Tipping the board in Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan’s ex-president Bakiev had not delivered on his promise to Russia to close the American airbase at Manas, Arkady Dubnov reminds us. But the Kremlin did not depose him. In Central Asia, Russia looks to other ways of tipping the board...
Arkady Dubnov
14 April 2010

The President of Kyrgyzstan was deposed by a rebellious crowd. To the complete satisfaction of Moscow.

The question as to whether the Russian leadership was interested in the removal of the Kyrgyzstan President Kurmanbek Bakiev from the political scene seems at the very least to be rhetorical. The answer is yes, of course.

But was Moscow involved in the recent events in this small Central Asian country, when after 6-7 April Bakiev and his allies fled from the Kyrgyz capital and found a refuge in his native village several kilometers from the southern Oblast center of Kyrgyzstan, Jalalabad? While the answer is less clear, to most analysts, including this author, it looks as if it is no: Moscow was not involved.

But the fact that both of these “nos” do not contradict each other is not remotely surprising. Russia certainly has interests in Kyrgyzstan. But that does not mean that Moscow was prepared to go as far as to remove Bakiev’s regime from power. The Kremlin’s policy in Central Asia may be inconsistent; it may be based on double or even triple standards. It is certainly motivated by the interests of certain financial and industrial groups, and it ignores the needs the vast Russian-speaking diasporas in these regions. But even if the Russian leadership had wanted to carry out an operation of this kind in Kyrgyzstan, it would simply not have been able to do so.

Today, Moscow not only lacks the political will for this (even though since the Georgia war of August 2008 such a will has been ascribed to it). It also lacks the resources. Moscow is incapable of carrying out any act of provocation, such as the one that took place on 6 April in the northwest Kyrgyz city of Talas, which served as a trigger to the catastrophic events that led to Kurmanbek Bakiev fleeing the capital.

The fact that President Bakiev himself denied Russian intervention, along with the leaders of the temporary government of Kyrgyzstan, is not the main proof of this, but it is very telling.

What does intervention mean?

However, to start with, we need to define what “intervention” means... If they chose to, conspiracy theorists might understand this to include certain crucial actions taken by the Russian authorities, which were likely to make the Kyrgyz population a great deal more dissatisfied with Bakiev’s government.

For example, on 1 April, a week before the rebellion began, Moscow introduced 100% export duties on sales of petrol and diesel fuel to Kyrgyzstan, on the pretext that middle men in Kyrgyzstan were re-exporting these goods abroad. Of course this led to a drastic increase in the price of fuel for consumers in Kyrgyzstan. Incidentally, immediately after Bakiev fled, Moscow cancelled these measures.

Moscow’s dissatisfaction with Bakiev’s rule was clearly demonstrated by the unprecedented campaign in the Russian media, which focused on a major scandal connected with the issue of an arrest warrant in Italy for a Russian-born financier with an American passport, Yevgeny Gurevich.

Last year, Gurevich became chief financial consultant to President Bakiev’s younger son, 32-year-old Maxim. The press, and above all Russian television, which has for a long time forborne to criticize close allies in the CIS without Kremlin approval, described in considerable detail how Bishkek had blocked a number of Russian Internet resources which gave the subject a great deal of space. There were even official protests by the Kyrgyzstan Foreign Ministry towards Moscow.

It’s the airbases, stupid!

But the main reason for the Russian leadership’s dissatisfaction with Bakiev is an open secret. He failed to fulfill the public promises he made in February 2009 in Moscow to remove the American airbase Manas, which is stationed at Bishkek airport. As an advance on this decision, effectively, the Kremlin gave Bishkek a grant of $150 million, and a further $300 million as a privileged loan. This money helped balance the Kyrgyz budget, and ensured that the presidential election was held in July. Kurmanbek Bakiev won this election which, according to reports by independent observers, contained serious falsifications.

About two months ago, representatives of the Russian embassy in Bishkek found that most of the Russian financial aid had been stolen by people close to Bakiev’s son Maxim. At the same time, government sources in Moscow reported that the issue of loan of $1.7 billion for the construction of the Kambarata-1 hydroelectric station in Kyrgyzstan was being postponed until a detailed inspection of construction was carried out. This was another clear signal of dissatisfaction.

Moscow was also dissatisfied with the breakdown of the agreement with Bishkek on plans to station a second Russian military base in the south of Kyrgyzstan. In the middle of last year, both parties prepared a draft agreement on this, but the plan went no further. Instead, a month ago, it was learned that Washington planned to equip a training centre in the south of Kyrgyzstan for Kyrgyz commandos, at a cost of $5.5 million. This news, which was confirmed by official sources in Washington, clearly caused irritation in Moscow.

So it is not surprising that on the next morning after Kurmanbek Bakiev fled Bishkek, on 8 April, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin called the head of the temporary government of Kyrgyzstan Roza Otunbaeva, and offered to provide the new government with whatever assistance it needed. Putin also criticized Bakiev, in his customary style, comparing the way he had involved his family in government with the rule of Askar Akaev, as if to say that Bakiev was making the same mistakes.

Several days ago, Roza Otunbaeva’s deputy Almazbek Atambaev, who is responsible for the economy in the temporary government, came to Moscow. He is expected in the Russian capital again in several days’ time to discuss Russia’s offer of humanitarian aid to Kyrgyzstan.

How events in Kyrgyzstan develop from now on depends primarily on how quickly the issue of Kurmanbek Bakiev’s official resignation as president is decided. In his native village in the south of the country, he offered to relinquish his powers in exchange for a guarantee of safety for himself and his family. He is not prepared to meet the demands of the temporary government to return to the country’s capital of Bishkek. In a country where family and clan ties have such colossal importance, it is very difficult to foresee how the issue of removing the president and his circle from power will be resolved. At any rate, it is difficult to believe that he could return to the presidential palace in Bishkek. Bakiev’s predecessor as president of Kyrgyzstan, Askar Akaev, a physicist by profession, returned to Russia to work as a teacher. Now he gives lectures to students at Moscow’s State University.

The rule of Kyrgyzstan’s second president has ended even more ingloriously than that of his predecessor.

Arkady Dubnov is the international editor of daily newspaper Vremya Novostei (www.vremya.ru). He specialises in Central Asia

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