By Philip P. Pan
Monday, April 12, 2010; A01
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.
Much of the coverage focused on Bakiyev's son, Maksim, whom he appointed to lead an economic development agency and who had become a lightning rod for opposition charges of nepotism and embezzlement.
In addition to the reversal on the U.S. base, analysts said, the Kremlin turned against Bakiyev because he tried to bring China into a Russian deal to build a hydroelectric dam and to extract rent from Moscow for a Russian air base in Kyrgyzstan. Russian leaders were also upset that Bakiyev's family was buying gasoline from Russia at special prices and selling it to the air base, a scheme worth as much as $80 million per year, Russian media reported.
Alexander Knyazev, a political analyst here with ties to a Moscow think tank, said people began to worry that the Kremlim might expel the estimated 1 million Kyrgyz migrants who work in Russia and send money home to their families. The remittances account for as much as a third of the Kyrgyz economy and at least half of the government's budget, he said.
"Bakiyev was spoiling the relationship, and people saw it," he said. "That's how this protest mood got started."
After the opposition announced plans for nationwide protests, Putin provided a final spark by signing a decree March 29 eliminating subsidies on gasoline exports to Kyrgyzstan and other former Soviet republics that had not joined a new customs union.
When the tariffs kicked in April 1, Russian fuel shipments to Kyrgyzstan were suspended, said Bazarbai Mambetov, president of a Kyrgyz oil traders association. Within days, gas prices in Bishkek began to climb, enraging residents already angry about sharp increases in utility fees.
As the Kremlin leaned on Bakiyev, it also consulted the opposition, hosting its leaders on visits to Moscow, including in the days before the protests. On the eve of the demonstrations, the Kyrgyz prime minister accused one, Temir Sariev, of telling police that he had met with Putin and had won his support for efforts to overthrow Bakiyev.
Sariev, now the interim finance minister, said he never met Putin or told police any such thing. "But I did meet privately with friends," he acknowledged with a smile. "We did discuss the situation in Kyrgyzstan."
Tekebayev, second in command of the interim administration, said Russia's actions were important because they signaled to government officials that Bakiyev could not stay in office, undermining his support in key ministries and regions when the opposition seized control.
"The Russians used to work only with those in power in the former Soviet Union," he added. "But in the last year, they started developing relations with the opposition, like the Americans and Europeans. I think, for the first time, this approach was a success for them."