Kyrygzstan’s “Second Tulip Revolution” & Russia’s Role in the Tournament of Shadows

On March 8 Kyrgyzstan’s “Second Tulip Revolution” toppled the dictatorship of President Kermanbek Bakiyev after a two-day rising that was sparked by electricity price increases and the arrests of opposition leaders. Unlike the Rose and Orange “revolutions” of Georgia and Ukraine  that were directed against Russian domination, Kyrgyzstan’s “Second Tulip Revolution” enjoyed Moscow’s strong support. Veteran opposition leader Roza Otunbayeva announced that a new provisional government had taken control of Kyrgyzstan and promised to lead the nation to a new era of constitutional reform and democracy. One day later (March 9) Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin recognized Ms. Otunbayeva’s government, offered aid to the new regime and transferred troops to the capital city of Bishkek to protect Russian soldiers and families at Kant air base. Russia’s immediate recognition of the new regime stunned the United States and sent a strong signal to Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and China that any interference in Kyrgyzstan would be frowned upon in Moscow. The sudden turn of events in Kyrgyzstan underscores Russia’s determination to reassert its hegemony over Central Asia, the Caucuses and its “Near Abroad.” With the electoral victory of Ukraine’s pro-Russian president Victor Yanukovich in February and the Georgian secessionist wars that returned South Ossetia and Abkhazia to Russia’s sphere of influence, the Kremlin is flexing its muscle and rebuilding great power nationalism. The overthrow of Baktiyev’s regime has also shaken up Central Asia’s other dictators, disrupted the United States logistical buildup for its summer offensive in Kandahar and left China with a potential civil war on its border. Indeed, the Second Tulip Revolution has touched off a dangerous round of contention in the “Tournament of Shadows”–the “Great Game” of military and political rivalry between the United States, Russia, China, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and NATO over control of Central Asia and its vast energy resources.

Ironically the Kyrgyz rising occurred while President Obama was in Prague to sign the New START Treaty with President Medvedev. Obama was briefed on the revolt and the temporary suspension of U.S. operations at Kyrgyzstan’s Manas airbase–the central transit point to airlift American soldiers and supplies to Afghanistan. Taking refuge at his family compound in southern Kyrgyzstan the deposed Bakiyev refused to resign the presidency or accept safe passage out of the country. Instead he called on the United Nations to send peace keeping forces to prevent the country from splintering into a civil war—a civil war he now seeks to provoke. The Second Tulip Revolution is now entering a decisive phase to consolidate power. Roza Otunbayeva’s coalition is weak but slowly gaining control of the army, border guards and police forces in Bishkek, Osh and Jalalabad. Her most formidable obstacle to restoring authority is placing former President Baktiyev under arrest or forcing him into exile. While Baktiyev’s return to power is highly unlikely his presence in Kyrgyzstan has the potential to inflame longstanding sectional divisions between southern and northern Kyrgyz and between its Uzbek minority (15% of population) the Kyrgyz majority. As the co-leader of Kyrgyzstan’s 2005 Tulip Revolution that brought Baktiyev to power, Otunbayeva knows her only hope to stabilize the new provisional government is to undertake sweeping democratic reforms. To that end Otunbayeva has set a six-month deadline to amend the constitution, transfer more power from the presidency to the parliament, increase the authority of the provinces, end nepotism and bring transparency to the government’s contracting process. In throwing its weight behind Otunbayeva’s coalition, Russia is undertaking a risky enterprise of underwriting a democratic revolution that far exceeds the freedoms it grants its own citizens and its other client states in Central Asia.                     

The Kyrgyz rising presented Russia with its best opportunity to finally gain the leverage it needs to force the closing the U.S. air base at Manas—one of its strategic objectives in driving American influence out of Central Asia. In 2009 Russia negotiated a deal with Bakiyev to close Manas in exchange for $150 million in aid and a $2 billion loan. But months later Bakiyev reversed his decision on Manas when the United States increased its rent from $17 million to $62 million along with $150 million in other concessions. Russia was infuriated at Bakiyev. With Roza Otunbayeva’s ascendancy to power Putin and Medvedev now have a trusted ally leading Kyrgyzstan. In the midst of the takeover in Bishkek Otunbayeva’s first phone call was to Vladimir Putin. Two days later she dispatched a delegation to Moscow Friday for talks with senior Russian officials headed by Almaz Atambayev, her first deputy minister. A fluent speaker of English and Russian, Otunbayeva attended Moscow State University in the 1970’s before climbing up the ladder of the old Soviet Communist Party. Having served as Kyrgyzstan’s foreign minister and ambassador to the United States and the United Kingdom, Otunbayeva is a serious political force in her own right. Just two days after the provisional government took power in Kyrgyzstan, Otunbayeva stated that the terms of the U.S. Manas airbase lease would be reviewed and possibly amended. It wasn’t until Monday March 12 that Otunbayeva assured U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake that her government would honor the lease agreement for the next year. However the lease that expires in 2014 must be renewed annually, therefore Kyrgyzstan can revoke the agreement before 2014. It is doubtful that the Kyrgyz government will cancel the Manas agreement in the short run. The new government desperately needs the revenue generated by the lucrative Manas lease. It is also in Russia’s interests that the United States militarily cripples the Taliban in Afghanistan to the greatest extent possible before scheduled U.S. troop withdrawals begin in 2011. Russia wants to insure that the Taliban does not come to power on its southern perimeter and ignite a wave of Islamic extremism amongst its 20 million Muslims. The March 31 terrorist bombing last week in Dagestan that killed twelve people at a Russian security facility was a stark reminder that the potential for Muslim extremists attacks from Chechnya to Moscow are highly destabilizing to Russia’s authoritarian powers.        

For Russia and the United States the stakes of what happens next in Kyrgyzstan are high. Kyrgyzstan’s Second Tulip Revolution is a warning to both countries of the dangers of supporting dictators against the legitimate aspirations of the people. Kyrgyzstan has been a pawn in the ongoing power struggle over Central Asia between the U.S. and Russia and between competing Central Asian nations for the past two decades. More than any other Central Asian nation Kyrgyzstan has attempted to build a more democratic and independent nation. It was the first Central Asian nation in 1991 to elect a non-communist president (Askar Akayev) in the post-Soviet era, the first to have multi-party democratic elections in 1995, and the first Central Asian nation to enter the World Trade Organization in 1998 to liberalize its economy. Those democratic efforts were systematically undermined by Russia by cutting off all funding to Kyrgyzstan when it gained independence. For the United States Kyrgyzstan has been nothing more than an air supply base to support its war in Afghanistan and a forward military outpost to project power on Russia and China’s doorstep. Threatened by Kyrgyzstan’s turn to the West, neighboring Kazahkstan cut off oil and gas shipments to Bishkek in 2000. Uzbekistan supported a rebellion of the Uzbek minority in Southern Kyrgyzstan that pushed the country to the brink of civil war. And China relentlessly pressured the Kyrgyz government to crack down on its minority Uighur Muslim minority that it claimed was supporting Chinese Uighur insurgents in Xinjaing Province.

Despite the efforts of the all the countries that have sought to trample on Kyrgyzstan’s sovereignty in their struggle for supremacy in energy rich Central Asia, the Kyrgyz people have continued to rebel against foreign domination. Homegrown dictators have fared even worse. For the moment, Roza Utunbayeva and  Kyrgyzstan’s new leadership are tilting toward Moscow. Likewise, Russia has moved decisively to back the new regime in hopes of regaining control of its former republic to blunt U.S. interests in Central Asia. Utunbayeva and Putin may have grabbed the Kyrgyzstan tiger by the tail. But history suggests holding on to it is quite another matter. We have not heard the last from the people of Kyrgyzstan. There will be more to come in Central Asia’s “Tournament of Shadows.”

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