclear summit to be held, with the presence of almost 50 world leaders, in Washington on Monday and Tuesday, April 12-13. We will see which events prove more meaningful for the future: exercises in arms-control self-delusion or a bloody uprising in a faraway, transitional state that, tragically, has not yet made it to democracy.
A hardy nation, the Kyrgyz were toughened by resistance to Russian tsarist rule, and are proud of their reputation as a people aspiring to real freedom. Their first post-Communist ruler, Askar Akayev, was a scientist, rather than a Communist party hack turned bogus democrat, but he was destined for history’s scrap-heap when he held elections from which opposition candidates were excluded.
Five years ago, as now, the Kyrgyz took to the streets, besieged the presidential White House, and drove the usurper from the country’s leadership. And since history in that part of the world tends to repeat itself, Bakiyev, who succeeded Akayev, has imitated him in leaving the capital but refusing to resign.
The lessons of Bishkek are many and complex. Although poor and isolated, the Kyrgyz habit of protest confirms that Central Asian Muslims, in a broad area that includes Iran and its opposition movement as well as Afghanistan and its fight against the Taliban, are ready to take their place in the world of entrepreneurship, accountability, and popular sovereignty. Ordinary Iranians, Afghans, and Kyrgyz alike look to the U.S. for moral support on their path to liberty.