Kyrgyzstan Demands Americans Vacate Air Base Next Year

C-5A Galaxy II aircraft at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas
C-5A Galaxy II aircraft at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas (US Air Force/Senior Airman Brian McGloin)

Kyrgyzstan’s parliament voted overwhelmingly on Thursday on end the United States’ lease on the air base at Manas which has been a critical transit hub for American troops and material moving in and out of Afghanistan. The Americans are expected to vacate the facility by July of next year when they will be in the process of withdrawing from Afghanistan.

Unable to use the Manas facility, the last American troops leaving in 2014 might have to exit through Pakistan, with which American relations are strained, or Russian air bases. The United States will also be harder pressed to send troops into Afghanistan post 2014 when the civilian government is likely to struggle to prevent the Taliban, who ruled the country between 1996 and 2001, from resurging.

Earlier this year, Russia agreed to NATO’s use of an air base at Ulyanovsk to facilitate the allied withdrawal.

Former Kyrgyz president Kurmanbek Bakiyev had tried to close the base a year before he was deposed in 2010. American and Russian intervention changed Bakiyev’s mind who accepted an increase from $17 to $60 million in annual payments for the Americans’ continued use of the facility.

Incumbent president Almazbek Atambayev also campaigned to end the lease and improve relations with Russia instead. Last year, he extended Russia’s lease of the Kant Air Base, some twenty kilometers east of the capital Bishkek, for another fifteen years. Kyrgyzstan is expected to enter a customs union with Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia later this year.

Some 1,500 American military personnel and contractors work at Manas which also serves as a launching platform for air tankers used to refuel warplanes operating over Afghanistan.

Just under 100,000 NATO forces are now stationed in Afghanistan, 68,000 of whom are American. Half of them are scheduled to be withdrawn by early 2014.

Kyrgyz Political Crisis Prompts Premier’s Resignation

Former prime minister Omurbek Babanov of Kyrgyzstan
Former prime minister Omurbek Babanov of Kyrgyzstan (Kyrgyz Embassy)

Kyrgyzstan is once again in political crisis. The product of a stagnating economy, accusations of corruption and the failure of the government to rapidly deliver promised prosperity, the latest iteration of the Central Asian republic’s political turmoil highlights both weaknesses that are inherent to parliamentary democracy and the latent potential of Kyrgyz civil society.

Often hailed as a democratic success in a region that is ruled by autocrats, Kyrgyzstan’s political instability inhibits economic and societal progress.

Twice since independence has Kyrgyzstan removed its president from power. Askar Akayev, elected as the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991, was pushed out of office in 2005’s largely nonviolent Tulip Revolution. Riots and demonstrations two years ago forced Akayev’s successor, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, to flee the country. A referendum subsequently approved the switch from a presidential to a parliamentary system under a new constitution.

Kyrgyzstan’s parliamentary democracy was erected to prevent the concentration of power in a single person or party, doing away with presidential immunity and allowing only a parliamentary majority to select the prime minister. In the event that no single party has a majority in Kyrgyzstan’s unicameral legislature, the president selects a party to initiate coalition talks.

Last December saw Kyrgyzstan’s first successful transfer of power, from the interim president, Roza Otunbayeva, to the newly-elected Almazbek Atambayev, former leader of the Social Democratic Party. Omurbek Babanov, a prominent businessman and one of the country’s richest citizens, became premier.

At the time, many analysts were hopeful. The new parliament and cabinet were stuffed with experienced professionals. But there was also reason to be skeptical. Many members of the government had served in previous administrations. The system had changed but many of the players remained the same.

Elections in October 2010 had brought five parties to parliament, four of which formed a government. In late August of this year, two parties quit the coalition, the socialist Ata-Meken and the pro-Russian Ar-Namys, while levying allegations of corruption and calls for resignation at Prime Minister Babanov. He resigned on Saturday. A spokesman said that the decision was made because the “formation of a new coalition has practically been decided.”

President Atambayev’s Social Democratic Party has been charged with forming a new coalition. It is likely to pull in Ata-Meken and Ar-Namys but leave out Babanov’s Respublika.

The only party left out of the previous government, the right-wing Ata-Zhurt, has held a plurality of the seats in parliament since 2010 and enjoys wide support among Kyrgyz nationalists, particularly in the south. It was the only political party to call for Bakiyey’s reinstatement after the riots of 2010. Whether it will be invited into the new ruling coalition is uncertain. The remaining three parties don’t need it to find a majority.

Kyrgyz political analyst Mars Sariyev notes that “Babanov is a businessman. He has carried his aggressive business style into politics. It’s beneficial for him to move into opposition and maintain forward momentum.” But momentum will be difficult for Kyrgyzstan to achieve if its political leadership remains susceptible to corruption, partisanship and an inability to compromise.

The country’s present political crisis contains many of the themes of previous rounds of unrest. The recitation of political grievances is close to rote. Every ousted leader has been accused of the same crimes by their opponents and successors — corruption, cronyism and a failure to deliver on promised economic improvements.

Kyrgyzstan has a multitude of issues to juggle, from a struggling economy build almost entirely on gold and remittances to great power pressure from Russia and the United States — both of which maintain military bases in the country — from a history of ethnic tension and periodic violence between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks to a national habit of rejecting governments that don’t deliver on pipedream promises.

It can be reasonably hoped that the practice of even imperfect democracy in Kyrgyzstan will instill the attributes needed for successful government in the future. Though built to encourage compromise, parliamentary systems can make room for endless political stagnation — see Belgium’s 541 day epic journey to form a coalition. But the parliamentary system also allows for political parties to break up an unsatisfactory government without resorting to public protests, which have been the method of ousting every Kyrgyz president to date.

While neither of the country’s two revolutions were exceedingly violent or protracted, that is no guarantee that the next one won’t be, especially given rising tensions between the country’s minority Uzbek population and the ethnic Kyrgyz.

Peaceful change of power means that there is hope for Kyrgyz democracy but the country’s politicians have to move beyond petty squabbling to the difficult business of tackling corruption, ethnic tension and economic woes, sooner rather than later.

Clinton Visits Tumultuous Central Asia

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is greeted by Ambassador Tatiana Gfoeller in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, on December 2
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is greeted by Ambassador Tatiana Gfoeller in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, on December 2 (US State Department)

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited different countries in Central Asia to push for improved political freedoms in the former Soviet republics and affirm their role as security partners of the United States. As the war in Afghanistan drags on, these countries, many of which are battling internal disorder, remain significant as part of America’s supply routes.

Clinton attended a summit of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe in Kazakhstan Wednesday where she also spoke with the country’s president and foreign minister. She thanked Kazakhstan for cooperating with the West in the realm of nonproliferation. Earlier this year, she pointed out during a press conference, along with the United Kingdom, Kazakhstan and the United States secured over ten metric tons of highly enriched uranium as well as three metric tons of weapons grade plutonium. “That is enough material to have made 775 nuclear weapons,” she said. “And now we are confident it will never fall into the wrong hands.”

The secretary visited Kyrgyzstan next which has been site to considerable political upheaval in recent months. This spring, violence in the small Central Asian republic forced its president to flee to Belarus while the interim government subsequently struggled to hold on to power. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced as a result of the unrest.

After meeting with Kyrgyz President Roza Otunbayeva, Clinton praised her for forming a coalition government two months after the country held parliamentary elections. “There are many who say parliamentary democracy, true parliamentary democracy, cannot work in Central Asia or in many other places in the world,” said Clinton. “We reject that and we think Kyrgyzstan has proven that it can.”

Neighboring Tajikistan has also witnessed waves of armed rebellion in recent months. As the central government appears unable to suppress the uprising, Joshua Kucera at The Diplomat warns of a “power vacuum in a part of Tajikistan that borders northern Afghanistan and southern Kyrgyzstan, both of which are themselves becoming more and more unstable.”

Despite the mounting instability in the region, the United States are preparing a range of strategic construction projects throughout Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The largest project entails the construction of an anti-terrorism training facility in southern Kyrgyzstan.

Currently, the only American base in operation in the region is the transit center at Manas, near the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek and close to its border with Kazakhstan. Last year, the now ousted president attempted to close the air base with parliament’s approval. Only the intervention of American and Russian diplomacy managed to reverse that decision in June 2009. In return for continuing to operate the Manas facility, the military increased rent payments from $17 to $60 million a year to the Kyrgyz government.

Clinton’s last stop in the region was Uzbekistan, the most populous republic in Central Asia but also its least republican. The country has never held an election judged fair by international observers while the executive wields most actual power. Dissidents are persecuted. Opposition parties are not allowed to exist and foreign media have been driven out of the country. Clinton urged the president, Islam Karimov, who has been in power since 1990, “to demonstrate his commitment through a series of steps to ensure that human rights and fundamental freedoms are truly protected.”

The State Department has defended Clinton’s visit to Uzbekistan as a chance to promote political reform but it is also an opportunity to affirm security cooperation. Uzbekistan is one link in what the United States call their Northern Distribution Network which brings supplies to Afghanistan through Russia and the different states of Central Asia.

The increased American presence risks exacerbating what some observers have dubbed the “New Great Game” which sees China, Russia and the United States competing for influence in Central Asia — very much like Russia and the United Kingdom used to quarrel over the region during the original Great Game in the nineteenth century.

There is moreover a danger of straining relations with Iran whose strategic orientation has shifted northward since the collapse of the Soviet Union. “In the past fifteen years,” according to Dario Cristiani of World Politics Review, “Tehran has been particularly active in trying to create a deep net of institutional and economic links in the region, in part to counter the increasing reach of Turkey, perceived as an American proxy, and of Pakistan, historically an enemy of Iran.” This, he pointed out, explains the strong attention paid by Tehran to nearby Afghanistan and Tajikistan, “which represent cornerstones of the Iranian strategy in the region.”

Iran’s ultimate goal is to become a technological and economic power in the region, and to this end, Tehran is supplementing its cultural and historical links with a more resolute economic presence, including investments in massive infrastructure projects.

Besides the dangers of geopolitics, Central Asia is a tar pit filled with confusing micro-nationalities, borders arbitrarily drawn without regard for ethnic divides, and a geography that is bound to frustrate any attempt at military intervention.

Up to the early twentieth century, Central Asia had no real borders. Rather the region was one large frontier separating the Russian Empire from the British Raj in India. With the emergence of the Soviet Union however and its aggressive attempts at spreading communism abroad, the former khanates of Central Asia were quickly absorbed and divided into neat little socialist republics. Neat, except that their borders were drawn with the express purpose of keeping the populations there divided lest they rise up against the Soviet usurpation.

The borders were redrawn several times during the 1920s and 30s, prompting violent demarcation disputes after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Separating the five newly independent states are Soviet borders; linking them are Soviet era roads, pipelines and electricity grids.

The Russian influence continues to pervade up to this very day. Kyrgyzstan for instance is desperately divided, with an Uzbek minority living in the west near the Uzbekistan border while north and south seem different countries altogether. The north, around the capital of Bishkek, is more developed, with some industry and a semblance of Russian culture. The south, largely agrarian and more Islamic, is cut off by a mountain range through which just two usable roads traverse.

When north and south clashed most recently, the country’s interim president asked Russia to intervene but so far, even Moscow hasn’t shown a willingness to submerge itself in this quagmire.

Kyrgyz Government Invites Russian Peacekeepers

Kyrgyz interim president Roza Otunbayeva
Kyrgyz interim president Roza Otunbayeva (Presidency of Kyrgyzstan)

Kyrgyzstan’s interim government led by Roza Otunbayeva has asked for Russian military support to suppress violence in the south of the country on Saturday. Dozens were reportedly killed in the city of Osh last week amid confrontations between native Kyrgyz and Uzbek youths.

Mass riots in Osh escalated into violence on Thursday night, resulting in hundreds of protesters being injured and, according to Russian and Chinese media, at least 62 deaths. Rioters set fire to government buildings amid widespread looting and vandalism. The unrest also spread to the capital, Bishkek, where armed mobs clashed with police and volunteer militias. Army and police reinforcements were quickly dispatched to quell the violence and a curfew has been imposed throughout southern Kyrgyzstan to last until June 20.

A spokesman for Roza Otunbayeva quoted the interim president as admitting that the situation “got out of control” and that Kyrgyzstan needs “outside military forces to solve the situation.”

Otunbayeva came to power in April after riots in the north of the country forced then President Kurmanbek Bakiyev to flee the capital and seek refuge in the south. He fled to Kazakhstan on April 15 and to Belarus next where he continues to claim the presidency. His government was plagued by corruption and perceived as being dominated by southerners. The interim government evidently suffers from the same problem the other way around and blames Bakiyev for stirring violent uprisings in the southern part of the country.

Russian troops currently stationed at Kant Air Base twenty kilometers east of the Kyrgyz capital have not been ordered to intervene, according to Russian authorities. President Dmitri Medvedev declared on Friday that Russia was ready to assist if necessary. Speaking in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent, he added that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization would send observers to Kyrgyzstan, which he called an “ally and a close partner.”

Violence in Kyrgyzstan

A minor riot in northwestern Kyrgyzstan has spread to the capital in recent days, leaving 74 protesters dead and over four hundred wounded. The country’s president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, fled Bishkek on Wednesday while police forces unsuccessfully attempted to repress the violent uprising.

Frustration had been rising in the former Soviet republic prior to the protests over perceived corruption in the Bakiyev government and its suppression of the media. A sharp increase in utility rates prompted demonstrations in the small town of Talas in the west of the country which subsequently took hold of the capital and the eastern city of Tokmok.

The geography of the protests is no coincidence, notes Dmitri Gorenburg, given that one of the main grievances against Bakiyev was his administration’s rampant cronyism. Where the previous government was seen as being dominated by northerners, this time around, “the south was largely quiescent and the largest protests occurred in the northern cities.”

By nightfall yesterday, opposition leaders, many of whom were just released from prison, declared an interim government under the auspices of Roza Otunbayeva, a former foreign minister and ambassador to the United States. Otunbayeva is considered to be both a moderate and a pragmatic who should be able to find common ground between the country’s quarreling political factions. She fled to Russia in 2005 in response to protests that spring which brought Bakiyev to power.

The president has fled to the south but not left the country which may lead to an prolonged period of political instability. While the north appears under opposition control, the southern provinces have stayed quiet so far. “If Bakiyev refuses to step down,” warns Gorenburg, “and the south comes to his support, an extended period of dual power is possible, as there are relatively few links between the north and south and it would be difficult to move troops from one region to the other.”

A complicating factor is the American military presence in the country. The American air base at Manas, just outside the capital, is a key transit location for American forces and supplies bound for Afghanistan. Last month alone, over 50,000 coalition troops passed through Manas, according to American officials. The base was closed off on Wednesday with the intention to resume flights early this day.

Kyrgyzstan, previously very much dependent on Soviet support, is also still an ally of Russia’s and part of the Eurasian Economic Community (or EurAsEC) which Moscow promotes in order to counter China’s growing economic predominance within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The country is rich in mineral resources but has negligible petroleum and natural gas reserves. Among its mineral reserves are substantial deposits of antimony, coal, gold, uranium and other valuable metals. Metallurgy is an important industry but on the whole, the Kyrgyz economy has been stagnant for many years.