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.

Today’s meeting between President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev gave Washington a unique opportunity to improve its policy approach toward Kyrgyzstan.

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.

Meanwhile, the previous leader, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, fled to a haven in Belarus, a post-Soviet state often called “the last dictatorship of Europe.”

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.

To add insult to Washington’s injury, the Kyrgyz interim government demanded the extradition of Bakiyev’s son, Maksim, from Britain, threatening to close the Manas airbase if it doesn’t get what it wants. Blackmailing of Washington by a weak Kyrgyz government which is yet to win a popular mandate, is not the right way to make friends with America.

As the result of the spurious demands by the provisional government’s Prosecutor General Azimbek Beknazarov and others, the refueling of US tankers in Manas for participation in vital operations over Afghanistan have been interrupted in recent months.

Oddly enough, the White House decided to appeal to the Kremlin to come to rescue. This is the same Kremlin that, according to the sources in Moscow, ordered its special envoy to Kyrgyzstan, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s ally General Vladimir Rushailo, to pressure the Kyrgyz interim government into closing the Manas airbase.

President Medvedev and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are willing to tolerate the base for now, but demand that Mosocow will decide when to shut it down. The Obama administration seems to be betting on Mr. Medvedev to keep Manas. This is a wishful thinking, which may undermine the US strategy in Central Asian and Afghanistan.

The administration should know that Mr. Putin is still very much in charge of Russia. Moreover, Medvedev’s recent rhetoric replicates Putin’s arrogance. In Argentina, Medvedev assured the audience that he “spits” on US concerns about Russia’s expansion into South America. Does that reflect Obama’s “reset” policy in action?

As the massacres of ethnic Uzbeks unfolded, the Kyrgyz provisional government appealed to Washington for military aid. Rejected by the White House, the interim government turned to the Russians.

The Kremlin, however, decided not to send the troops. Eschewing direct involvement in Kyrgyzstan, Moscow picked a couple of “effective” instruments from its toolbox. The first one is the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which consisted of seven post-Soviet countries, including Kyrgyzstan, where the Russians enjoy full control. The other is the upcoming elections in Kyrgyzstan mentioned by the Russian president during his press conference at the White House today. The latter may indicate that the Kremlin is willing to influence the results of the elections as it did in Ukraine twice in the very recent past.

In order to keep Manas intact, ensure uninterrupted supplies for US troops in Afghanistan, and deny the Kremlin an opportunity to impose neo-imperial rule on yet another post-Soviet state, the White House should consider sending a NATO/OSCE peace keeping mission to Kyrgyzstan.

Meanwhile, the provisional government should ensure that Manas functions without interruptions: legal, tax or geopolitical. The base is a stabilizing factor and a cash cow for the empoverished country which desperately needs cash.

All Central Asian states and Russia should be glad that Americans – and not them – are fighting the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

If the Obama administration is looking to Moscow for help, the message from Kremlin is loud and clear: “They need us now more then we need them.” Let’s hope that, in private, President Obama disabused Medvedev of this notion.

Dmitry Sidorov is an independent journalist. He was formerly the bureau chief for Kommersant Publishing in Washington.

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