The Overthrow in Kyrgyzstan Was a Really Big Deal -- It's a Huge Loss for America in the Global Power Game
This is not how color revolutions are supposed to turn out. In the Ukraine, the "Orange" revolution of 2004 has had a slow painful death. In Georgia, the "Rose" revolution of 2003 seems to be in the throes of what increasingly appears to be a terminal illness.
Now in Kyrgyzstan, the "Tulip" revolution of 2005 is taking another most unforeseen turn. It is mutating and in the process something terrible is happening to its DNA. A color revolution against a regime backed by the United States was not considered possible until this week. Indeed, how could such a thing happen, when it was the US that invented color revolutions to effect regime change in countries outside its sphere of influence?
What can one call the color revolution in Kyrgyzstan this week? No one has yet thought up a name. Usually, the US sponsors have a name readily available. Last year in Iran it was supposed to have been the "Twitter" revolution.
It is highly unlikely that President Kurmanbek Bakiyev will retain his job. Aside from Washington, no major capital is demanding reconciliation between him and the Kyrgyz revolutionaries.
Evidently, there has been a massive breakdown in US diplomacy in Central Asia. Things were going rather well lately until this setback. For the first time it seemed Washington had succeeded in the Great Game by getting a grip on the Kyrgyz regime, though the achievement involved a cold-blooded jettisoning of all norms of democracy, human rights and rule of law that the US commonly champions. By all accounts, Washington just bought up the Bakiyev family lock stock and barrel, overlooking its controversial record of misuse of office.
According to various estimates, the Bakiyev family became a huge beneficiary of contracts dished out by the Pentagon ostensibly for providing supplies to the US air base in Manas near the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek.
This is a practice that the US fine-tuned in Afghanistan, originally to patronize and bring on board important political personalities on the fractured Afghan chessboard. In Kyrgyzstan, the game plan was relatively simple, as there were not many people to be patronized. Some estimates put the figure that the Pentagon awarded last year to businesses owned by members of the Bakiyev family as US$80 million.
Just one look at the map of Central Asia shows why the US determined that $80 million annually was a small price to pay to establish its predominance in Kyrgyzstan. The country is one of the most valuable pieces of real estate in the geopolitics of the region.
Kyrgyzstan borders China's Xinjiang Autonomous Region. Some time ago there was a whispering campaign which said the Manas base, projected as the main supply base for US troops in Afghanistan, had highly sophisticated electronic devices installed by the Pentagon that could "peep" into Xinjiang where key Chinese missile sites are located.
Besides, a sizeable Uyghur community lives in Kyrgyzstan and almost 100,000 ethnic Kyrgyz live in Xinjiang. Kyrgyzstan surely holds the potential to be a base camp for masterminding activities aimed at destabilizing the situation in Xinjiang.
Furthermore, southern Kyrgyzstan lies adjacent to the Ferghana Valley, which is historically the cradle of Islamist radicalism in the region. The militant groups based in Afghanistan and Pakistan often transit through Kyrgyzstan while heading for the Ferghana Valley. In the Andijan riots in Uzbekistan in 2005, militant elements based in southern Kyrgyzstan most certainly played a major role.
At a time when the Afghan endgame is increasingly in sight, involving the US's reconciliation with the Taliban in some form or the other, Kyrgyzstan assumes the nature of a pivotal state in any US strategy toward the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) into Central Asia.
To put it differently, for any US strategy to use political Islam to bring about regime change in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in the future, Kyrgyzstan would be extremely valuable. Like Georgia in the Caucasus, Kyrgyzstan's significance lies not in its natural resources such as oil or natural gas, but in its extraordinary geographical location, which enables it to modulate regional politics.
A challenge lies ahead for US diplomacy in the weeks and months ahead. Although Roza Otunbayeva, the head of the interim government, said on Thursday that as far as bases were concerned "the status quo would remain", this could change at any moment. At the least, the annual rent of about $60 million the US pays to use the base could be renegotiated.
Otunbayeva was foreign minister before the "Tulip" revolution and she also served in various positions during the Soviet era. Kyrgyzstan is also home to a Russian base. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was the first world leader to recognize the legitimacy of the new government in Bishkek. The affinity to Moscow is clear.
Also in doubt is whether the new regime in Bishkek will want to pursue Washington's military assistance, especially the setting up of a counter-terrorism center in the southern city of Batken near the Ferghana Valley. This includes the stationing of American military advisors on Kyrgyz soil, not far from the Chinese border.
Clearly, the US pressed ahead too rashly with its diplomacy. On the one hand, it came down from its high pedestal of championing the cause of democracy, rule of law and good governance by backing Bakiyev, whose rule lately had become notorious for corruption, cronyism and authoritarian practices, as well as serious economic mismanagement. (It will look cynical indeed if Washington once again tries to paint itself as a champion of democratic values in the Central Asian region.)
On the other hand, US diplomacy has seriously destabilized Kyrgyzstan. From its position as a relatively stable country in the region as of 2005, when the "Tulip" revolution erupted, it has now sunk to the bottom of the table for political stability, dropping below Tajikistan. An entire arc stretching from Pakistan and Afghanistan to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan has now become highly volatile.
In all likelihood, we have not heard the end of the story of this week's riots in Kyrgyzstan in which about 40 people were killed and 400 others injured. The old north-south divide in Kyrgyzstan has reappeared and it is significant that Bakiyev fled from Bishkek, reportedly to his power base in the southern city of Osh. The south is predominately ethnic Uzbek. Some very astute political leadership is needed in Bishkek in the dangerous times ahead if Kyrgyzstan's ethnic divide were not to lead to a breakdown of the country's unity. The country's population is about 65% Kyrgyz (Sunni Muslim), with about 14% ethnic Uzbek.
Besides, the Islamists are waiting in the wings to take advantage of any such catastrophic slide. The socio-economic situation in Kyrgyzstan already looks very grim. All the ingredients of protracted internecine strife are available. Kyrgyzstan is dangerously sliding toward becoming the first "failing state" in the post-Soviet space.
The biggest danger is that the instability may seep into the Ferghana Valley and affect Uzbekistan. There is a hidden volcano there in an unresolved question of nationality that lurks just below the surface, with the sizeable ethnic Uzbek population in southern Kyrgyzstan at odds with the local ethnic Kyrgyz community.
It remains unclear whether there has been any form of outside help for the Kyrgyz opposition. But there is a touch of irony that the regime change in Bishkek took place on the same day that US President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart President Dmitry Medvedev met at Prague Castle. On Thursday, they signed the first major US-Russia arms control pact of the post-Cold War era, which is supposed to set in motion the "reset" of relations between the two countries.
Indeed, the first litmus test of "reset" might be Obama seeking Medvedev's help to make sure the US does not get evicted from Manas, at least until his AfPak policy reaches its turning point in July 2011, when the first drawdown of US troops is expected. If Obama were to take Medvedev's help, color revolutions as such would have in essence become a common heritage of the US and Russia. One side sows the seeds and the other side reaps the harvest - and vice versa.
But it will be a bitter pill for Washington to swallow. The Russians have all along mentioned their special interests in the former Soviet republics and the US has been adamant that it will not concede any acknowledgement of Moscow's privileges. Now to seek Moscow's helping hand to retain its influence in Kyrgyzstan will be a virtual about-turn for Washington. Also, Moscow is sure to expect certain basic assurances with regard to the creeping NATO expansion into the Caucasus and Central Asia.
As the recent first-ever regional tour of Central Asia by the US's special representative for Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke, testified, Washington was just about to accelerate the process of expanding the scope of AfPak into the strategic region bordering Russia and China. Holbrooke ominously spoke of an al-Qaeda threat to Central Asia, suggesting that NATO had a role to play in the region in its capacity as the only viable security organization that could take on such a high-risk enterprise of chasing Osama bin Laden in the steppes and the killer deserts of Kizil Kum and Kara Kum.
Holbrooke's tour - followed immediately after by the intensive two-day consultations in Bishkek by the US Central Command chief, David Petraeus - didn't, conceivably, go unnoticed in the concerned regional capitals. But as of now, the US's entire future strategy in Central Asia is up in the air.