The tumult that engulfed Kyrgyzstan on April 6-7 represents a failure for US foreign policy. In particular, it illustrates the hazards of allowing security concerns to dictate diplomacy at the expense of democratization.
In recent years, US policy toward Kyrgyzstan has appeared driven by American security interests, namely the desire to maintain a base at Manas airport, outside the capital Bishkek. The base is seen by US military planners as a vital hub in the Northern Distribution network, a web of rail, road and air links that is being used to ferry supplies to US and NATO troops in Afghanistan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
In order to maintain the American presence at Manas, US military officials and diplomats forged close ties with President Kurmanbek Bakiyev's administration. As a result, US officials remained largely silent, or at least offered only mild criticism, when Bakiyev embarked on a series of moves to put the brakes on democratization, including efforts to muzzle independent media outlets and hamper opposition political activity. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The discontent generated by Bakiyev's shift toward authoritarianism seemed to provide much of the fuel for the April 6-7 clashes. The spark for unrest was widespread public dissatisfaction with price increases for heating and electricity.
After political violence broke out in the provincial capital of Talas on April 6, the US Embassy in Bishkek was slow to take action to might have helped prevent trouble from spreading. Finally, early on April 7, the embassy issued a relatively tepid statement that studiously avoided assigning blame for the breakdown of order. "The Embassy of the United States in Bishkek is deeply concerned about reports of civil disturbances in Talas," the statement said. "We urge all parties to show respect for the rule of law and call on both the demonstrators and government to engage in talks to resolve differences in a peaceful, orderly and legal manner."
While US diplomats called for dialogue in the midst of the crisis, in the months leading up to the April 6-7 violence American diplomacy did little to help foster links between the government and opposition that might have facilitated the resolution of differences without the use of force. US officials likewise did not send strong signals to the Bakiyev administration that Washington disapproved of Bishkek's move away from the democratization path.
In the coming weeks the United States may have to answer some uncomfortable questions posed by the new Kyrgyz government. What the new leaders in Bishkek may want to know is whether some of the units deployed by the Bakiyev administration during the April 6-7 clashes received training from US military personnel, or whether Kyrgyz government forces used weapons and other equipment supplied by the United States?
With Bakiyev now driven from Bishkek, and with opposition leaders struggling to forge a new government, American attention remains riveted on the future of the Manas base.
"We rely heavily on Manas, Kyrgyzstan, and hope everything settles down soon," said a spokesman at the Public Affairs Office at US Central Command, which oversees the war effort in Afghanistan.
On April 7, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said that US military personnel at Manas had not been touched by the violence in Bishkek. "The situation is a little unclear there as the US government continues to monitor the situation," Whitman said.
As for the longer term, the political transition in Bishkek could well usher in a new era of speculation about the American presence at Manas.
For a good portion of 2009, the American base existed in a state of limbo. In February of last year, Bakiyev appeared to make a deal with Russia: in return for a massive infusion of Russian financial assistance, his administration announced an intention to terminate the American lease at Manas. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Last summer, however, Bakiyev abruptly changed course, allowing the Americans to stay after the Pentagon offered a healthy increase in the annual lease payment. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
It remains to be seen how the new decision-makers in Bishkek will regard the American military presence at Manas. The provisional leadership appears to consist of politicians who are democratization-oriented. But that fact does not necessarily mean they are naturally inclined to extend the US lease at Manas. Indeed, there may be lingering hard feelings over the US government's cozy relationship with Bakiyev.
Just about the only given is that Russia remains eager to push the US military out of Kyrgyzstan. During the two weeks prior to Bakiyev's downfall, the Russian press maintained a vigorous barrage of criticism of his administration. Many experts in Bishkek believe that the Kremlin's strong show of disapproval of Bakiyev encouraged the administration's many critics to take to the streets to vent their complaints about government-mandated price hikes, as well as widespread corruption. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
It could well be that Russian leaders will revive their efforts to woo the new Kyrgyz government, and perhaps extend fresh financial incentives for Bishkek to give US forces in Kyrgyzstan the boot. If that happens, the US diplomatic emphasis in Kyrgyzstan on security over democratization will have achieved exactly the opposite result as was intended.