In Kyrgyzstan chaos, Russia burnishes its image
Saturday, April 10, 2010
BISHKEK, KYRGYZSTAN -- In a remarkable role reversal, Russia has positioned itself as a supporter of democratic reform and the protests that toppled this nation's autocratic president, while the United States is increasingly viewed here as a cynical bully, backing a corrupt, abusive leader who refuses to resign.
Those perceptions, expressed by ordinary people as well as members of the opposition coalition now in control of most of Kyrgyzstan, have been fueled by Moscow's quick embrace of the new government and Washington's more cautious response -- and it could spell trouble for a U.S. air base here critical to the NATO campaign in Afghanistan.
Opponents of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who has gone into hiding in the nation's south, have long accused the United States of refraining from criticizing his record of political repression out of fear of losing access to the Manas air base. Now they are asking why the Obama administration has yet to endorse their interim government -- and whether such hesitation might embolden Bakiyev to attempt to retake power by force.
At the same time, the new Kyrgyz administration has thanked Russia for ratcheting up economic pressure on Bakiyev in the months before this week's protests and for publicly describing his government as ridden with corruption and nepotism. In remarks that might surprise Russia's own hard-pressed democratic opposition, several members of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's ruling party have called for Kyrgyzstan's interim leaders to undertake political reforms.
"They must take extreme measures to liberalize the political system, guarantee media freedom, including to opposition outlets, and enable the normal development of businesses," said Alexei Ostrovsky, chairman of a Russian parliamentary committee, echoing demands that are often directed at the Kremlin.
When mass protests toppled corrupt governments in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan in what became known as the "color revolutions" several years ago, Russia was linked to the ousted leaders while the United States backed the protesters. But Washington's relationship with Bakiyev and the fatal shooting of a Kyrgyz truck driver during a U.S. security check in 2006 have left the public here deeply skeptical of the United States.
Anger toward U.S.
Thousands gathered in Bishkek's central square Friday to mourn the 76 people killed when Bakiyev's security forces opened fire on protesters two days ago, and sentiment in the crowd seemed firmly against Washington, with rumors spreading that American weapons had been used in the shootings. Many asked why Washington has not publicly repudiated Bakiyev the way the Kremlin has.
"If the U.S. government covers up for Bakiyev or his supporters, we'll know and assume that the United States had something to do with his crimes," said Erkin Dosumbayev, 42.
In an interview Friday, the leader of the transitional government, Roza Otunbayeva, said bluntly that Washington had made its occupancy of the Manas air base a higher priority than support of the Kyrgyz people.
"We're not just a developing country in any part of the world but a part of the former Soviet Union," she said. "You came to us to help us build democracy, and then just one day, you put your hands over your mouth just to have a base."
"In the most dramatic days of our lives, we never got any support and words of sympathy," she added. "Papers were closed. Journalists have been killed. . . . We had very difficult days."
Otunbayeva, a former diplomat considered a proponent of Western ideals, acknowledged that U.S. officials had raised concerns with Bakiyev behind closed doors. She said, however, that such "silent diplomacy" didn't work and accused the U.S. ambassador, Tatiana C. Gfoeller, of placing too much emphasis on maintaining ties with Bakiyev's family.
By contrast, she said, the Russian government -- and Putin, in particular -- issued "very, very strong" criticism of Bakiyev. "This was striking for us," she said.
Putin offered economic aid to Otunbayeva in a phone call Thursday, all but recognizing her government less than a day after it was established. But she said the most senior U.S official to speak to her has been the deputy chief of mission at the embassy in Bishkek.
U.S. air base's future
Some members of her government have complained, contrasting that treatment with the swift, high-level U.S. support that Bakiyev received in 2005 when he ousted his predecessor in the mass protests known as the Tulip Revolution. But others more sympathetic to Washington have said the situation is different because Bakiyev has refused to resign.
A senior Obama administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the U.S. response was still evolving because "we're trying to find out exactly what's going on."
"It's inaccurate to say we're supporting Bakiyev. We're reaching out to all people," he said, adding that he has been in contact with Otunbayeva's chief of staff. "I suspect tomorrow even higher levels of interaction will take place."
The official said the U.S. government was also in touch with Bakiyev through intermediaries but stopped short of saying it was urging him to resign.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley denied that the United States had refrained from criticizing Bakiyev. "We've been very clear in our concerns about the government, its abuses, its corruption," he said.
Washington's image problem in Kyrgyzstan, along with the goodwill toward Russia generated by its moves against Bakiyev, could jeopardize the future of the U.S. air base because at least some senior Russian officials believe it represents an intrusion on Moscow's sphere of influence and have urged its closure. One official told reporters at a summit in Prague this week that Kyrgyzstan should host only one military base -- a Russian one.
Late Friday, the U.S. military suspended many of its flights in and out of the base for the second time in two days, said Maj. John A. Redfield, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command. All flights transporting military personnel were suspended, but others -- such as supply and refueling missions for operations in Afghanistan -- were continuing on a case-by-case basis.
Staff writers Mary Beth Sheridan and Craig Whitlock in Washington contributed to this report.