OBAMA AND THE GREAT GAME
The Struggle for Central Asia After the Bush Dynasty
by Sarkis Pogossian, World War 4 Report
In November 2001, as the US assembled a coalition to invade Afghanistan in the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks, the British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told UN General Assembly: "There must be no more Great Games with Afghan people as the pawns."
Yet the intervening years have seen a revival of that long struggle that British imperialism's poet-propagandist Rudyard Kipling termed the "Great Game." The classic Great Game began before the First Anglo-Afghan War of 1839-42 and lasted through the Third Anglo-Afghan War of 1919, when Afghanistan finally evicted the British and retreated into isolation. Across these years, Britain attempted to establish Afghanistan as a buffer state to protect its possessions in the Indian subcontinent against Russian imperial designs from the north. In the new Great Game which began with the CIA-backed Mujahedeen insurgency against the Soviets in the 1980s, the US stepped into the shoes of the British. In the renewed focus on the region after 9-11, the British were again brought in as Washington's junior partners in the imperial venture. And this time, under the designs of the "neo-conservatives," the aim was not only to secure Afghanistan, but to roll back Russian influence across the post-Soviet states of Central Asia.
This new Great Game was—and remains—a three-way struggle between Anglo-American imperialism, Russia and political Islam. In the Mujahedeen war, the US used Islamist forces—only to be betrayed by them with 9-11. Under the neocons, the US has increasingly sought to groom a fourth element as proxy in the imperial chess game—indigenous pro-democracy forces. Legitimate aspirations for democratic reform under post-Soviet authoritarian regimes have been exploited for imperial "regime change" ambitions. Now, following the humbling of the neocon agenda—by the Iraq disaster, financial crash and electoral turn-around in Washington—US power in Central Asia is contracting to Moscow's advantage. This opens a new phase in the struggle for the region, with its own dangers and opportunities.
Kyrgyzstan on the Chessboard Tells GI Joe Where to Go
With the Taliban insurgency fast gaining ground, US President Barack Obama has authorized 17,000 more troops to reinforce international forces in Afghanistan. At the same time, US options to provision its forces in Afghanistan are ominously contracting. The main land route into landlocked Afghanistan—the Khyber Pass—transverses Pakistan's lawless Tribal Areas, where Pakistani Taliban forces have repeatedly attacked NATO supply convoys. Pakistan's other land crossing through the southwest province of Baluchistan, is also threatened by a growing regional insurgency. Even central Pakistan is not safe. The government of central Punjab province recently cancelled a private deal for a new NATO supply terminal due to security concerns.
The aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt is back in the Arabian Sea to carry out air-strikes in Afghanistan, for first time since March 2002—seaborne forces being easier to provision.
All of this has made the northern route through the Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union much more critical. The last remaining US military presence in this region is in Kyrgyzstan. Since 2001, the US military has moved Afghanistan-bound supplies through its Manas air base, which the US built at the international airport near Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital. And now it is about to be lost.
Kyrgyzstan's President Kurmanbek Bakiyev signed an order Feb. 20 to evict the US from the Manas base, home to tanker planes that refuel military aircraft over Afghanistan and a key transit point for troops and supplies going into and out of Afghanistan. The order gave the US just 180 days to pull out.
Bakiyev had complained that Washington was not paying enough rent for the base. And during a recent trip to Moscow, he announced plans to close it—after Russia pledged to give Kyrgyzstan some $2 billion in loans and aid.
Both Russian and Kyrgyz officials deny the moves were linked. And Russia actually took measures to offset the loss of the US base. In the days after Bakiyev's announcement, US and Russian officials met in Moscow for two days of talks on Afghanistan. Moscow agreed to let the US send Afghanistan-bound non-lethal material by rail through Russian territory, and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov suggested Russia could eventually agree to allow weapons shipments. Uzbekistan also reached an agreement with NATO allowing the alliance to send non-military supplies through the Central Asian nation en route to Afghanistan. This new northern transit route would also require approval from Kazakhstan.
But this arduous land route will have hard time picking up the slack from the loss of Manas. About 15,000 people and 500 tons of cargo transit through Manas each month. The base permanently houses about 1,000 troops, most of them from the US, but also from France and Spain.
The US initially treated Bakiyev's announcement as a ploy to wrest more money from Washington. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Washington was ready to pay more for Manas—but not beyond a "reasonable" amount. The US has paid $17.4 million a year to use the strategic air base.
But Kyrgyzstan's parliament voted 79-1 to close Manas, and Bakiyev signed off on the closure the following day. The moves was a harsh reversal after nearly eight years of intricate political maneuvering to establish a permanent US military presence in post-Soviet Central Asia.
Post-Soviet Dominos Fall: Neocons on a Roll
The US began establishing a strong military presence in Kyrgyzstan in the immediate aftermath of 9-11. A US-Kyrgyzstan agreement, signed late in 2001, allowed the Pentagon extensive use of Manas, the country's only international airport. US troops began building a 37-acre base there to accommodate thousands of soldiers. Under the deal, US military personnel were immune from prosecution by the Kyrgyz authorities. A Pentagon representative announced that the deployment "will be long-term, rather than temporary."
Many local politicians and journalists were critical of US motives. Kyrgyz legislative assembly member Adakham Madumarov said the US sought to use Kyrgyzstan as a base to pull Central Asia away from Moscow. He also warned that Kyrgyzstan could become embroiled in the region's turmoil: "We could become a main target for terrorists. The US presence is a strategic handicap for Kyrgyzstan." The Islamic organization Khizb-ut-Takhrir, whose cells had recently proliferated in Kyrgyzstan, called for "the overthrow of leaders who have turned Kyrgyzstan into a humiliated colony."
Local media also reported an exodus of ethnic Russians from Kyrgyzstan. Despite living in Kyrgyzstan for generations, many repatriated to Russia, evidently fearing a surgence of anti-Russian Kyrgyz nationalism, encouraged by Washington.
These fears were exacerbated by the November 2003 "Rose Revolution" that ousted Georgia's President Eduard Shevardnadze and brought to power the pro-West Mikhail Saakashvili. Almost exactly a year later, the "Orange Revolution" in Ukraine brought the pro-West Viktor Yushchenko to power, after his electoral victory over Moscow-friendly candidate Viktor Yanukovych was apparently stolen by fraud. These "color revolutions" were on the model of the 2000 revolution that brought down Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia: a civil upsurge from below, using tactics of nonviolent direct action, and a genuine grassroots component—but also varying degrees of assistance from the US State Department, Western non-governmental organizations and (probably) the CIA.
Kyrgyzstan's President Askar Akayev tried to walk an equidistant line between Washington and Moscow, with both supporting his authoritarian regime. Russia had troops at the Kyrgyz military base in Kant, some 20 kilometers north of the capital, while the US built up its forces at Manas.
But fears that Kyrgyzstan would be the next domino in the wave of pro-West revolutions sweeping the former Soviet republics were released in March 2005, when an uprising broke out. On March 20, protesters rallying against President Akayev burned down police headquarters in the southern city of Jalal-Abad, in response to a pre-dawn action by special police units who briefly took back control of a regional administration office that had been occupied by opposition activists since early March. A crowd of some 20,000 soon retook the building and then marched on the police headquarters, freeing protesters detained there and setting it on fire. Protesters also occupied the airport and used trucks to dump soil and gravel on its runway, in an effort to prevent the government from flying in security reinforcements from Bishkek.
Akayev, president since 1990, had pledged to step down later that year as required by the constitution, but opponents feared he planed to remain in power by amending the constitution. The opposition claimed that many of their candidates were cheated of victory in recent parliamentary elections that gave Akayev overwhelming control of the legislature.
Strikes and protests spread to a second southern city of Osh, and by March 23, Kyrgyzstan was divided—the Akayev government in control in the northern capital, Bishkek, but with the south in the hands of opposition protesters, the regional governor forced to step down.
The Akayev government fell March 24. Angry protests broke out in Bishkek, and crowds repeatedly attempted to storm the White House, the central government building. Foreign press accounts reported protesters hanging banners from the building's second-story windows, and tossing government documents out to the cheering crowd below in the blood-splattered square.
President Akayev disappeared from view. In an emergency session, parliament appointed opposition lawmaker Ishenbai Kadyrbekov as interim president to rule until new elections were held. The country's supreme court also annulled the results of the recent contested parliamentary elections that sparked the protests. Former prime minister Kurmanbek Bakiyev, now a leader of the protests, pledged that new elections would be held soon. He also pledged to halt widespread looting which broke out in the capital.
Almost immediately, it seems, Kadyrbekov was shunted aside, and Bakiyev himself was named interim president. International press accounts did not elaborate on how this quick transition took place, but went on portraying a victory for democracy over despotism. "Freedom has finally come to us," Bakiyev told the crowds upon emerging from the parliament building after his appointment.
The ascendance of Bakiyev as voice of the opposition was telling. Bakiyev was Akayev's prime minister when the US negotiated the Manas deal. He was also the architect of an unpopular austerity regime designed to close the country's foreign debt. He was forced to step down after government troops opened fire on opposition protesters in March 2002, leaving five dead. Bakiyev took the hit for the massacre, and afterwards (ironically) joined the opposition, becoming leader of the People's Movement of Kyrgyzstan.
Another opposition leader freed from prison by the protesters was Felix Kulov, a former vice president who played a leading role in establishing Kyrgyzstan's currency after independence from the USSR in 1991 but was jailed by Akayev on questionable embezzlement charges in 2001. He was quickly named interim security chief.
The US response was guarded. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, speaking in Guatemala, said he did not believe the troop presence in Kyrgyzstan would be affected by the protests. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the change in Kyrgyzstan could lead to greater democracy, but also hedged her bets: "It doesn't happen on day one. This is a process that's just beginning. We know where we want to go."
Tulip Revolution "Made in USA"?
Despite these cautious statements, speculation about a US hand in what was by then being dubbed Kyrgyzstan's "Tulip Revolution" was vindicated by a March 30 New York Times story, "US Helped to Prepare the Way for Kyrgyzstan's Uprising." The US apparently sunk $12 million into "democracy programs" in Kyrgyzstan in 2004 (under the 1992 Freedom Support Act, designed to hasten democratic transition in the post-Soviet republics). Various western European countries had similar programs, and the US State Department also encouraged private groups like Freedom House in efforts to assist the independent press in Kyrgyzstan. The opposition newspaper MSN (for My Capital News), which ran exposés on the Akayev family's personal profligance (palatial homes, etc.), was a recipient of funds from both the State Department and Freedom House, which also provided a printing press. When the regime cut off electricity to MSN's offices, Freedom House delivered emergency generators provided by the US Embassy.
More evidence of a US hand in the murky revolution emerged in the form of a "secret report" purportedly written by US Ambassador Stephen M. Young, which appeared on the website of Kabar, the Kyrgyz National News Agency—then still in the hands of Akayev loyalists. It is conceivable that the letter was forged.
Spelling his name without the customary Y, the letter stated that "Akaev, being a protegee of Russia, is guided by Moscow." It also stated that China's strategic interest in Kyrgyzstan was a threat to US interests in the region: "As regards China, the prospect of Central Asia development puts Beijing into dependence on the Kyrghyz hydro-electric resources and electric power potential... This reason should be taken into consideration when shaping a policy towards Beijing and its presence in the region... Our military presence in Kyrgyzstan 'is annoying' Beijing, and the temporary status of the air force base at Manas airport in Bishkek gives grounds to China to hope for would-be withdrawal of the US troops from Kyrgyzstan."
The letter's final paragraphs were explicit in spelling out an agenda for destabilization:
It is worthwhile compromising Akaev personally by disseminating data in the opposition mass media on his wife’s involvement in financial frauds and bribery...
We also recommend spreading rumors about her probable plans to run for the presidency, etc. All these measures will help us form an image of an absolutely incapacitated president.
It is essential to increase the amount of financial support up to $30 mm to promising opposition parties at the preliminary stage of the parliamentary and presidential elections and allocate additional funds to NGOs including the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, Freedom house, Internews Network and Eurasia Foundation...
To minimize Russian influence on the course of elections we ought to urge opposition parties to make appeals to the Russian government concerning non-interference in internal affairs of the KR [Kyrgyz Republic].
Taking into account arrangements of the Department of State Plan for the period of 2005-2006 to intensify our influence in Central Asia, particularly in Kyrgyzstan, we view the country as the base to advance with the process of democratization in Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and limit Chinese and Russian capabilities in the area. Setting up democratic legitimate opposition in the parliament of Kyrgyzstan is extremely important. To reach the target we should attract groups of independent observers from western humanitarian organizations, OSCE, and people from Kyrgyz offices of the UN Program of Development. That is necessary: to get control of the election process and eliminate any possible financing of the pro-presidential majority in the parliament.
Stephen M. Young
The U.S. Ambassador to Kyrgyz Republic
Interim President Bakiyev responded that the Tulip Revolution had received no foreign aid, and was "made in Kyrgyzstan."
The "Tulip Revolution" was soon starting to look considerably less than velvet. For several days after the power transfer, two rival parliaments both met in the same building, both claiming legitimacy. On the 28th, newly-appointed security chief Felix Kulov threatened to have the "old" parliamentarians arrested if they did not step down in favor of the newly-elected parliament. He backed down from this when reminded by a lawmaker that it was the "old" parliament which had ordered him released from prison. But this demand was brought about the next day, when the "old" parliament agreed to step down in a deal brokered by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The new government, not surprisingly, assured the Pentagon that its troops would be able to remain in the country.
Almost immediately there was a sense of "meet the new boss." The speaker of the lower house of the "old" parliament was Ishenbai Kadyrbekov, who was named in now-forgotten initial press reports as being appointed interim president after Akayev fled. The process by which he was apparently shunted aside by Bakiyev went completely unexamined in international reportage. Also grossly under-reported were charges by protesters of betrayal by Bakiyev and Kulov for throwing their support behind the very "new" parliament whose apparently fraudulent election had sparked the protests in the first place. The Tulip Revolution seemed to have run into a rather abrupt Thermidor.
The country remained divided, with ousted president Akayev in hiding but refusing to step down, and some protests and even road blockades reported in his support. Looting and sporadic gunfire continued, with armed bands roaming the streets of Bishkek. Most ominously, ethnic Russians were said to be forming "ad hoc militias" to protect their neighborhoods.
Akayev, in hiding, released a statement via Internet rejecting the power transfer as "an unconstitutional coup d'etat." He added: "Rumors of my resignation are deliberate, malicious lies."
In early April, with a modicum of order returning to Bishkek, Akayev emerged in Moscow, and formally resigned—after having pledged from hiding that he wouldn't. Akayev—an ethnic Kyrgyz trained in Russia as a nuclear technician—said he would accept exile in Russia: "If Kyrgyzstan reinstates constitutional order, and offers life guarantees and at least the smallest possible respect of human rights, my family and I shall certainly come back. If not, I have made my choice in Russia's favor. Russia has always been my second motherland..." Russia denied reports that it had been preparing military intervention to prop up Akayev.
Regional leaders clearly feared a "domino effect" in the wake of the Tulip Revolution—such as Kazakhstan's Nursultan Nazarbaev, who also sought a precarious path equidistant from Moscow and Washington. "It is impossible to call what happened a revolution," Nazarbaev said as Akayev was destabilized, describing it instead as "banditry and looting." During the power transfer in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, authorities in the Kazakh capital Astana quickly removed rows of artificial tulips which had been decorating the main streets for a public holiday.
On July 10, presidential elections were held in Kyrgyztsan, and acting president Bakiyev won by a landslide.
Uzbekistan: the Next Domino
As the Tulip Revolution was consolidating in Kyrgyztsan, the wave of post-Soviet unrest next hit neighboring Uzbekistan—also ruled by an authoritarian despot who deftly played both sides in the Moscow-Washington rivalry over the region. President Islam Karimov, who had reigned since before independence in 1991, also agreed to open Uzbekistan's airfields to US forces in the aftermath of 9-11—most significantly, the Soviet-era Karshi-Khanabad military base in the south of the country, known as K2.
As in Kyrgyzstan, this sparked fears of a terrorist backlash. The jihadist organizations Hizb ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation) and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) had already established a foothold in the country—providing the pretext for grisly repressive measures by the Karimov regime against all opposition.
In May 2005, an unprecedented wave of protests broke out in Uzbekistan. Every day for the past four months, protesters in the eastern city of Andijan had gathered outside a courthouse where 23 local businessmen were on trial, accused of membership in an Islamist group called Akramiya, said to be linked to Hizb ut-Tahrir and the IMU. The defendants and their relatives strongly denied the charge. The daily protests swelled to 3,000, including former employees thrown out of work when their bosses were arrested. An ongoing protest encampment was also established in the capital, Tashkent, by an extended family whose farm had been seized by the government; the camp was violently broken by the police. Protesters were beaten and hauled off in buses as police tore down their bivouacs. In March—just as the Tulip Revolution was toppling the Kyrgyz regime—500 angry farmers had taken over a Tashkent police station and burned two police cars in a similar protest over land seizures. And in November 2004, economic problems sparked unrest in a number of cities across the country. Karimov was clearly worried that Uzbeksitan could follow Kyrgyzstan as the next Central Asian domino.
Just as the protests were mounting in May, Karimov announced that Uzbekistan was withdrawing from the GUUAM group (for Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Moldova), a regional pro-West alliance of ex-Soviet states. (With Uzbekistan's withdrawal, the name reverted to GUAM, as it was known before that country joined in 1999.) At the GUUAM summit in Chisinau, Moldova, where the announcement was made, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili made a call for "a third wave of revolutions" in the post-Soviet sphere. The first wave presumably refers to the 1991 revolutions against the Soviet system; the second wave was the "tulip," "orange" and "rose" revolutions in Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine and Georgia which further decoupled those countries from Moscow's orbit.
Days after the announcement, Andijan exploded into violence as thousands poured into the streets to oppose the regime. The protests were apparently put down with a general massacre. A May 15 AP report claimed some 500 bodies had been laid out in a school in Andijan for identification by relatives, "corroborating witness accounts of hundreds killed" when soldiers opened fire on street protests. Medical authorities also reported some 2,000 wounded in local hospitals.
The claims were quickly denied by the regime. "Not a single civilian was killed by government forces there," Prosecutor General Rashid Kadyrov said. According to him, the overall death toll was 169 people, including 32 soldiers. Kadyrov claimed reports of 500 or even 700 dead were "deliberate attempts to deceive the international community." He assailed the protesters as "terrorists," "criminals" and "extremists."
The US was initially non-committal. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said: "We are deeply disturbed by the reports that the Uzbek authorities fired on demonstrators... We certainly condemn the indiscriminate use of force against unarmed civilians and deeply regret any loss of life." Secretary of State Rice said, "They really need political reform and we've been saying that to the Uzbeks for some time."
She predictably failed to mention that the US had been saying this while massively underwriting the brutal Karimov regime. Indeed, after 9-11, Uzbekistan became one of several authoritarian countries where the CIA "renditioned" al-Qaeda suspects—in the full knowledge that they would be tortured. UK ambassador Craig Murray was forced out after protesting the CIA "rendition" of terror suspects to Uzbek authorities. During 2003 and early 2004, Murray told reporters, "CIA flights flew to Tashkent often, usually twice a week."
The US had only started to hold up millions of dollars in aid to Uzbekistan the previous year, with then-Secretary of State Colin Powell saying Tashkent had failed to live up to its commitment to "substantial and continuing progress" on democratization.
Karimov of course wasted no time in imputing a foreign hand behind the protest movement. "The coincidence of everything that happened on the streets of Andijan...indicate that everything was calculated and planned beforehand," he told the press.
In any case, through his brutal methods, Karimov had ridden out the storm. There would be no "color revolution" in Uzbekistan.
Ivan Check-Mates GI Joe
In the aftermath of the crisis—as the US, EU and NATO pressured for an open investigation of the apparent Andijan massacre—Uzbekistan tilted to Moscow in no uncertain terms.
Russia immediately increased its support for Karimov's embattled government, announcing in July that it would soon conduct joint military exercises with Uzbekistan—the first since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The announcement by Sergei Ivanov, Russia's defense minister, was broadcast in Moscow after a meeting there with Karimov. Significantly, Russia also agreed to deploy military units in Uzbekistan if the Central Asian nation faced destabilization.
Karimov's visit was semi-official and Russian President Vladimir Putin received him at his residence outside Moscow rather than in the Kremlin. But Russia's press reported that Karimov and Ivanov did sign a secret document on military cooperation. Wrote Russia's official news agency RIA Novosti: "According to some sources, Tashkent is ready to revise [the] Uzbek-US agreement on using the Khanabad military base. Uzbekistan has therefore decided to modify its foreign-policy vector and to shift its gaze in the direction of Russia. Uzbekistan may well become Russia's main Central Asian ally."
The same month as the Moscow visit, Karimov predictably announced that he was giving the US six months to leave the Karshi-Khanabad Air Base—for which the US had just pledged a $23 million payment. To the discomfiture of many on Washington's Capitol Hill, the payment went ahead despite the looming deadline.
Also that same month, the regional grouping known as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), meeting in Astana, Kazakhstan, issued a statement that called on the US to establish a timetable for withdrawal of its forces from Afghanistan and elsewhere in Central Asia. Led by Russia and China, the grouping also includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan—and is seen as a rival to the US-backed GUAM.
The July 5 SCO statement read: "We support and will support the international coalition, which is carrying out an anti-terror campaign in Afghanistan, and we have taken note of the progress made in the effort to stabilise the situation." But this was immediately followed by lines which explicitly challenge Washington: "As the active military phase in the anti-terror operation in Afghanistan is nearing completion, the SCO would like the coalition's members to decide on the deadline for the use of the temporary infrastructure and for their military contingents' presence in those countries."
In October, Putin and Karimov formalized their new security arrangement with a "Treaty on Allied Relations," which the two leaders signed in a Kremlin ceremony. The pact called on Russia and Uzbekistan to provide military aid to each other in the event of "aggression," and gave both countries "the right to use military installations" on each other's territory.
The following month, Uzbekistan's supreme court found 15 defendants guilty of "terrorism" and sentenced them to up to 20 years for their role in the May violence in Andijan—after what was decried as a "show trial" by international human rights organizations.
During the trial in September, one defendant testified that the protest movement had been underwritten by the US. Defendant Tavakkal Hojiev told the court that he heard from Qobil Parpiev, who had been identified by Uzbek authorities as one of the masterminds behind the violence, that the US Embassy provided funds for the Andijan uprising. Queried by a lawyer for additional details, Hojiev said: "A big sum went for weapons and cars. They held a demonstration in front of the court in Andijon. There were a lot of expenses for food and clothes for the people who showed up there over the course of three months.... It was clear to everyone that the funds came from the foreign ringleaders." AP quoted Hojiev as saying, "I was told that our people received money from the American Embassy." The news agency reported that a US Embassy official who attended the trial, Alexander Schrank, would not comment on the allegations.
The claim may or may not have been true. But Islam Karimov, theretofore attempting to play both sides in the Great Game between Moscow and Washington, had finally and decisively thrown in his lot with the former.
GI Joe Plays Kyrgyz Pawn
Just as Karimov was signing his new pact with Moscow in November, Condoleezza Rice was meeting with Kyrgyzstan's President Bakiyev in Bishkek—where they negotiated a deal granting the US military long-term access to the Manas air base.
Kyrgyzstan had earlier that year been urging the US to set a timetable for its withdrawal, and the negotiations were said to be "very tough." Kyrgyzstan demanded that annual payments be jacked up to $50 million. Additionally, the new government charged that some of the money was embezzled by the son of the ousted president Akayev. Bakiev wanted some $80 million in compensation.
With Uzbekistan lost to the Pentagon and Moscow's influence in the region growing, Washington was willing to bargain. At the end of July, just after the SCO had issued its statement calling for a US withdrawal timetable from Central Asia, Donald Rumsfeld toured the region for a diplomatic counter-attack—and Kyrgyzstan, at least, began equivocating on demanding a timetable for withdrawal. Rumsfeld visited the US troops at Manas.
The abysmal human rights situation in Kyrgyzstan also provided Washington with leverage. Just before Secretary Rice's visit to Bishkek, Bakiyev defended his use of force to put down unrest in the country's prisons, which cost four lives on Nov. 1. "Police did the right thing when they demanded that suspects and other inmates leave the prison for interrogations," said Bakiev. He said the inmates “refused to come out. [Law-enforcement officers] approached them to meet and they [the convicts] started shooting. Should they have been presented bagels in response?"
As negotiations over Manas wore on, the Kyrgyz government, itself put in power by a putatively US-sponsored revolution, seemed increasingly paranoid that Washington was brewing another one. In April 2006, Bakiyev claimed "foreign forces" were trying to create unrest in the country. So recently a revolutionary leader himself, Bakiyev now warned: "Some politicians see democracy as lawlessness and anarchy." Human rights organizations were again reporting harassment and physical attacks on opposition activists in Kyrgyztsan. In July, Bishkek expelled two US diplomats for allegedly interfering in Kyrgyzstan's internal affairs and having inappropriate contacts with local non-governmental organizations.
In November, a new wave of unrest broke out, with riot police intervening in Bishkek street clashes between supporters and opponents of Bakiyev. The violence—which saw police using tear gas and firing "warning shots" over the crowds—followed daily protests by opposition supporters calling for the president to resign. On the night of the worst violence, Nov. 7, opposition MPs held an emergency session in parliament to try to pass a new constitution to curb the president's powers. The government called the move an "open attempt at seizing power."
Bakiyev rode out the crisis. The following three years saw neither significant unrest, nor progress in talks with the US over back pay for the Manas air base. Too late, the new Obama administration offered to pay more for the base. Despite the Tulip Revolution, Kyrgyztsan, like Uzbekistan three years earlier, was swinging back towards the Russian camp—or, at least, an equidistant course like that of the ousted Akayev.
Neocon Dreams: Humbled at Last?
Central Asia is on the outer periphery of the vast region referred to by the neocons as the "Greater Middle East," where, in their hubristic vision, virtually all regimes were ripe for destabilization and replacement by pro-Western technocrats. Under George Bush, there was a shift in Washington from a policy of "sharing" Central Asia with Moscow to one of decoupling the ex-Soviet republics from Moscow's orbit altogether. Ukraine's Orange Revolution and Georgia's Rose Revolution fueled confidence in such an agenda. But, like so much of the neocon project, it ultimately backfired. In Kyrgyzstan it has merely driven Karimov (like Akayev before him) back towards the open arms of Moscow.
The claims of Central Asia's ruling strongmen that the opposition to their regimes is only a creation of US imperialism is, of course, cynical propaganda. But actual US intrigues make it more potent propaganda. US influence certainly played a role in Bakiyev consolidating power and outmaneuvering his rivals—and probably in the protest movements that later emerged to his rule. Washington is happy to overlook rights abuses in regimes it can play ball with, and equally happy to exploit such abuses in order to domesticate or destabilize regimes that turn recalcitrant.
Many of Obama's closest foreign policy advisers are holdovers from the Carter days, well before the neocon revolution. Among those frequently mentioned when Obama was on the campaign trail was Zbigniew Brzezinski, although as president Obama has downplayed the role he played. The original ideological whiz-kid of the Trilateral Commission and Jimmy Carter's National Security Advisor, Brzezinski represents the "pragmatist" wing of the ruling elites. In contrast to the neocons with their "regime change" fantasies, the pragmatists believe in accommodating authoritarian regimes when possible. But they can be just as hawkish as their neocon rivals. Brzezinski was the voice of Cold War realpolitik in the Carter administration—who, after the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, got the ball rolling towards the Reagan-era policies of nuclear first-strike capability and aid to the Afghan mujahedeen.
In his 1997 book, The Grand Chessboard, Brzezinski famously wrote, "The prize is global primacy, and the playing field is Eurasia." A more honest formulation than Jack Straw's glib pronouncement during the 2001 Afghanistan invasion that Great Game was over.
If the neocons exploited pro-democracy forces in Central Asia only to betray them, those forces will face new challenges in the era of Obama. Even as US influence contracts in the post-Soviet sphere in reaction against eight years of neocon designs, the escalation in Afghanistan is certain to heighten the contradictions across the vast Central Asian region. With luck, the indigenous pro-democracy forces will be able to decouple their own struggles and aspirations from those of the military empires that for nearly two centuries have made Central Asia their chessboard.
Shanghai Cooperation Organization
GUUAM (archived site)
"Reports: Uzbekistan, NATO reach Afghanistan deal," AP, Feb. 27, 2009
"US ready to pay more for Kyrgyz base, within limits: Gates," AFP, Feb. 19, 2009
"Kyrgyzstan: Tracking Russia's Assistance Package to Bishkek," EurasiaNet, Feb. 18, 2009
"Russia, US discuss Afghan transit," AFP, Feb. 11, 2009
"Clashes erupt in Kyrgyz capital," BBC News, Nov. 7, 2006
"Kyrgyzstan Seeks $50 Million For US Use of Air Base," BBC News, Jan. 17, 2006
"United States Cuts Off Aid to Uzbekistan," EurasiaNet, July 14, 2004
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Reprinting permissible with attribution