American strategic and democratic interests in Kyrgyzstan are increasingly coming under pressure, one year after the purported democratic “Tulip Revolution” in that country. Russian influence and that of local organized crime groups are growing while U.S. influence is steadily eroding. At the overt level, Moscow relies on President Kurmanbek Bakiyev and Minister of Foreign Affairs Alikbek Jekshenkulov to pursue its interests in Kyrgyzstan. Bakiyev, a pro-Kremlin though weak president, in turn appears to rely on a modus vivendi with representatives of organized crime in hopes of navigating the chaos that has engulfed the country since the 2005 “revolution.”
The sequence of events in the run-up to Bakiyev’s April 24-25 visit to the Kremlin is dramatizing those trends and had impelled the United States for the first time to speak out publicly in Bishkek about the country’s direction.
On April 18, Jekshenkulov warned in a Russian media interview that Kyrgyzstan is asking for a “hundredfold increase” in the rent paid by the United States for using the Manas air base located near Bishkek. The issue has been under discussion since autumn 2005 when Bakiyev raised it at Moscow’s instigation (see EDM, September 22, 2005). The Pentagon-paid rent has been shared since 2002 among the Manas airport company, the Kyrgyz Defense Ministry, and local authorities for the rented land plot. At present, a Kyrgyz working group is preparing “economic justifications” for the hundredfold-increase demand (Interfax, April 18).
At a joint news conference with Jekshenkulov that same day, Russian Ambassador Yevgeny Shmagin advised unnamed foreign ambassadors — apparently meaning primarily the U.S. ambassador — “not to teach our Kyrgyz friends politics and economics. They [these Kyrgyz friends] have their heads on their shoulders and are capable to take the right decisions.” The conference previewed Bakiyev’s upcoming visit to Russia (Akipress, April 18).
Also on April 18, a Kyrgyz Ministry of Foreign Affairs communiqué criticized U.S. Ambassador Marie Jovanovich for “interfering in internal affairs,” exercising “pressures on the Kyrgyz leadership,” and “going beyond the scope of diplomatic relations” in her statements. The Kyrgyz MFA communiqué asked Jovanovich to refrain from making public statements on the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative (HIPC) and “other issues” and to observe the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. Ostensibly, the MFA communiqué took issue with her public advice to the Kyrgyz government to join HIPC, a debt-relief program of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. (Kyrgyzstan’s external indebtedness is estimated at approximately $2 billion.) (Interfax, Itar-Tass, April 18).
In fact, the broadside was responding to Jovanovich’s April 17 media interview, in which she described some aspects of the situation in Kyrgyzstan with a realism that had been missing from official Washington evaluations: “Journalists are scared. Members of Parliament are openly stating that they are scared. Threats against the Central Electoral Commission are worrisome. Even the police are frightened. Investors and donors are raising questions about the direction in which Kyrgyzstan is moving. … The judiciary must be free from corruption. We keep saying that the state must take decisive measures against organized crime” (Akipress, Interfax, April 17).
Triggering the interview was the apparent assassination attempt in broad daylight in Bishkek on April 12 that severely injured Edil Baisalov, leader of the Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society (Institute for War and Peace Reporting [London], April 14, also see EDM, April 14). The Coalition is an influential pro-American, non-governmental organization that combines a democracy agenda with moral support for the U.S. military presence in Kyrgyzstan. The previous day, Baisalov had given an unsparingly realistic presentation of the situation in the country to the visiting Richard Boucher, newly appointed U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs.
On behalf of his and other NGOs, Baisalov told Boucher, “Unfortunately, the situation has seriously worsened after the revolution. Our hopes have not been realized.” The state is unable to take measures against rampant organized crime, Baisalov pointed out. He went on to criticize Bakiyev for reneging on the promises he had made to the Kyrgyz people, and also to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during her visit last fall, that he would transfer some of ex-president Askar Akayev’s presidential powers to the government and parliament, so as to establish a constitutional division of power. Thus, “His promises have proven empty words. We told Mr. Boucher that the president has deceived us all,” Baisalov announced (Kyrgyz radio, Kabar, April 11).
Jovanovich’s assessment in her interview, while couched in proper diplomatic language, parallel the substance of Baisalov’s assessment. Since the March 2005 regime change in Kyrgyzstan, the United States has preferred to refrain from commenting on the unanticipated consequences of what it initially portrayed as a triumph of democracy. With the situation continually deteriorating, and Russia regaining strategic influence over the country, a reassessment of U.S. policy seems timely.