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Is the U.S. throwing Bakiyev under the bus?

The State Department has cut off communications with semi-deposed Kyrgyzstan President Kurmanbek Bakiyev and is sending an envoy to meet with the new de facto leadership, but Foggy Bottom is not quite ready to say that a change of government has taken place. Robert Blake, the assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian ...

VIKTOR DRACHEV/AFP/Getty Images
VIKTOR DRACHEV/AFP/Getty Images

The State Department has cut off communications with semi-deposed Kyrgyzstan President Kurmanbek Bakiyev and is sending an envoy to meet with the new de facto leadership, but Foggy Bottom is not quite ready to say that a change of government has taken place.

Robert Blake, the assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, leaves Wednesday morning for Bishkek with plans to meet with Roza Otunbayeva, the opposition leader who is now holding the reigns of Kyrgyzstan's government after bloody demonstrations drove Bakiyev to seek refuge in the country's southern region.

In a briefing before his departure, Blake described Otunbayeva as the head of Kyrgystan's "provisional government," but steered clear of either endorsing the overthrow of the Bakiyev regime or supporting Bakiyev in any way.

The State Department has cut off communications with semi-deposed Kyrgyzstan President Kurmanbek Bakiyev and is sending an envoy to meet with the new de facto leadership, but Foggy Bottom is not quite ready to say that a change of government has taken place.

Robert Blake, the assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, leaves Wednesday morning for Bishkek with plans to meet with Roza Otunbayeva, the opposition leader who is now holding the reigns of Kyrgyzstan’s government after bloody demonstrations drove Bakiyev to seek refuge in the country’s southern region.

In a briefing before his departure, Blake described Otunbayeva as the head of Kyrgystan’s “provisional government,” but steered clear of either endorsing the overthrow of the Bakiyev regime or supporting Bakiyev in any way.

“My main goal will be to hear from the Kyrgyz administration about their assessment of the law and order situation, the steps that they plan to take during their six-month interim administration, to organize democratic elections and a return to democracy, and how we might be able to help them to restore democracy and economic growth in Kyrgyzstan,” Blake said.

Blake will travel with Kurt Donnelly, the National Security Council’s director for Central Asia, and Dan Rosenblum, his aide in charge of assistance programs.

Asked if the U.S. was abandoning Bakiyev, whom the United States has been courting and supporting for years, Blake said no. “The situation with Bakiyev remains I’d say unclear. … The United States really hasn’t taken a position in that. We think that this needs to be managed by the Kyrgyz themselves, in accordance with the Kyrgyz constitution.”

That constitution, which can be found here, says nothing about chasing a sitting president from the capital city and then arresting him — which the erstwhile opposition is now threatening to do.

“No change has yet taken place, so we can’t make a judgment about Bakiyev,” Blake said.

And what about the 81 people who reportedly died in the streets during last week’s uprising?

The violence “was not by the current provisional government,” Blake said. “Many of those were killed by supporters of [Bakiyev] … according to the provisional government.”

So was this a legal change of government or not?

“We do not see this as a coup,” Blake said.

Does the State Department see a Russian hand in fomenting the violence that led to the change in government?

“That’s probably a question best addressed to the Russians,” Blake said.

Blake did confirm that there has been no U.S. government contact with Bakiyev, and a Kyrgyz delegation including his son Maxim arrived in Washington late last week as scheduled, but the U.S. side canceled all their official meetings and refused to speak with them.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke over the weekend with Otunbayeva, offering U.S. assistance and pleading for the new leadership to honor Kyrgyzstan’s agreement to lease the Manas airbase to the U.S. military, which needs it to transit vital supplies to the war in Afghanistan.

Blake said the new government will honor the existing Manas agreement, but admitted that the agreement was only for one year and ends this summer. At that time, the new leadership could reassert its longstanding opposition to the U.S. military’s presence in Kyrgyzstan, creating problems for a renewal or renegotiation.

The bottom line is that the State Department is taking a wait-and-see approach, perfectly happy to work with whichever group ends up on top in Bishkek, while realizing that the situation is still fluid.

“It is not for us to take sides or to choose among competing factions,” said spokesman P.J. Crowley.

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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