US ally Kyrgyzstan holds Soviet-style election

As host to a key US air base – used to support troops in Afghanistan – the country may feel little pressure to address electoral and human rights abuses.

MOSCOW – A disputed election in strategic Kyrgyzstan, a tiny mountain republic at the very heart of Asia where the United States maintains an important air base, has returned President Kurmanbek Bakiyev to power with a Sovietesque 85 percent of the vote.

Opposition candidates cried foul and withdrew before the vote-counting was finished, while international observers have reported numerous election violations in Thursday's election.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which fielded 280 monitors, said "the conduct of election day was a disappointment" and said the election was marred by intimidation of opposition supporters, media bias, and reports of ballot-box stuffing instances of multiple voting.

"Sadly, this election did not show the progress we were hoping for and it again fell short of key standards Kyrgyzstan has committed to as a participating state of the OSCE," the official observer's report said Friday.

A US State Department spokesman told the Monitor that the US is still gathering information about the election and that it was "too early to tell" if it was stolen, adding that the US is "concerned about some of the reports that have been coming out." He said the US was concerned about journalist repression in the run-up to the election, particularly the beating to death of local journalist Almazbek Tashiyev by a group of police on July 12.

Why Bakiyev will be allowed to carry on
Beyond a bit of official scolding, however, it seems unlikely that major powers will take any steps to punish Mr. Bakiyev or Kyrgyzstan for what appears to be serious backsliding from the great hopes aroused by the 2005 "Tulip Revolution," one of a wave of democratic upsurges that many hoped would lead to liberalization across the former Soviet Union.

Muted criticism is likely because while Kyrgyzstan has become more autocratic and abusive of the rights of its citizens under Bakiyev, it is also at the center of a strategic tug-of-war involving Russia, China, the US and the Europe for influence in energy-rich but politically unstable former Soviet central Asia.

Mr. Bakiyev has proved adept at extracting cash from both Russia and the US as a consequence. Last winter he received over $2 billion from the Kremlin and shortly thereafter ordered the US to vacate its military base at Manas, near the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek. Last month, after the US agreed to triple the rent it pays for Manas to $60 million per year (with $120 million in additonal inducements on top of that), Bakiyev changed his mind. President Barack Obama had also courted Bakiyev's favor to retain the base.

Vital to Afghanistan mission
The airbase, which hosts about 1,000 US personnel and scores of aircraft, is considered to be a vital link in the resupply chain for NATO forces in Afghanistan, but Russia has been deeply suspicious of Washington's motives in maintaining a military presence on former Soviet territory.

At a summit in Moscow early this month, Presidents Dmitri Medvedev and Barack Obama buried some of their differences and agreed to work together to provide a resupply bridge to the NATO mission in Afghanistan.

But Russia and China, who have few qualms about pairing with authoritarian regimes, remain actively interested in extending their influence in central Asia, including the construction of new military facilities, which leaves it doubtful that the US will jeopardize its fragile influence by criticizing Bakiyev's alleged democratic abuses.

Once the 'Switzerland of Central Asia'
It wasn't always this way. Kyrgyzstan, a mountainous country of 5 million was known as the "Switzerland of Central Asia" during the 1990s under its corrupt Western-leaning president, Askar Akayev.

After Mr. Akayev was overthrown amid two days of rioting and looting in Bishkek, democratic politicians and civil society activists expressed hope that the country would carry out a democratic reconstruction. But within days of the revolution, it became clear to many that old-line officials – with Bakiyev in the forefront – were already moving to seize power.

Bakiyev was elected a few months later after a campaign that, like his reelection this week, focused on the tiny country's need to achieve "stability" and also featured multiple violations (PDF) of internationally-accepted electoral standards.

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