The Cost of Realism
BISHKEK, KYRGYZSTAN For anyone who has witnessed the slow erosion of democracy in Russia over the past decade, seeing Prime Minister Vladimir Putin win the public relations war over the recent revolution in Kyrgyzstan has been nothing short of maddening. Commenting on the violent ouster of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who fled the country last week after violent riots protesting his corrupt and oppressive rule, Putin said he could “remember that when President Bakiyev came to power, he harshly criticized toppled President [Askar] Akaev for nepotism and giving his relatives or friends top economic and political posts at every corner. I have the impression that Bakiyev has fallen into the same trap.” Coming from the leader who serves as the 21st-century model for budding authoritarians around the world, laments the collapse of the Soviet Union, and routinely orders the police to break up the smallest of peaceful protests, it’s hard to take these sentiments seriously.
However strange this narrative of newfound Russian respect for human rights may seem, however, it has gained currency here in Kyrgyzstan, where it is Moscow that is viewed as a benign force and Washington derided as the imperialist bully. “In the most dramatic days of our lives, we never got any support and words of sympathy,” Roza Otunbaeva, the leader of the country’s interim government, told the Washington Post about the most recent drama in Kyrgyzstan’s complicated relationship with America. It’s easy to criticize the U.S. position in Kyrgyzstan as one of hypocrisy and turning a blind eye to authoritarianism. But doing so ignores both the hard choices Washington faces and the reality of American involvement here.
Otunbaeva is no Soviet holdover; a former ambassador to the United States and the United Kingdom, she is widely considered to be one of Kyrgyzstan’s most Western-oriented leaders. “You came to us to help us build democracy,” she said, “and then just one day, you put your hands over your mouth just to have a base.” The base that she refers to is not just any American military waypoint but rather the Transit Center at Manas. Most American soldiers traveling to and from Afghanistan fly through it. Aerial refueling tankers are parked at Manas, and some 20 percent of military cargo on its way to theater passes through. Manas’s already vital strategic value rose even higher in 2005, when neighboring Uzbekistan evicted the Karshi-Khanabad air base, leaving Manas as the sole station in the region servicing coalition forces in Afghanistan.
Kyrgyzstan is the only country in the world to host both American and Russian military bases. This is an increasingly tenuous position, but it is something that Bakiyev milked for maximum value. Last February, four months after Russia agreed to give Kyrgyzstan $2 billion in economic aid in the middle of the global economic crisis, Bakiyev announced that he, too, would evict the Americans from his country. The Kremlin’s fingerprints were all over that decision; Putin had repeatedly expressed his displeasure at what he believes to be American meddling in Russia’s post-Soviet sphere of influence, and with Manas in particular. But when the United States offered to pay more than three times as much in “rent” for use of the land on which the facility lies, Bakiyev backed down. It was only a matter of time before Russian media, hugely influential in a country where most people speak the language, began airing virulent attacks on Bakiyev, highlighting the heretofore unmentioned corruption and repression it had conveniently ignored while the leader was deemed pliable to Russian diktats.
In other words, it was Bakiyev’s unwillingness to go along with Moscow that made him persona non grata at the Kremlin, not his abysmal human rights record or doling out of jobs and lucrative contracts to family members. There’s no doubt that had Bakiyev followed through with his threat to shut down Manas, he would have been lauded by Moscow as an independent and brave leader and enjoyed the same warm support from Russia as his fellow Central Asian despots, who are far more repressive than he.
Unfortunately, this dynamic does not seem to be understood on the streets of Bishkek. While some of the political elite comprehend the importance of close ties with the United States, this is not a view shared by the majority of ordinary Kyrgyz people whom I interviewed. A young man who participated in last week’s riots told me of his fears that Kyrgyzstan will become a target for terrorists because of the base, and another said that Kyrgyzstan, while presently an ally of the U.S., might soon become an enemy, just like the erstwhile American friend Saddam Hussein. This suspicious sentiment is partly due to Russia’s influence in the country (an estimated 1 million ethnic Kyrgyz, nearly 20 percent of the population, work in Russia, sending remittances that account for about a third of the Kyrgyz economy back home). But it can also be traced to a general perception, shared by some in the West, that America views Kyrgyzstan as little more than a pawn in the game of great power politics. Writing on the website of Foreign Policy magazine, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch said that for Washington, supplying 83,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan is obviously a higher priority than the internal problems of a small, remote country like Kyrgyzstan.
But the simple fact is that the war against the Taliban would be made immeasurably more difficult were the Manas air base to close. Insofar as the Taliban returning to power in Afghanistan would be a disaster for the people of that country and present a haven for al-Qaeda, ensuring a stable government there is not just an American concern but also a global one. And Bishkek has its own national interests in this realm as well. In the immediate years prior to 9/11, militants from the Islamist Movement of Uzbekistan, a terrorist group sheltered by the Taliban, launched multiple attacks into southern Kyrgyzstan. That doesn’t mean that the domestic problems of Kyrgyzstan are not important. But fixing them (something that is largely the responsibility of the Kyrgyz people themselves and beyond the seemingly awesome powers of the United States)cannot come at the expense of eliminating a vital supply line to Afghanistan.
Moreover, it isn’t true that the United States government was fully behind Bakiyev, a complaint I often heard on the streets. Last year’s State Department Human Rights report strongly criticized Bakiyev’s regime for a variety of abuses, including “restrictions on citizens’right to change their government,” “arbitrary arrest and detention,” and “pervasive corruption.” U.S.-government-funded organizations like the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute have long supported democracy-building and civil-society programs. Perhaps most significant of all has been Radio Azattyk, the Kyrgyz-language service of the congressionally funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which is the most trusted news outlet in the country thanks to its coverage of corruption, human rights violations, and everyday political developments. Nearly every person I speak to in Kyrgyzstan beams at the mention of its name. Indicative of this popularity is that the morning after Bakiyev escaped to the south, the chief of Azattyk’s Bishkek bureau became head of state television.
Nonetheless, the most important lesson to be learned from the events in Kyrgyzstan this past week is that supporting authoritarianism, no matter how valid the excuses, comes with a cost. This is something that everyone, especially “realists” who say that regime type should be irrelevant in the determination of foreign policy, ought to acknowledge. Soft-pedaling criticism of dictators who assist this or that American foreign policy objective, whether it be hosting a military base or supplying us with oil, may bring promised “stability,” but it is always illusory. As the behavior of Kurmanbek Bakiyev demonstrated, authoritarians are by their nature irrational and unpredictable. Worse, when an authoritarian regime falls, the people who take over naturally feel resentment toward anyone who supported those who oppressed them.
The importance of the Manas Transit Center to the ongoing mission in Afghanistan is not a tangible concern to the average Kyrgyz citizen, who has had to deal with the far more pressing issues of poverty, government corruption, deteriorating infrastructure, and the lack of open political channels through which to express frustrations with these systemic problems. The country’s interim government has promised elections in six months, and over the past two weeks the United States has been frantically trying to win assurances that it will be able to keep Manas open. But that won’t matter if the people here decide that America’s quiet support for the regime that oppressed them ought to come with a price. I can’t forget the man in a Bishkek bar who, upon discovering I’m American, kept wagging his finger at me and repeating that “money doesn’t buy relationships.” Now that Kyrgyzstan is on a shaky path to democracy, convincing its people to support our shared international objectives in Afghanistan is not something that will be so easily purchased.