Events have yet to run their full course in Kyrgyzstan, but the revolution that began on Wednesday already serves as a powerful indictment of U.S. policy in this part of Central Asia.
Desperate to retain a Kyrgyz air base that supports NATO operations in Afghanistan, and to create a new "antiterrorist center" in the country's remote southern region, the United States became an enabler of Kyrgyzstan's president, Kurmanbek Bakiev, whose regime murdered and tortured its opponents. The United States enriched the Bakiev family by awarding contracts for the supply of goods to the air base to companies tied to the Kyrgyz president. For Bakiev, the most welcome international reaction to last summer's deeply flawed presidential election in Kyrgyzstan was the delayed and muted response of the American government.
Once the champion of an open society in Kyrgyzstan, the United States under Presidents Bush and Obama abandoned the critics of the Bakiev regime to their fate. In more than 35 interviews with Kyrgyz politicians and nongovernmental organization leaders during the last two years, I heard one abiding refrain: The United States had disengaged from the internal forces for change in Kyrgyzstan. As I wrote in these pages last summer, more than a year after her arrival in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, the American ambassador, Tatiana Gfoeller, had still not found time to meet prominent opposition leaders. Leaders of NGOs sympathetic to Western values found themselves shunned by the American Embassy.
Developments in the coming days and weeks will reveal more clearly the causes and consequences of the April revolution in Kyrgyzstan. Among the factors contributing to the revolution were the unconstitutional concentration of powers in the president's personal office; the granting of broad authority over the economy to Bakiev's son, Maxim, who was tied to organized crime; the idle hands of much of the young male population; a recent rise in utility rates that outraged an already impoverished population; the widening repression against politicians and journalists who opposed the regime; and the attitude of Russia.
One mystery to be unraveled is the extent of Russia's role in encouraging the revolt. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has denied any Russian involvement, but the Russian government began to pressure the Bakiev regime weeks ago. State-controlled television in Moscow broadcast a report on March 23 that was harshly critical of corruption and nepotism in Kyrgyzstan. Another signal of Russia's displeasure was its imposition earlier this month of new duties on the export of petroleum products to Kyrgyzstan, which was bound to cause additional pain to an already struggling economy.
Russia's disenchantment with Kyrgyzstan had several sources, but the most decisive was Bakiev's failure to follow through with his promise to expel the United States from the air base outside the Kyrgyz capital, a promise made immediately after receiving $2 billion in aid last year from Russia. After extending the lease to the Americans, Bakiev sought to assuage Moscow by granting the Russians a second base in Kyrgyzstan, this one in the country's volatile south. But as negotiations on that base floundered, Bakiev announced yet another concession to the United States: the opening of an American "antiterrorist center" in the southern region of Batken.
The Kyrgyz opposition, now the functioning government in the country, has taken careful note of who its friends are. In an interview on Wednesday, Omurbek Tekebaev, the leader of the country's largest opposition party, harshly attacked the United States for its policies toward Kyrgyzstan. "Today," he said, "I blame the Americans for their double standards." Although the interim leader of Kyrgyzstan, Roza Otunbaeva, has indicated a willingness to respect the provisions of the current lease on the American base outside Bishkek, popular anger against the United States for its close ties with the Bakiev regime will complicate relations.
Allowing basing rights to marginalize all other dimensions of American foreign policy in former Soviet Central Asia has seriously undermined the moral authority and political influence of the United States in the region. The triumph of wartime tactics over a broad and consistent strategy of engagement with governments and societies in Central Asia has disillusioned a generation of local reformers and left the United States ill-positioned to compete with the region's rising hegemons, Russia and China.
Eugene Huskey is William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Political Science and Director of Russian Studies at Stetson University in DeLand. The author of more than a dozen articles and book chapters on Kyrgyzstan, he spent five weeks of the last two years in Kyrgyzstan interviewing members of the opposition.