Kyrgyzstan Revolution Threatens Afghanistan War’s Premier Air Hub

Kyrgyzstan has entered a phase of uncertainty with a new opposition-led government in place following two days of street clashes between police and anti-government protestors. Some opposition leaders have called for the closure of a U.S. airbase in the country that is a supply link for its operations in Afghanistan.

A former Kyrgyz foreign minister, Roza Otunbayeva, told CNN on Wednesday that she is now in charge of an interim government following the apparent overthrow of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev. The whereabouts of President Bakiyev is unknown but unverified reports have suggested he might be in the southern city of Osh, or in Manas airbase, the base used by the U.S. military. 

Thousands of people took to the streets in major cities across the country over the last two days, protesting against corruption and increasing utility costs. The protests turned violent, especially in the capital Bishkek on Wednesday, where nearly 40 people were killed and 400 other injured, according to ministry of health sources. However, opposition leaders told the Associated Press that 100 people have been killed. 

Anti-government demonstrators have reportedly seized the state security headquarters and television as well as other institutions, in what opposition leaders have called a new revolution. 

The interim leader, Otunbayeva, is a seasoned politician who was a foreign minister before the country’s Tulip Revolution five years ago. She also served in various positions during the Soviet era, including ambassador to Malaysia. 

Political turmoil is nothing new to Kyrgyzstan. In 2005, Kyrgyz protestors toppled the government of Askar Akayev following disputed parliamentary elections. Akayev’s ouster was due to deep public dissatisfaction with corruption and authoritarianism in his government. He had ruled the country since its independence after the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1990. 

The news of ongoing unrest in the central Asian republic has been received with concern by Washington. The U.S. embassy in Bishkek said it was "deeply concerned" about "civil disturbances" in the country, in a statement released on Wednesday. 

Saying that the situation in Kyrgyzstan was "still very fluid", John Kerry, the chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, expressed "regret for the loss of life" in the country and called on all sides to be "calm and refrain from violence". He called upon Kyrgyz parties to address the "underlying political, economic and social issues" in a "transparent process that brings stability and fundamental rights to all." 

The U.S. State Department said that transport operations at the Manas military installation outside Bishkek have been "functioning normally." The U.S. military has used the base over the past several years as a staging post for its operations in Afghanistan. Despite the call for the base’s closure by opposition leaders reportedly in charge now, it remains to be seen whether the new government will take practical steps toward that end. 

There are worries in the U.S. that the new opposition-led government may increase the rent for Manas base by renegotiating the terms of its agreement with the U.S., according to Foreign Policy‘s Cable blog. Such a renegotiation, Cable said, may offer Russia an opportunity to influence an agreement over the base. 

Last year, the country’s parliament, in which opposition parties had a powerful presence, voted to close the base due to a failure of U.S. and Kyrgyz governments to agree on a higher rent for the facility. According to some reports, Bishkek’s decision to close the base had been motivated by a promise of a lucrative aid package from Russia. 

Moscow has been increasingly concerned about the U.S. military’s prolonged stay on its neighbor’s soil. 

But after President Barack Obama’s personal intervention, Washington agreed to triple the rent from less than 20 million dollars per year to 60 million. Kyrgyzstan renewed the contract but renamed the base a "transit center" and imposed a condition on the U.S. to use the Manas base for the transit of "non-lethal" goods to Afghanistan. 

Some have speculated about a possible Russian role in the current situation in Kyrgyzstan. Russia had reportedly caused a spike in gasoline and fuel prices in Kyrgyzstan by imposing new customs duties on petroleum products exported to the small central Asian nation. 

"Many political experts in Bishkek believe Moscow is punishing Bakiyev for his administration’s failure to evict American forces from the Manas air base," David Trilling and Chinghiz Umetov wrote Tuesday in the New York-based EurasiaNet, a news and analysis website on Eurasian nations. 

President Bakiyev, who was initially known as a pro-U.S. figure, started to play Moscow and Washington against each other. Although he came to power following the Tulip Revolution with a promise of democratic and transparent governance, he soon started to turn Kyrgyzstan into a one-party state. 

The country was run by a small clique of President Bakiyev and his relatives, sparking widespread frustration among Kyrgyz. In recent months, the government had increased its crackdown on the opposition and its media. 

Kyrgyzstan, one of the poorest republics of the former Soviet Union, has been an economically impoverished nation since its independence in 1990s. 

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Mohammed A. Salih

Mohammed A. Salih writes for Inter Press Service.