In the past two weeks, the Russian media has fiercely criticized the Kyrgyz President, Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s, regime. Newspapers and TV programs have sought to reveal the president’s corruption and nepotism, with some newspapers alleging the regime’s involvement in the killing of journalist Gennady Pavluk last December. The role of the president’s son, Maksim, in corruption was also scrutinized (www.pravda.ru, March 29).
The Russian media might eventually become Bakiyev’s greatest challenge. The regime has tried to block some Russian websites and TV programs that reported on corruption deals among Bakiyev’s family. The president is unable to prevent all Russian mass media, which clearly dominates the national market. To date, the Kyrgyz government has interrupted broadcasts by Radio Free Europe, and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
This is the first time the Russian media has ever directly attacked the incumbent leader (www.ntv.ru, March 27). Even after Bakiyev’s about-face on the US base at Manas last year, the mainstream Russian media abstained from any criticism. The media’s tone is therefore indicative of the fact that the Kremlin disapproves of Bakiyev’s style of leadership, while Kyrgyz-Russian relations may have reached a low point.
The sudden increase in criticism also demonstrates how the Kremlin uses the national mass media to express its frustration with Bakiyev. Previously, Russian media outlets were galvanized to provide filtered reporting of issues relating to developments in Georgia, Ukraine, and other countries deemed as important to Russian foreign policy.
In fact, a few years ago, Bishkek also experienced how this powerful tool can impact on public opinion within the country. Following the fatal shooting of a Kyrgyz truck driver at the US base in December 2006, Russian media, based both in Kyrgyzstan and Russia, used the incident to fuel anti-US sentiment amongst the Kyrgyz public. The killing of the driver became a central theme in such reporting, about the looming “Western hegemony” over Kyrgyzstan. Since then, anti-Western and anti-US sentiments have increased in Kyrgyzstan. Russian media is also known for its ability to change public opinion inside Russia.
Earlier this week, the Kyrgyz foreign ministry forwarded a special note to Moscow expressing concern over the increase in negative reporting about Kyrgyzstan by state and non-state linked Russian media (www.lenta.ru, March 29). Indeed, media outlets loyal to the Kremlin, such as Izvestiya and NTV, castigated the Bakiyev regime. Online publications, known for their more independent work, among them Gazeta.ru and Ekho Moskvy, were also equally critical. Notably, little criticism was voiced against the work of the government or Kyrgyzstan’s opposition forces.
Meanwhile, concerns are mounting that the Bakiyev regime is increasingly reliant upon US support to increase its domestic power. Maksim Bakiyev will visit Washington next week to promote trade relations between the US and Kyrgyzstan. For a number of Kyrgyz activists, Maksim’s visit serves as a clear sign of US favor towards Bakiyev’s presidency and as a quid pro quo for his agreement to retain the Manas base.
Russian media attacks against Bakiyev intensified following the latest announcement that the US government will help Kyrgyzstan construct a new anti-terrorist training center in the Batken region (EDM, March 11). This news broke at a time when the status of a prospective Russian airbase in southern Kyrgyzstan is growing increasingly unclear. Little progress has been made since Moscow announced last year that it will station a second airbase under the aegis of the Collective Security Organization (CSTO).
On March 29, CSTO Secretary-General, Nikolai Bordyuzha, stated that Russia and Kyrgyzstan are continuing to closely collaborate. He also mentioned that he saw no increase in negative reporting in the Russian media. “Sometimes there are sharp criticisms that defy common sense and do not represent reality. But, this does not mean that relations between Russia and Kyrgyzstan are cooling: I can confirm that officially”, explained Bordyuzha (www.regnum.ru, March 31).
Criticism of Bakiyev coincided with his pro-governmental gatherings to commemorate the Tulip revolution’s fifth anniversary on March 24. This week, however, the media’s attention has been diverted towards the recent bombings in Moscow and Dagestan. It remains to be seen if the trend in Russian reporting will persist. Kyrgyz opposition forces certainly hope so. Potentially Russian TV channels and newspapers have a far greater propensity to mobilize Kyrgyz crowds against Bakiyev’s authoritarian regime compared with Western media broadcasting in Kyrgyzstan.