As riots erupted in Kyrgyzstan last week, sending hundreds of thousands of people fleeing toward the Uzbek border, TV analysts offered their takes on what had precipitated the crisis. "Ancient enmities" and "clan rivalries" were among the buzzwords.
These atavistic triggers, however, aren't very satisfying explanations taken alone. Because if there is one thing you learn in this part of the world, it is that the road from every conspiracy leads back to the Kremlin.
Click Image to View Our Gallery of Unrest in Kyrgyzstan
Now I am not a card-carrying neo-con or even a run-of-the-mill Russia-baiter, just a regular guy from Montana who has spent a lot of time in the troubled Caucasus and the former Soviet Union.
What does Russia have to do with impoverished and chaotic Kyrgyzstan? Well, to understand that, you have to focus on this: The single, most important thing in American foreign policy right now is Afghanistan, and the single most important staging base to that theater of endless war is the Kyrgyz airbase, called Manas, leased to U.S. and NATO forces.
When Russia was still in its period of recovery from the chaotic reign of Boris Yeltsin, the Kremlin 'allowed' the Americans to strike a deal with Kyrgyzstan to use this base in the wake of 9/11. The deal was an outgrowth of the then-almost universal sympathy toward the USA resulting from the attacks it weathered at the hands of then-Afghanistan-based Osama bin Laden.
But Russian acquiescence never meant that the Kremlin liked having the Americans in its traditional backyard, and the Kremlin soon began discreetly prodding the first post-Soviet Kyrgyz president, Asker Akayev, to renegotiate terms over the lease as a way to ease the Americans toward the door.
This, plus the usual charges of corruption and nepotism, ultimately led to Akayev's ouster in the U.S.-backed " Tulip Revolution" of 2005, when Akayev was replaced by one Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was regarded as far more open to American military needs (and was a nifty post-Soviet ‘democrat’ to boot).
Protests in Kyrgyzstan, April 7, 2010
Alas, in the smoke and mirrors world of the post-Soviet space, self-described ‘democrats’ are seldom what they seem, and rarely much different than the evident autocrats they sometimes replace.
But what does the convoluted internal politics of Kyrgystan have to do with Afghanistan?
This: Flush with oil and gas funds, the Russians once again tried to close Manas, offering Bakiyev substantial financial incentives to off-set the loss of the rent paid by the Pentagon.
As the Russians saying goes, “Being a good lad is not a profession,” and Bakiyev tried to have it both ways, pocketing the Russian bribe money, but then turning around to negotiate a higher price from the Americans to keep Manas in operation.
This was dumb—indeed, really dumb for a leader of a desperately poor, arbitrarily-created chunk of mountainous real-estate pinched between Russia, China, Afghanistan, and Osama-obsessed America.
Increasingly desperate in Afghanistan, the US was willing to do anything to keep its base open, and coughed up still more shake-down dough. On the other side of the Afghanistan divide stood and stands Russia, now generically described as “resurgent.
This is a huge and much debated subject, so allow me to cut to the chase.
What happened this week in Kyrgyzstan is likely to be repeated in the region in the future, as American power wanes or wavers in Afghanistan and as a resurgent Russia starts to test American resolve in its former backyard.
With the problem of a man who won't stay bought on their hands, namely Mr. Bakiyev, the Russians only had one option: to remove him. This was effected by stoking the inevitable “popular uprising,” better described as clan sub-rosa warfare that has now left a tally of some 2,000 dead and maybe up to 1 million displaced. The violence was preceded by a media blitz depicting Bakiyev (once celebrated as a devotee of democracy) as the very image of a hopelessly corrupt autocrat (which he probably always was, surprise, surprise).
And what about his replacement, the redoubtable Rosa Otunbayeva, a former foreign minister and ambassador to the U.S.? With chaos descending on her land, there is only one real question to be asked: Will the U.S. and NATO continue to use Manas?
Afghanistan remains key. No one in the military establishment of the former USSR will ever forget the humiliation of “their Vietnam,” and many Russians today are determined to give the Americans a taste of that same vile medicine—defeat. The best way to do that is to make the Americans beg for ever-shrinking supply corridors.
How about we call that for what it is: imperial overreach.
What happened last week in Kyrgyzstan was certainly tragic, and the verdict is still out on who did what to whom, and why. But my hunch is that similiar incidents will take place throughout the region as American power wanes or wavers in Afghanistan, and as a resurgent Russia starts to test American resolve in its former backyard. I predict the situation will fester until the international community (better known as the UN) finally gives the Russian military the sanction and honor of wearing the Blue Berets of international peace-keepers to secure and maintain the peace in Kyrgyyzstan, whose peace they just disrupted at the cost of at least 2,000 dead.
The next place to watch for riots, or other kind of Russian meddling, is unknown, but my money is on Azerbaijan.
The parliament in the capital city, Baku, just passed legislation that for the first time since independence in 1991 allows foreign military forces to maintain bases on Azerbaijani territory. Most locals think that the U.S. is looking for a back-up option to Manas in Kyrgyzstan, and that may well be the case.
But once on the books, the law also allows for the Russians to set up shop.
Welcome to the future. The Russians are coming (back), or will try to.
Thomas Goltz is the author of numerous books and articles on the post-Soviet Caucasus, the most recent being the updated Georgia Diary (M.E. Sharpe, 2009). When not on the road, he teaches in the department of Political Science at Montana State University in Bozeman. Please visit the web site www.msubsec.com for recent academic adventures.