Kyrgyzstan’s upheaval was not totally unexpected. Foreign media and observers pointed out mounting disaffection, profound economic crisis, and the possibility that the opposition could actually come to power. Kyrgyz domestic politics had become increasingly authoritarian and nepotistic. Yet Kyrgyzstan also remained at the center of the great power rivalries among Russia, China, its direct neighbors, and the United States. Thus domestic and foreign challenges are interlinked at several points – and that circumstance arguably catalyzed the upheaval – what Eric McGlinchey called the “hijacking” of the Kyrgyz government. Indeed, evidence is now visible that the rebellion or coup was clearly helped along if not actually incited by Moscow.
BACKGROUND: In early 2009 Russia lent Kyrgyzstan US$ 2.15 Billion to build its Kambarata hydropower station and terminate the lease on the U.S. base at Manas. Of that sum, US$ 300 million, the first tranche of the loan, was intended explicitly for the power station. However, President Kurmanbek Bakiyev promptly renegotiated the lease with the U.S. at a higher payment and became part of the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), the U.S. logistical supply route to Afghanistan, thereby benefitting handsomely. Bakiyev also spent the first tranche of the Russian loan on projects controlled by his son, Maksim, that were intended to build up Bakiyev’s domestic support and re-election.
Kyrgyzstan’s combined policies, particularly the new lease with the U.S., enraged the Russian government. Although Moscow supported Kyrgyzstan against Uzbekistan in 2009, it aimed to mitigate the potential antagonisms that might develop between Tashkent and Moscow due to Uzbekistan’s renewed gravitation to a pro-American position in Central Asia by opening a base in Osh. This was not where Kyrgyzstan wanted it but where Russia could intervene domestically as Osh has an airport and runway. This did not meet Kyrgyz needs, since Bakiyev professed to see Afghanistan as the source of the most urgent threats that exist to Kyrgyzstan’s borders (a hint that it was really his neighbors that had him most worried) and knew that without an adequate armed force, Kyrgyzstan was vulnerable to those threats.
Kyrgyzstan then sought U.S. and Chinese help. It recently concluded an agreement with Washington for a new training center at Batken where Bishkek wanted the Russian base to be. Likewise, Chinese organizations began negotiating with Kyrgyzstan to give it another US$ 300 million loan, exactly the amount Russia lent it, for the construction of power stations in Datka-Kemin and Tash-Samat regions.
Moscow reacted with undisguised fury. First of all it put the brakes on its support for Kambarata, citing alleged environmental and risks, an ancient Russian ploy. Then Prime Minister Putin traveled to Kyrgyzstan where he angrily told Prime Minister Daniyar Usenov that the loan was explicitly for the purpose of constructing the hydroelectric facility at Kambarata and conditional on closure of the U.S. base. He also upbraided Usenov for spending Russian money on projects other than what they had been intended for. But Bishkek then leaked these conversations, showing that Putin had also undermined Medvedev with reference to the issue of the U.S. transit center at Manas, thus exposing to the public the rifts within the Russian government. In February 2009, Medvedev had claimed that it was entirely within Kyrgyzstan’s discretion to terminate the U.S. lease on the base and that it had nothing to do with a Russian loan to Kyrgyzstan. Putin’s remarks shattered that fiction for all to see.
IMPLICATIONS: Russia stopped implementing previous agreements and refused to make any commitments about new accords, e.g. the Kambarata power complex. Indeed, Moscow’s priority project, the Customs Union for the CIS that Kyrgyzstan is a logical candidate to join, was also stalled with Kyrgyzstan insisting on prior agreements on military-technical cooperation, i.e. arms sales, and the issue of foreign debt, before discussing the Customs Union. Moscow also obstructed the possibility of third party cargos, e.g. from China, entering into Kyrgyzstan. Putin further turned on the pressure, clearly aiming at undermining Bakiyev and bringing the opposition to power.
In advance of Kyrgyzstan’s upheaval, Moscow reportedly established contacts with the opposition forces that succeeded Bakiyev in the wake of the April 7 demonstrations in Bishkek and Northern Kyrgyzstan. Although Putin professed surprise at the demonstrations, Russian papers discussed demonstrations in Kyrgyzstan several weeks before the actual demonstrations occurred. Russia also simultaneously employed its economic power by rescinding a loan to Kyrgyzstan, and revoking the preferred customs duties that Kyrgyzstan had been receiving on Russian diesel and energy imports, thus raising energy tariffs on its products. These moves forced the government to announce major price rises in electricity fees that were the catalyst for the demonstrations that unseated Bakiyev. And just weeks before those demonstrations, the Russian press launched a media offensive denouncing Bakiyev as corrupt and saying that Russia could not work with him as if to signal that the time had come for an uprising.
All these moves suggest a concerted plan to undermine the Bakiyev government and replace it with one more amenable to and openly dependent upon Moscow. Certainly Bakiyev’s successor, Roza Otunbayeva, thanked Russia for helping oust Bakiyev, for offering humanitarian aid, and for recognizing the new government before anyone else did. And members of the new government hinted at forthcoming changes in foreign policy while asking for Russian aid and hinting that they could ask as well for Russian peacekeepers. Moscow also sent 150 (if not more) paratroopers to its base at Kant.
CONCLUSIONS: If this assessment is correct, Moscow decided once again to show a CIS state who was boss. It tried this and failed in Ukraine in 2004; but in Kyrgyzstan, it accomplished what it always accused Washington of doing, namely orchestrating a so called color revolution. But this is not a revolution, but rather as McGlinchey termed it, a hijacking. The signs of the new government’s dependence on Moscow for economic and military support only further confirm this as do the hints that it will revise its foreign policy. Ultimately this means increased pressure on Washington and the base at Manas that Russia has long sought to eject from Kyrgyzstan.
While it is unlikely that Kyrgyzstan will soon eject the U.S. from the base– Manas’ situation has changed. Although Kyrgyzstan claims it will not oust the U.S. from Manas, as a result of this upheaval American tenure in Manas now truly depends on Moscow, not Bishkek. That probably was one of the points Moscow strove successfully to make by its actions. Indeed, it has for now reasserted its position as Kyrgyzstan’s security manager and aspiring security manager for all Central Asia. It will determine how long the U.S. can stay, or so it hopes.
This outcome also testifies to the extent of Russian economic power and possibly intelligence penetration in Kyrgyzstan as well as the willingness to use these instruments to advance Russian interests. If the U.S. wishes to maintain its profile in Central Asia it will have to commit a similar amount of economic attention and resources to the area in its own right, not just as an appendage of its Afghanistan policy. Tajik commentators have already written that this coup should constitute a lesson to their and other Central Asian governments. Undoubtedly these events contain a lesson but it may not be the lesson that these observers think they have learned.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Stephen Blank is Professor at the U.S. Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, PA 17013. The views expressed here do not represent those of the U.S. Army, Defense Department, or the U.S. Government.