Kyrgyzstan: Did Moscow Subvert a U.S. Ally?

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Vladimir Pirogov / Reuters

A demonstrator sets fire to a car during clashes between riot police and antigovernment protesters in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, on April 7, 2010

Members of the besieged government of Kyrgyzstan suspect that Moscow precipitated the violent upheaval that has swept the former Soviet republic in Central Asia. Already scores of people have been killed and hundreds more wounded after troops opened fire on protesters, who in turn overpowered the police, stormed and looted government buildings and forced President Kurmanbek Bakiyev to flee the country. On Wednesday, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin denied any involvement by his country in the turmoil after his Kyrgyz counterpart said that Putin gave the go-ahead to the revolt. But whether or not the Kremlin urged the Kyrgyz opposition to call its supporters into the streets, Moscow has a lot to gain and Washington a lot to lose from the bloody upheaval that has ensued.

For several years, Kyrgyzstan has been stuck in a tug-of-war between the two Cold War enemies, frequently making the landlocked state the center of geopolitical strategizing. The Americans have been pushing to maintain their cherished military base in the north of Kyrgyzstan, without which U.S. supply lines to the nearby war in Afghanistan would be significantly hampered. Russia, meanwhile, has lobbied to kick the American military out of what it still sees as its sphere of influence in the territories of the former Soviet Union.

The struggle came to a head in February of last year, when the Kyrgyz handed the U.S. military base an eviction notice just weeks after Russia provided the impoverished country with a $2 billion loan and $150 million in aid. Russia denied any link between the two events, but U.S. officials saw it differently. Washington soon reached a deal with Kyrgyz leaders to keep the base open — in exchange for a tripling of the yearly rental to $60 million, among other conditions.

In a March 5 interview with TIME, an Obama Administration senior official said it had been a close call for the U.S. "That we have the Manas base in Kyrgyzstan is a great achievement," he said. "Russia didn't want to allow us to have that. They put down $2 billion to get us out. But Obama had very frank discussions with [Russian President Dmitri] Medvedev. He said, If you believe we have a common enemy in Afghanistan, then this is going to help us fight that common enemy. Had we lost that, it would have been a major blow. It is a major hub for getting our soldiers in and out of there."

Since then, Russian-Kyrgyz relations have deteriorated, a process that culminated in Wednesday's declaration by Kyrgyz Prime Minister Daniyar Usenov that one of the heads of the opposition had met with Putin before going forward with the revolt. Usenov told a press conference on Tuesday in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek that opposition leader Temir Sariyev claimed during an interrogation that he had received assurances from Putin of Russia's support for the opposition.

Putin vehemently denied the allegation at a press conference in the Russian city of Smolensk on Wednesday, saying the events in Kyrgyzstan had caught him by surprise. He added, however, that Kyrgyz President Bakiyev had made many mistakes since coming to power in what is known as the Tulip Revolution five years ago. "When President Bakiyev came to power, he very harshly criticized the deposed President, [Askar] Akayev, for his family values, for the fact that his relatives had positions throughout the Kyrgyz economy. I have the impression that Mr. Bakiyev has been stepping on the same rakes," he said, alluding to the fact that Bakiyev appointed family members, including his son, to top government posts. A Kremlin source told Russia's Interfax news agency on Wednesday that Bakiyev "would not be welcome in Moscow."

At the press conference in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz Prime Minister also said he had spoken on Tuesday with the Russian ambassador to Kyrgyzstan and urged him to rein in the negative coverage of Kyrgyzstan in the Russian press. Indeed, the shifting attitudes in Russia toward the Kyrgyz leadership were felt weeks ago, when several broadcasters and newspapers in Russia began airing scathing attacks against Bakiev's government. Among them, the state-run radio station Golos Rossii, or Voice of Russia, said the Kyrgyz government had "shown itself to be totally ineffective" in a report on March 24, apparently timed to the fifth anniversary of the Tulip Revolution.

The leaders of the new revolution now unfolding in Kyrgyzstan are already claiming victory over the government, which has not yet officially resigned. Opposition leaders have taken over key government buildings, including the headquarters of the security forces and the national television station, which they were using on Wednesday to call more protesters into the streets, urging citizens to rally for "freedom or death." As of Wednesday night, the Kyrgyz Health Ministry had confirmed 40 deaths amid the violence, and gruesome images of bodies in the streets and badly beaten police officers filled the global airwaves.

The U.S. State Department was quick to issue a statement saying its air base in Kyrgyzstan was "functioning normally." "We are continuing to monitor the circumstances. We continue to think the government remains in power," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said in a statement on Wednesday. But that view is beginning to seem untenable: Bakiev has already fled the country, and the opposition says it is forming a new government. How amenable that government would be to the U.S. presence in Kyrgyzstan remains to be seen. What is certain is that the struggle for influence between Russia and the U.S. may again heat up in Central Asia.