Chaos in Kyrgyzstan

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Story by Jeb Sharp, PRI's "The World"

There was more high drama and confusion in the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan last  week. On Wednesday, the opposition seized control of the government amid police clashes with protestors. On Thursday, the ousted president told the BBC that he was still the president. Meanwhile, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin became the first foreign leader to recognize Kyrgyzstan’s new self-proclaimed government. He denied Russia had any role in the unrest. 

The Obama administration is watching closely to see what happens next. The US operates a military base in Kyrgyzstan that’s critical to its operations in Afghanistan.

There was a power vacuum in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, as one government fell and another began to take over. There were reports of looting and as night fell the streets were tense, according to Paul Quinn Judge, Director of the Central Asia Project at the International Crisis Group.

"The center of the city does, however, have rather a large number of people who are clearly not from Bishkek who are clearly not very well off, young males who look as if they are planning something further unpleasant for the evening. The police have disappeared. There are no other military forces on the streets and so this is naturally giving rise to a sense of foreboding."

That sense of foreboding extends well beyond Bishkek. Diplomats and military officials across the region are monitoring the situation to see what happens next. For the United States, Kyrgyzstan matters greatly because of one thing: Afghanistan. 

John Pike, who directs the military information website globalsecurity.org, explains.

"Afghanistan is a mountainous land-locked country. We can get stuff in there by trucks but it’s not easy. Kyrgyzstan has an outstanding air base at Manas that we’ve been using for these years, and I think the United States would like to keep that airbase. It’s a very convenient was of getting stuff into Afghanistan."

The United States almost lost access to the airbase last year when the previous Kyrgyz government, under pressure from Russia, said the US would have to leave. That message came just as Russia gave Kyrgyzstan two billion dollars in aid. But in the end, the Obama administration was able to re-negotiate its lease for nearly quadruple the price.

"We paid the Kyrgyz government a bunch of money to improve the base, a bunch of money to keep the base," said Pike. 'We’ve sort of gotten into a bidding war with the Russians who would just as soon limit our access to that country and to Afghanistan so that we’re dependent on Russia to get our stuff into Afghanistan. I’m afraid that we may get ourselves into a bidding war over this. But at the end of the day, I’m betting that that air field is worth more to the United States than it is to Russia and whatever new government emerges in Kyrgyzstan is going to understand that."

David Trilling, the Central Asia news editor of Eurasianet.org in Bishkek, says  it's clear that the primary US interest in Kyrgyzstan is that base.

"Since 2001 when the United States established a military base here to support operations in Afghanistan, the United States has appeared willing to do absolutely anything to keep that base. That has involved looking the other way repeatedly at corruption, human rights abuses."

Human rights abuses like those of the ousted president, Kurmanbek Bakiev, who was notorious for shutting down independent media and jailing his opponents. Analysts predict the United States will want to stay on good terms with Bakiev’s successors as well, to ensure the future of the base. 

"We all know President Obama would like to get out of Afghanistan very soon, as soon as possible anyway, and he said he does not want anything to affect that schedule," said Paul Quinn Judge of the International Crisis Group. "A loss of the base would affect that schedule, though I’m not implying that the base is in any danger at this moment."

Quinn Judge may not be implying it, but a senior official in Kyrgyzstan’s new self-proclaimed government certainly is. Omurbek Tekebayev said last week, "there is a high probability that the duration of the US air base’s presence in Kyrgyzstan will be shortened."

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