Nuclear treaty and an overthrow in Kyrgyzstan: two sides of Russia

Even as Obama and Medvedev signed the START nuclear weapons treaty, Vladimir Putin was supporting the new government in Kyrgyzstan, where he wants the US to give up its military base. The US should have its eyes wide open about the promise of a "reset" in relations.

Much has been made of the “reset” in US-Russian relations as the two countries signed an important nuclear weapons treaty this week – including in a Monitor editorial on Tuesday (click here).

Then came the overthrow of the government in faraway Kyrgyzstan on Wednesday in which at least 75 people were killed. The circumstances of this takeover should remind everyone that reset or no, Russia will still work very hard to protect its own interests, and that this could be detrimental to the United States.

Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet republic in Central Asia, is the only country that hosts both US and Russian military bases. The Americans lease the important Manas airfield near the capital of Bishkek to ferry supplies and troops to nearby Afghanistan. Moscow wants the Americans out – they’re too close to Russia’s “sphere of influence.”

Last year, Russia tried to get rid of the Americans by offering a $2 billion aid package (payoff) to Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev – who was run out of office in a violent uprising this week. Mr. Bakiyev announced the US base would close. But he changed his mind after the Obama administration agreed to increase the amount of its rent payment for the Manas air base.

That put Bakiyev on the Kremlin’s bad side. Russia raised the price of its energy exports to Kyrgyzstan. State-run Russian media, which is watched in Kyrgyzstan, began a campaign against him, portraying him as a dictator and corrupt (indeed, Bakiyev has lived up to the image).

So it is not surprising that on Thursday, when the US and Russian presidents signed the START pact, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin called the self-proclaimed Kyrgyzstan leader, Roza Otunbayeva, and asked how Russia could help – effectively recognizing her government.

The new government’s deputy leader, meanwhile, has traveled to Moscow to discuss economic aid, while a senior Russian official said in Prague, Czech Republic, this week that Moscow will advise the new government that there should be only one base in Kyrgyzstan.

Russia’s, of course.

One member of the interim Kyrgyz government said Moscow had “played its role in ousting Bakiyev” – giving the impression of a Moscow-directed coup. President Obama’s Russia adviser, Michael McFaul, flatly denies that, as does Russia.

It’s hard to know exactly what transpired. Reports from Kyrgyzstan say this was a people’s uprising. Protesters faced gunfire from state security forces as some of them stormed government buildings over Bakiyev’s autocratic ways, human rights abuses, nepotism and corruption – and rising utility prices. Bakiyev told the BBC that his office had been riddled with bullets in an attempt to kill him, and that a foreign government was involved.

Moscow-manipulated coup or not, the change in power leaves the US in a pickle. It underscores the risks of American military alignment with autocratic and corrupt regimes. In 2005, when the US condemned next-door Uzbekistan’s deadly put-down of protesters, it lost its military base there.

The new Kyrgyz leadership greatly resents official Washington’s silence about Bakiyev’s abuses, and has said it might shorten the lease on the Manas base.

The US will have to pivot quickly to regain favor with the new Kyrgyz leadership – which is a more natural ally.

Ms. Otunbayeva, who promises elections in six months, has a reputation as “Ms. Clean.” She backed Bakiyev in the 2005 “Tulip Revolution” to topple the then-dictator but later withdrew her support. Her reputation is as a moderate who is well acquainted with the West as a former foreign minister, and ambassador to Washington and London – but she also has close ties to Russia.

US officials are talking with the new leaders, who are well known to them. But lest anyone forget, Moscow will not look kindly on an American base. This week has again shown Russia’s deep and abiding interest in its neighborhood. While it shakes hands and signs a treaty with the US, it can also jut an elbow – and much more, as its 2008 invasion of Georgia illustrated all too clearly.

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