Kyrgyzstan: What to Watch This Week

Bishkek, Kygyzstan – The Kyrgyz capital still shows deep scars from last week’s bloody overthrow of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, which left at least 81 dead and more than a thousand injured. But the numbers of armed marauders who looted stores and turned the city center into a no-go zone at night have greatly decreased. Now the provisional government led by former foreign minister Roza Otunbayeva is trying to consolidate its hold on power. The country is calm, but not entirely stable. Here are five areas to watch this week and in the weeks to come that will determine the course of this volatile, mountainous ex-Soviet state.

1. What to do about Bakiyev?

President Kurmanbek Bakiyev refuses to step aside, and until he does the provisional government is not entirely legitimate. His continued presence in his home region in the country’s south could prove to be merely a thorn in the side to the new leaders — or the springboard for another bloody confrontation, either as an attempt to seize him, or in the form of his own armed uprising.

Today, in an attempted show of strength, Bakiyev held a defiant political rally. But the truth is that he has nowhere to go. The United States further underlined his isolation, issuing a statement that Washington was not planning to evacuate him. Meanwhile, Almazbek Atambayev, the new government’s first deputy head, said today that a special operation was being prepared to arrest Bakiyev. The deposed president said for his part that any attempt to seize him would result in “the further spilling of blood.”

2. What will happen with Manas air base?

The provisional government will probably not reach a decision this week on the U.S. base, a key transit point for troops and supplies heading to Afghanistan, but which way the various ministers are leaning will be clearer each day. In the interim, Washington may start to take steps in preparation for a possible negative outcome; already U.S. officials have halted flights transporting troops in and out of Afghanistan from Manas (though they say this is a temporary measure). The mood in the country at the moment is very “anti-base.” And it does not help matters that the U.S. is now being accused of turning a blind eye to Bakiyev’s excesses, in the hopes of keeping this strategic piece of real estate.

Though no hard evidence has been provided, members of the new government are accusing the American military of allegedly buying jet fuel from companies linked to Bakiyev’s son, Maxim. The fuel concession is possibly the single largest business that can be had at the air base. Almazbek Atambayev repeated the charges today that Washington was enriching the Bakiyev family, adding that although his government intended to honor all its international obligations, it would look to see if any of them were agreed to under questionable circumstances.

3. Will Russia or the U.S. have more influence?

According to Western media reports, the events last week may be the Kremlin’s biggest success yet in turning back the so-called “color” or “flower” revolutions. (Never mind that Kyrgyzstan’s Tulip Revolution five years ago was more of a coup d’etat than a true popular uprising, and that Washington appeared to be just as taken by surprise as anyone else when it happened.) The new leaders are speaking of Moscow’s generosity and the fraternal bonds that join the two countries. Watch for further declarations of love this week and the weeks to come.

Meanwhile, American policy seems adrift. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton finally called acting president Roza Otunbayeva three days after the revolution. (Vladimir Putin, significantly, was the first world leader to reach out to the new Kyrgyz government.)

So why do the U.S. and Russia care about Kyrgyzstan? America invests it with importance because it hosts Manas, and without that access the U.S. would have to locate a base elsewhere. Russia cares, it seems, because the U.S. cares. The Kremlin sees the air base as an intrusion in its backyard. If the base goes, one wonders if anyone will pay much more attention to Kyrgyzstan.

4. Does the new government have any money?

Kyrgyzstan is allegedly close to bankruptcy. According to reports, Bakiyev plundered the state accounts before departing, leaving only about $20 million. This may or may not be true, but it seems certain that the country is in dire economic circumstances. Russia has pledged more than $150 million in aid. Large numbers of Kyrgyz work in Russia as migrants. Kyrgyzstan itself has no major industry or natural resources. Economic difficulties brought the thousands of protesters who forced Bakiyev’s ouster onto the streets. The next weeks and months will be a test for the new government.

5. Will instability return, and fast?

It is difficult to believe that the provisional government consists of the exact same people who have spent the five years since the Tulip Revolution squabbling and stabbing each other in the back. Less than a year ago they were incapable of mobilizing a significant unified challenge to Bakiyev in presidential elections. Now, incredibly, they are running the country. But many Kyrgyz distrust them — they are for the most part familiar faces who have held positions of power in previous governments. Their authority, while growing, is still very low. Roza Otunbayeva has said that the current cohort will step out of the way after new leaders are elected — possibly in six months. One hopes that they hold that long.

An alternative scenario is that the provisional government turns out not to be so provisional. Some of the new leaders even worked in the previous government, including Otunbayeva. To be fair, a large number of them resigned from Bakiyev’s regime in protest. The changes they have put forward are on the surface commendable: new elections, constitutional reform and a country run by parliament, not the president. But now that they are in office, they may find the temptations of power to be too great. Jobs can be handed to relatives and friends, lucrative business contracts secured, and state resources can be appropriated. Meanwhile, the media can be cowed into submission. And when the time comes to step down, they may decide that it’s just too intoxicating — or too lucrative — to leave.