Argument

The Russification of Kyrgyzstan

How Russia pushed the U.S. out of a Central Asian stronghold.

MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/AFP/Getty Images
MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/AFP/Getty Images

The remote and mountainous Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan has long been viewed as something of an outlier. Unlike its expansive northern neighbor, Kazakhstan, it has no hydrocarbon wealth. But Kyrgyzstan has something that is fairly precious and rare in the developing world: a well-educated population that values democracy and freedom.

Lately, however, a shadow has fallen over Kyrgyzstan. Last month a prominent political leader, Medet Sadyrkulov, was found dead following a car crash that burned his body beyond recognition. Sadyrkulov was previously the chief of staff to President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who took power with great fanfare in the 2005 Tulip Revolution. But he, like a number of other reformers attached to Bakiyev’s government, had left it and appeared to be sounding an alarm — charging that Bakiyev was intent on turning the country into a dictatorship. In the post-Soviet space, suspicious dead-of-night car accidents are a popular method of assassination. And in Kyrgyzstan today, it’s difficult to find a political figure who isn’t convinced that Sadyrkulov was murdered.

A Siberian wind is now blowing through Kyrgyzstan’s political landscape. It is viewed by many as a process of Russification. That is to say, Kyrgyzstan is becoming much more like Russia. It maintains a semblance of democratic institutions, but in fact it is looking more and more like a presidential dictatorship where the men of power are prepared to use the most ruthless methods to quiet opposition voices.

But there is a second aspect of this Russification — namely, the Kremlin’s influence is clearly on the rise. Russian investment in Kyrgyzstan has long been pervasive and very welcome. But Russian political influence has gradually become more overt. Most recently, Bakiyev received a commitment of $2.1 billion in economic assistance from the Kremlin — money his cash-strapped country badly needs. The assistance package coincided with Bakiyev’s decision to shut down the United States’ Manas Air Base, a principal supply post for allied military operations in Afghanistan, and a longtime thorn in Russia’s side. Because Bakiyev’s main interest in maintaining the base has long been its economic value — a point about which Kyrgyzstan has always been perfectly open — it’s easy to understand the Russian aid package as an incentive to close the base.

Still, Russification does not mean that the country is falling entirely under Russia’s influence. The strongmen of Central Asia have learned how to pursue a delicate balancing act. A region that once was viewed as a Soviet backwater now is an international borderland where great powers such as the United States, Russia, and China compete with regional players like Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, and India for influence. In a sense, this competition is very ancient, though the United States is decidedly a newcomer. America inserted itself aggressively into the region after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and Kyrgyzstan was its main beachhead.

The example of the U.S. air base in Kyrgyzstan shows just how easily the geopolitical game can be played in Central Asia. The Americans acquired the base as a supply point for a campaign against the Taliban and al Qaeda elements in Afghanistan. But nearly eight years later, they were still there, with no signs of departure on the horizon. The base fit well into former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s notion of a system of lily pads — almost skeletal military outposts scattered widely around the globe that would give the United States the ability to project its military power and resources into regions where U.S. military operations were previously unthinkable.

While American diplomats sought to play down the long-term strategic element of the U.S. plan, the Kremlin obsessed about it. In Soviet times, Kyrgyzstan was so secure and safe that it furnished an excellent testing ground for sensitive weapons systems. Now it was the site of the aggressive extension of the growing U.S. military presence in the region. The Kremlin therefore sought to shut down the U.S. operation. Chinese interests aligned with the Russians’. NATO interests aligned with the Americans’. Bakiyev himself had no inherent interest in the base or its removal; he was happy to allow the outcome to go to the highest bidder. At the moment, the high bid is the Kremlin’s, but it’s possible that many bids and counterbids will follow.

Successful navigation of these waters for the Americans as well as the Russians will turn on a sober appreciation of Bakiyev’s motivations and objectives. His conduct since the Tulip Revolution reveals two primary forces at work. One is the steady accumulation of wealth for himself and those in his immediate entourage. The other is the consolidation of his political position and his power base in Kyrgyzstan’s strong-president parliamentary system. He has been quite successful in achieving both goals.

For four years, Bakiyev has offered Kyrgyzstan a reasonable measure of economic freedom, but at the same time, key investment opportunities have been taken by members of his inner circle. Both the Americans and the Russians have played off these kleptocratic tendencies in their dealings with the Kyrgyz government, as a study of U.S. contracting practices connected to the air base and Russian large-scale investments will show. But in the end, Russian investment far outstrips that of the West, and Russian investments are deeply entangled with Bakiyev and his key retainers.

Bakiyev has also worked effectively to consolidate his control over the main pillars of political power in his country. He embraced a modest reform of the Constitution that shifted power to the parliament, but at the same time carefully planned a thorough takeover of the parliament by his supporters. As the vote (78 to 1) to close the Manas base proves, the parliament today is little more than Bakiyev’s rubber stamp.

Now, however, opposition to Bakiyev is slowly consolidating, and he is very conscious of the springtime uprising that toppled his predecessor and brought him to power. The Kyrgyz alone among the peoples of Central Asia have the civil courage to take a stand against their government and take to the streets to voice their dissent — a trait they have repeatedly demonstrated. Will Bakiyev face a tulip revolution of his own?

The odds are still against that. But with economic conditions rapidly worsening — thanks to both the global financial crisis and Bakiyev’s own mismanagement — he has decided to rush ahead with presidential elections, which have now been set for July.

The circumstances will provide the toughest test yet for Kurmanbek Bakiyev. And they offer renewed hope for Kyrgyzstan’s democrats, who are fearful of yet another form of Russification — sham elections that extend the power of a wannabe autocrat. In the meantime, tulip season is just on the horizon in Kyrgyzstan, and with the spring thaw, citizens have begun again to focus on politics and their uncomfortable relations with those who govern them.

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