The headlines are trumpeting the latest revolution in Kyrgyzstan, and the average Joe or Jane is bound to ask: Why in the name of all that’s holy should anyone – even a foreign policy wonk – care about the fate of Kyrgyzstan, a Central Asian former Soviet “republic” on the edge of nowhere?
Remember the “Tulip Revolution?” It was at the height of the necons’ short-lived triumphalism, when they and their echo chamber in the mainstream media were trumpeting our glorious “victory” in Iraq. In true Trotskyite style, the neoconservatives bragged that the “liberation” of Mesopotamia was ushering in a “global democratic revolution,” as their then- hero George W. Bush put it, with the US leading the way. The vaunted “color revolutions” in Serbia, Georgia, and Ukraine would spread throughout the world, and specifically the Middle East and Central Asia, sweeping all before them.
This was the millenarian vision energizing the neocons as they rhapsodized over the possibilities, and millions in overt and covert US government aid were poured into the coffers of would-be revolutionaries: a whole industry sprang up feeding on Washington’s largesse. The National Endowment for Democracy – a neocon citadel since the Reagan era – and USAID, alongside the covert machinations of other US government agencies, spent a great deal of the taxpayers’ money sponsoring conferences, conducting “training” schools, and creating webs sites. Imitating the old Soviet-led Comintern, the neocons excitedly talked about setting up an American-led democratic “International,” a proposal mirrored by neocon mouthpiece John McCain’s suggestion that we set up a “League of Democracies” to rival and supplant the United Nations.
Armed with plenty of moolah and the sympathy of the Western media, the color revolutionaries scored a big success in Ukraine, where the “Orange” movement threw out the pro-Russian, Eastern-dominated government in a closely fought – and bitterly disputed – election. It was a model example of the exercise of American “soft power,” regime change without muss or much fuss, all of it engineered directly from Washington.
When the regime-changers got to the Middle East, however, they ran into a brick wall. In Lebanon, where the “Cedar Revolution” stalled, and failed, they suffered their first big defeat. In Kyrgyzstan, however, they had more success: there the pro-Russian president, Askar Akayev, was deposed in a violent paroxysm of street fighting, mayhem, and looting. Installed in his place, with direct US backing, was Kurmanbek Bakiyev, whose reputation as a murderer and tyrant was already well-established.
On March 17, 2002, demonstrators who were holding a peaceful and legal rally in support of Azimbek Beknazarov – a member of parliament campaigning against the cession of land to China by the Akayev government – were attacked by the police. Five demonstrators were killed, and as a result of the public outcry and subsequent investigation, Bakiyev, then prime minister, was forced to resign after police responsibility was established.
None of that mattered, however, since the Western media didn’t probe too deeply into the subject, and was content to focus on their assigned “narrative”: the “color revolutions” as spontaneous outbursts of “democratic” (not to mention “pro-American”) fervor. Behind the scenes, however, the US was pulling the strings, from which dangled plenty of US taxpayer dollars. As the New York Times reported at the time:
“The money earmarked for democracy programs in Kyrgyzstan totaled about $12 million last year. Hundreds of thousands more filters into pro-democracy programs in the country from other United States government-financed institutions such as the National Endowment for Democracy. That does not include the money for the Freedom House printing press or Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Kyrgyz language service.”
Millions of dollars in direct US aid to “pro-democracy” Kyrgyz organizations deftly succeeded in giving “Killer” Kurmanbek a complete public relations makeover: yesterday’s “hardliner” was held up as the symbol of “democracy” and pro-American liberalism, and practically everyone saluted. (Not us, though).
Elinor Burkett, author of So Many Enemies, So Little Time, an account of her days teaching in Kyrgyzstan, also resisted the temptation to put the Kyrgyz events in the context of “the paradigm du jour.” “It’s a good story,” she wrote in the New York Times, but “akin to stuffing an elephant into a gorilla skin.” The same is true of those who put the most recent events – the deposing of Bakiyev and the installation of a new “pro-Russian” government in Bishkek – in the context of superpower contention, the latest chapter in the new cold war. As Burkett, who actually knows something about the region, said of the Tulip Revolution at the height of its success:
“As the wealthy and ambitious jockey for power, the people of Bishkek are digging out and blaming the self-styled rebels from the south for the destruction of their city, heaping contempt on what they deem an illiterate peasantry. The long-standing divide between the two halves of the country – linked by a single, often impassable road over the mountains – has been ratcheted up. Few in Kyrgyzstan are basking in the glow of hope that lighted up Ukraine in December. As one friend in Bishkek said in a recent e-mail message to me: ‘This is not a democracy. This is just a crowd.’”
Like most of the post-Soviet states that sprung up on the grave of the old USSR, Kyrgyzstan is not a nation but an invention of Stalin and his legatees, its borders determined by administrative fiat and deliberately created to foster division and the break up of national and linguistic minorities. When the Soviet Union imploded, it broke up into its constituent administrative units, giving reality to the former fiction of the Union as a federation of associated “republics.” The old borders were retained. Thus, “Kyrgyzstan” consists of separate and often antithetical social and ethnic groups, with the historic divisions between north and south militating against the probability of a unified “nation” at peace.
The north is “pro-Russian” in the sense that all of the more Westernized, industrialized regions of the various “republics” in the “near abroad” looked to Moscow for their cultural cues, and for protection. The Russian influence was the transmission belt of Westernization and modernity insofar as it penetrated the steppes of Central Asia.
It is a mistake, however, to interpret events in Bishkek into the language of a new cold war between the US and a “resurgent” Russia: yet this misperception will remain popular so long as the future of the Manas air base is the main focus of US coverage of what’s going on there. As usual with the Americans, it’s all about them.
And in a sense, it is, because Kyrgyz opposition to the US presence is based on bitter experience. An experience that occurred to Alexander Ivanov, when he tried to pass through a truck stop checkpoint. Ivanov, an employee of Aerocraft Petrol Management, went through the routine security check at the entrance to the base, when suddenly – according to the official report issued by the US military, later debunked – he drew a knife and threatened the well-armed Zachary Hatfield, a US serviceman. Hatfield shot and killed Ivanov, although the evidence for the presence of a knife is sketchy. In any case, popular anger was stoked when the US government offered to compensate Ivanov’s family – for the princely sum of 2,000 US dollars.
In all US-occupied countries, from Japan to Iraq to the Manas air force base in remote Kyrgyzstan, the soldiers of the Empire are protected by treaty from local justice, and shielded by the base commanders, a policy which encourages the wilding forays that wreak havoc in surrounding areas. In this case, the killing posed the issue of Kyrgyz sovereignty in a dramatic way, and the authorities were forced to react, demanding the lifting of Hatfield’s immunity. This was not granted, but instead, as (the other) Scott Horton put it in Harper’s:
“The incident was catastrophically mishandled by U.S. military and diplomatic personnel. U.S. spokesmen issued a statement claiming that Ivanov had physically threatened Hatfield with a knife, and that Hatfield shot him in self defense. While making vague and unconvincing statements of “regret” about the “incident,” the soldier was whisked away back to the United States. That was flight to avoid prosecution and to block a homicide investigation–such flight, of course, a serious crime unto itself. While offering vague assurances that the soldier would be dealt with under the military justice system (something which, in the eyes of the Kyrgyz, never occurred), American officials did little to atone for the crime. Kyrgyz newspapers made mincemeat of the proffered excuse, reporting that Hatfield’s claims that Ivanov was armed with a knife were untrue and establishing that Ivanov had made numerous prior deliveries to the base, and was known to the soldier. The Kyrgyz media fanned suspicions that the homicide was an unprovoked act, accounts that American officials only fueled by issuing a false report and failing to convincingly show either contrition or an intention to bring the soldier to justice.”
The idea that Russia’s agents infiltrated the country, engineered the uprising from behind the scenes, and succeeded in toppling the Bakiyev government so that Vladimir Putin could simultaneously gloat and deny responsibility is rather fanciful, and lacking of proof. A more realistic version of events suggests a simpler scenario: no Russian conspiracy is required – only the random violence and official arrogance that surrounds the overseas US military presence wherever it might be.
The US should immediately recognize the new government, headed by the former foreign minister, Roza Otunbayeva, whose reputation as a moderate, pragmatic, relatively Westernized technocrat is reassuring, albeit no guarantee – there are no guarantees in that part of the world. In any case, the new government initially indicated Manas would be closed, and later reversed course, albeit with reservations. No doubt a long negotiating process will take place – with the issue of legal immunity of US troops, and not just monetary compensation, at the center of the discussion.
On this issue, the US imperialists cannot negotiate or give so much as an inch, because that, after all, is what having an empire is all about. America’s centurions are answerable to Washington alone: no satrap or protectorate can claim legal authority over them, or else they’re no longer our soldiers to command. Treaties granting US military personnel legal immunity from local prosecution are merely the application of the general principle animating US foreign policy, which is that America is and must be a law unto itself.
Given this, is it any wonder the family of Mr. Ivanov and many thousands of Kyrgyz are eager to see us go?