With opposition leaders claiming they’ve formed their own government in Bishkek and reports that Kyrgyzstan President Kurmanbek Bakiyev has left the country, What will happen to the US use of the Manas air base?
Violent protests in Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan – a vital US ally that hosts Manas, the only American air base in Central Asia – appear to have pushed the regime of Kyrgyzstan President Kurmanbek Bakiyev to the brink of collapse.
Mr. Bakiyev was reported to have flown out of the country on Wednesday, and Russia’s state-owned news agency Ria Novosti reported that the opposition is declaring victory over the president, who was widely perceived as corrupt and authoritarian.
“We went into the government building for talks; [Prime Minister Daniyar] Usenov wrote a declaration stating the government’s resignation,” opposition spokesman Temir Sariyev told Russian journalists. “Bakiyev left the building. It is not known where he went. He is not in Bishkek,” he said.
Earlier on Wednesday the government declared a state of emergency.
Bakiyev rose to power in the so-called Tulip Revolution of 2005 amid high hopes that he would bring democratic governance and a stronger economy to the former Soviet republic. But in the years since, opponents claim his family and friends have siphoned off hundreds of millions in foreign aid and US payments for its military bases, even as the economy and basic living standards have steadily declined. Some analysts say the last straw was an increase in electricity prices earlier this year. Many Kyrgyz citizens believe that the Bakiyev family controls the electric company and much of the revenue that flows through it.
“I think this is the end of the government,” says Alexander Cooley, a politics professor at Columbia University in New York who studies central Asia. “The speed of this has caught everyone off guard. But it really shouldn’t have, given how quickly the government collapsed in 2005.”
Mr. Cooley, whose 2008 book “Base Politics: Democratic Change and the US Military Overseas” looked at the politics behind the US Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan, argues that Bakiyev’s corruption, alienation of important donor and neighbor Russia, and the taking of an increasingly large chunk of Kyrgyzstan’s small economic pie for his family left the regime on extremely shaky footing.
US Rent for Base Tripled
In 2009, Bakiyev threatened to shut Manas – something that would have pleased Russia, since it has an air base of its own in the country and views the US military presence as impinging on its sphere of influence. After US protests, the base was allowed to stay open with its name changed to the Transit Center at Manas and with a more than tripling of US rent for the facility, to $60 million annually. Recently, Russia pulled $2 billion in loan guarantees from Bishkek.
“Everyone knows that electricity is controlled by the ruling family and the government was getting a lot of negative publicity in the Russian media, in part because Moscow felt it had been double crossed over Manas,” Cooley says. “At the end of the day, there was no one willing to to go to the mat for Bakiyev. There weren’t sufficient numbers of troops and they weren’t sufficiently committed to putting down the protesters, who themselves were pretty well-armed.”
Cooley estimates that the US base, which he says passes about $170 million a year in fuel charges and fees through Bakiyev-connected companies, made the president feel secure – American backing would preserve his rule. Cooley also argues that while many states are corrupt, they usually do a better job of spreading the wealth around to key constituencies and power brokers. Kyrgyzstan had come to resemble something more of a kleptocracy, he says.
Family Power Grab Blamed
For instance, last fall Bakiyev named his son Maksim to run the newly created Central Agency on Development, Investment, and Innovation. The agency controls all international aid and loans received by the government, and also controls most of the country’s energy and mining concerns. The opposition charged at the time that the move had effectively given control of most of the country’s capital in the hands of the Bakiyev family, beyond the reach of parliamentary oversight.
Roman Muzalevsky, an international affairs and security analyst on Central Asia and a contributor to the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, agrees that corruption is foremost in many Kyrgyz minds and that electricity prices were probably the spark.
“One of the major causes of the protests right now relate actually to high utility prices and increasing frustration on the part of the population with the incumbent regime which has been promoting family and clannish interests,” he said. “Of course many opposition leaders had been jailed, but some of those opposition leaders have been released recently, some even during the protest.”
He said it seemed “apparent” that the government was at risk of being toppled, but cautioned that nothing was yet certain.
He points out the close ties between the regime and the US, which developed under President George W. Bush and have continued under President Barack Obama, will have Washington watching closely for what kind of new government might emerge.
In addition to Manas base, which is used to support the US war in Afghanistan, cooperation has deepened under Obama in other areas. Mr. Muzalevsky points to the announcement in March that the US would build a $5.5 million anti-terror training center for government forces in the province of Batken. That announcement further enraged Russia.
“In the past couple of years, Bakiyev ran that country as his own personal criminal network… everyone else was left competing for scraps,” says Cooley.
Almazbek Atambayev, leader of the Social Democratic Party, is one rumored successor to Bakiyev, says Cooley.
What does the near future hold for the US there?
“I don’t think anyone is going to want to rock the boat by evicting the Americans, but No. 1 we’re going to see a renegotiation of a lot of Bekiya-related contracts,” says Cooley. “If this goes in the right way it will be more transparent, it will go to the budget. If it goes the wrong way, then the new person and the new group taking over will install themselves as the guarantor of these things” and be much like the last regime. “
“There’s a lesson here that when you enter deals with corrupt authoritarian governments, the stability of the arrangement is going to be called into question. After the Manas [base renegotiation] there was a tacit agreement on criticism; US leaders became completely silent. It took the [US] embassy three days to issue a tepid statement after the  election, one of the most rotten they’ve had. We are almost in the perverse situation now that Moscow can criticize the government for its democratic shortcomings more than the US does.”
The Monitor’s coverage of the 2009 election described it as “Soviet-style.” It delivered 74 percent of the vote to Bakiyev.