To make progress on Afghanistan and Russia, Obama must get Kyrgyzstan right
Politically unstable Kyrgyzstan, which experienced a coup this spring, is home to a US air base that's critical to the war in Afghanistan. Russia is paying close attention. So should Washington.
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Let’s hope the Obama administration seized the issue behind closed doors, because US interests in Kyrgyzstan go beyond concern over the recent ethnically based massacres in the south: The future of Kyrgyzstan has direct bearing on the ability of US soldiers to win the war in Afghanistan.
A recent coup in Kyrgyzstan, a small and impoverished post-Soviet country, brought to power an interim government that promised to ease life for its long-suffering citizens.
Even as the exiled leader unpacked his luggage in Minsk, the interim government failed to stop the killing of ethnic Uzbeks by the dominant Kyrgyz in southern Kyrgyzstan.
The UN, the EU, and even Russia and China, which aspire for a “sphere of influence” in Central Asia barely went beyond the usual hand-wringing. And it took a week for the Interim President Roza Otunbayeva to visit the victims. She announced earlier this month that up to 2,000 people have been killed and many more wounded.
Many believe the coup in Kyrgyzstan was staged by the Russians, who were quietly unhappy with the previous leader. The Kremlin considered Mr. Bakiyev not loyal enough, as he appeared reluctant to close America’s Manas air base, which plays a critical role in resupplying US troops in nearby Afghanistan.
Wielding threats to close the Manas airbase, Bakiyev was successful in extorting funds from the US government even as he sought to strike the right balance with the Kremlin, which urged him to tell the Yankees to go home.
Bakiyev’s last blackmail attempt in 2009 forced the Pentagon to re-negotiate a $17.4 million a year airbase lease contract and pay a price of $60 million per year. A few months earlier, the ex-leader of Kyrgyzstan had promised the Russians to shut the gates of the US airbase in exchange for a $2 billion soft money loan promised by the Kremlin.
The dictator temporarily duped Moscow, but in the end he underestimated the Kremlin’s revenge. What he left for the interim government was his “know-how” in dealing with the US: extortion, threats, and pressure.
Despite the fact that officials of the provisional administration almost immediately calmed US concerns about the status of Manas air base, and thus secured recognition from Washington, a few weeks later they seemed to change their mind. The interim government’s leaders are threatening to impose a value-added tax (VAT) on the jet fuel provided to the US air base, which is clearly against the existing agreement between the two countries.
However, it appears that some corrupt politicians in Bishkek would like to start reapportioning choice economic assets. Kyrgyz media reported that some of them would like to steer the jet fuel contracts to private Kyrgyz companies controlled by people close to the provisional government.