Russia is said to have fueled unrest in Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan's deposed president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, left, looks on as supporters deliver speeches in the courtyard of his family home.
Kyrgyzstan's deposed president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, left, looks on as supporters deliver speeches in the courtyard of his family home. (Sergei Grits/associated Press)
By Philip P. Pan
Monday, April 12, 2010

BISHKEK, KYRGYZSTAN -- Less than a month before the violent protests that toppled the government of Kyrgyzstan last week, Russian television stations broadcast scathing reports portraying President Kurmanbek Bakiyev as a repugnant dictator whose family was stealing billions of dollars from this impoverished nation.

The media campaign, along with punishing economic measures adopted by the Kremlin, played a critical role in fanning public anger against Bakiyev and bringing people into the streets for the demonstrations that forced him to flee the capital Wednesday, according to protest leaders, local journalists and analysts.

"Even without Russia, this would have happened sooner or later, but . . . I think the Russian factor was decisive," said Omurbek Tekebayev, a former opposition leader who is now the No. 2 figure in the government.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has denied that Moscow played any role in the uprising, and leaders of the movement to oust Bakiyev insist they received only moral support. But the Kremlin had made no secret of its growing displeasure with Bakiyev, and over the past few months it steadily ratcheted up the pressure on his government while reaching out to the opposition.

The strategy was a sharp departure from Russia's traditional support for autocratic leaders in its neighborhood. It paid off quickly and dramatically, and it appears to have delivered the Kremlin a rare foreign policy victory.

Not only has Moscow served notice on other wayward autocrats in its back yard -- many of whom also govern Russian-speaking populations that watch Russian television -- it also appears to have gained a greater say over the future of the U.S. air base here, which is critical to supplying the NATO military surge in Afghanistan.

Little more than a year ago, the Kremlin regarded Bakiyev as an ally, promising him more than $2 billion in aid during a visit to Moscow at the height of the global economic crisis.

On the same trip, Bakiyev announced plans to close the U.S. air base, in what was widely seen as an exchange.

Four months later, after Russia had made good on $415 million of its pledge, Bakiyev suddenly agreed to keep the air base open when Washington offered more than three times the original rent. Russian officials, including President Dmitry Medvedev, indicated at the time that they had blessed the decision, but it soon became clear that the Kremlin had been cheated -- and was furious.

"The Russians were upset and angry, not just because of the base but because of his attitude," Tekebayav said.

In November, Russian media reported that Putin upbraided the Kyrgyz prime minister at a summit, asking why the U.S. air base had not been closed and alleging that the Russian aid money had been stolen by Bakiyev's family. In February, Moscow postponed payment of the remaining $1.7 billion of the package, with officials saying publicly that the first tranche had been misused.

In late March, two weeks before the April 7 protests, Russia's Kremlin-friendly television stations and newspapers marked the fifth anniversary of Bakiyev's rise to power in the putsch known as the Tulip Revolution with unusually tough stories about his rule. One paper compared him to Genghis Khan, and Russia's top television station hammered him with multiple reports alleging corruption.

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