Kyrgyzstan protests: What it means for US role in Afghanistan war?

The Kyrgyzstan protests, in which government forces killed at least 17 rioters who tried to storm President Kurmanbek Bakiyev's office and other locations, highlights US reliance on a key air base supplying troops in Afghanistan war.

In this image taken from television, crowds gather on central square as smoke rises in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, on Wednesday. Anti-government protests have swept across the Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan and riot police have opened fire on thousands storming the main government building in the capital of Bishkek.

Protesters angry at rising prices, a crumbling economy, and the authoritarian leadership of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev took to the streets of Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan's capital, on Wednesday and tried to storm the presidential office and a number of other government installations.

The Kyrgyzstan protests also took place in other cities, and the Associated Press reports that at least 17 protesters have been killed and 180 wounded by government troops so far. Reuter's quoted a local official as saying the death toll could be as high as 50.

The instability highlights both Kyrgyzstan's vital role for the US war in Afghanistan and the compromises both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have made to deal with an increasingly unsavory regime.

Critics of Mr. Bakiyev inside and outside of the country charge that US reliance on the Manas Air Base means that Bakiyev feels little pressure to make democratic reforms or hold free elections.

A key air base

The US relies on Manas Air Base (renamed the "Transit Center at Manas" in 2009) to supply NATO forces in Afghanistan. Russia also has an air base in Kyrgyzstan.

Bakiyev's parliament voted to kick the foreigners out of the base in 2009, but Bakiyev later relented after the US promised to increase its annual rent for the base to $60 million. At around the same time, Russia provided $2 billion in loan guarantees for Kyrgyzstan, which some analysts say was an inducement to convince Bakiyev to close the US base. The US contributes a further $90 million or so annually to the Kyrgyz government.

While that may reflect political reality -- Manas is the only air base the US has access to in Central Asia – it has meant dealing with a regime accused of a host of human rights abuses.

A litany of abuses

Mr. Bakiyev took power in the so-called "Tulip Revolution" of 2005, raising hope for democratic reform. But, as the International Crisis Group put in in 2008, "instead of opening up politics Bakiyev... is creating a system whose hallmarks are overweening control by the ruling family, widespread corruption and, most significantly, a monopoly over economic and political patronage."

The 2009 US State Department Human Rights report, released this March, listed a litany of abuses by Bakiyev's government:

"The following human rights problems were reported: restrictions on citizens' right to change their government; arbitrary killing, torture, and abuse by law enforcement officials; impunity; poor prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; lack of judicial independence; pressure on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and opposition leaders, including government harassment; pressure on independent media; government detention of assembly organizers; authorities' failure to protect refugees adequately; pervasive corruption; discrimination against women... child abuse; trafficking in persons; and child labor," the report says.

Bakiyev was reelected last year with 76 percent of the vote.

The State Department wrote that "local and international independent observers concluded that the election failed to meet many of the country's international commitments and was marred by widespread ballot box stuffing, multiple voting, and misuse of government resources."

Will the protests spread?

How far the protests could extend, or what the repercussions will be for the regime, were unclear at mid-morning eastern time on Wednesday.

Wire reports from the capital said that about 1,000 protesters had stormed and were trashing the prosecutor general's office and that protesters had seized government buildings in at least three other towns.

While it would appear that Bakiyev could muster enough force to put down the protests – particularly if key donors like the US, Russia, and China signal they will turn a blind eye – that will not address the widespread poverty and deteriorating economic conditions that have fueled the country's latest crisis.

(This article was corrected after posting to clarify the Russia role in Kyrgyzstan).

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