American silence while Kyrgyzstan burned

American silence while Kyrgyzstan burned

Nothing sums up the sorry state of U.S. policy toward Kyrgyzstan than these contrasting images from last week:  at the same time that thousands of Kyrgyz were taking to the streets protesting against their corrupt authoritarian leader, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, Bakiyev’s son, Maksim, was arriving in Washington for consultations with U.S. officials. While Kyrgyzstan literally was burning, U.S. officials were prepared for business-as-usual talks with Maksim, who, like his father, has been accused of engaging in massive corruption and human rights abuses. More than 80 people were killed in last week’s violence.

For several years, U.S. policy toward Kyrgyzstan has focused almost exclusively on keeping open its military airbase at Manas, through which 50,000 troops passed on their way to and from Afghanistan last month. Bakiyev early last year threatened to close the facility while on a visit to Moscow, which offered $2 billion as an inducement for him to kick the Americans out. But Bakiyev doublecrossed Moscow by agreeing to keep Manas open after the United States agreed to triple the rent it paid from $18 million annually to $60 million and promised another $100 million in aid, including a recently-announced counter-terrorism center.   

To those in the Kyrgyz opposition, it seemed the United States was willing to pay Bakiyev virtually any price, including looking the other way from a markedly deteriorating human rights situation, as long as Manas stayed open. Defending against such criticism, State Department spokesman Philip Crowley argued, "We’ve been very clear in our concerns about the government, its abuses, its corruption." The reality, however, at least in public, is very different. 

There are only two statements that can be found over the past few months in which the U.S. has spoken out about the problems in Kyrgyzstan: a January 21 statement from the U.S. Mission to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Vienna about the murder of a Kyrgyz journalist (which occurred a month before), and the State Department’s annual Human Rights Report, released last month and which covers every country around the globe. The U.S. Embassy in Bishkek lists no public statements of concern on its website this year. 

Striking in the Human Rights Report is admission that last July’s Kyrgyz presidential election, which triggered much of the opposition’s fervor, "failed to meet many of the country’s international commitments" and was "marred by significant obstacles for opposition parties, intimidation, voting irregularities, and the use of government resources to benefit specific political interests." Such an assessment raises doubts as to whether Bakiyev was the democratically-elected leader of the country in the first place. 

During a recent visit to Central Asia, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon voiced concerns about the poor human rights situation in the region. In a speech to the Kyrgyz parliament on Saturday, four days before the situation exploded, Ban said, "For the United Nations, the protection of human rights is a bedrock principle if a country is to prosper.  Recent events have been troubling, including the past few days. I repeat: all human rights must be protected, including free speech and freedom of the media."


For months, human rights organizations have been sounding the alarm about the worsening human rights situation in Kyrgyzstan, but Western governments remained silent and the United States seemed not to care. In January, Freedom House downgraded Kyrgyzstan’s status from "partly free" to "not free" as journalists and opposition figures and their families increasingly became victims of government abuse, detention, and worse. In December 2009, Kyrgyz journalist Gennady Pavlyuk was killed after being thrown from a sixth-story window in Almaty, Kazakhstan and another journalist who worked for Stan-TV was stabbed. Kyrgyzstan’s State Security Service is suspected of having played a role in both cases. 

OSCE Media Freedom Representative Miklos Haraszti in late December warned about rising violence against journalists, but the situation only got worse. Foreign broadcasting was disrupted, and Kyrgyz courts banned two newspapers with ties to the opposition and fined them for "insulting" Bakiyev. And shortly before Ban arrived in Bishkek, Kyrgyz police raided Stan-TV, sealing its offices because of alleged "illegal software usage and tax evasion."  Several Kyrgyz human rights activists have gone missing or fled. And the United States stayed silent. (The new interim government has already restored RFE/RL broadcasts.)   

Following last week’s protests, Bakiyev fled the capital Bishkek and has taken up position in the south of the country. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has been very supportive of the new interim government, sparking speculation that Moscow may have been more involved in ousting Bakiyev than the Obama administration has tried to suggest. Certainly Russian media turned on Bakiyev, in part for his double-dealing on Manas. 

The United States, by contrast, has continued its obsession with keeping Manas open while sending confused signals on events of last week. Many in the opposition who now are serving in the interim government, meanwhile, still feel betrayed by the United States for giving Bakiyev a free pass as long as Manas stayed open. The United States should make clear that it no longer recognizes Bakiyev as the president of Kyrgyzstan, do what it can to pressure him to resign, recognize the interim authorities, and press for new elections in six months (and call for international observers). Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake is in Bishkek this week, and one can only hope that he has more than Manas on his agenda.