Friday 22 Mar 2019 | 10:03 | SYDNEY
Friday 22 Mar 2019 | 10:03 | SYDNEY

Lending Kyrgyzstan a hand


Ashley Townshend


12 April 2010 14:10

As I argued in a recent post, there are reasons to believe that interim leader Roza Oyunbayeva has what is takes to bring liberal reforms to Kyrgyzstan's troubled political scene. But she cannot do this alone. Helping Oyunbayeva's new regime will require truly constructive engagement by the US.

Over the last decade, there has been little external effort to hold the Kyrgyz Government to account on its democratic credentials. This is not due to a lack of foreign involvement in the country. Rather, geopolitical considerations have got in the way.

Since the war in Afghanistan began, Kyrgyzstan has been an important ally of the US. Crucially, Manas International Airport, in Bishkek, has been leased as a US Air Force base for flying troops and supplies to US and NATO forces operating in Afghanistan. And while the ousted Bakiyev Government succeeded in strong-arming the US into an almost four-fold increase in rent last year, the US has not made any ultimatums to Kyrgyzstan about its pitiful democratic credentials.

Yet in a war that is ostensibly being fought for a minimum baseline of democratic governance, surely these standards ought to be applied to those allies aiding the war effort?

The US should do more to strive for a truly constructive engagement with its fledgling Central Asian ally. It should begin by recognising Otunbayeva's interim leadership, a move which Russia has already made. This should be followed up by a diplomatic campaign designed to hold the Otunbayeva regime true to its democratic ambitions.

This isn't as wildly idealistic as it sounds. There are two reasons why such a policy is feasible.

First, demanding better domestic governance would not upset broader geopolitical interests. Kyrgyzstan cannot disrupt the flow of oil, resources or finance, and 'getting tough' on its leaders will not provoke a wider regional conflagration. Although Russia has in the past sought to undermine US influence in this strategically important Central Asian state, President Dmitry Medvedev appears — at least for now — to be cooperating with the Americans on Kyrgyzstan. 

And as China is 'deeply concerned' by the civil unrest caused by the fall of the Bakiyev regime, it is unlikely that Kyrgyzstan's big neighbours would be overly concerned by such a policy.

Second, it is hard to believe that the US would be thrown out of Kyrgyzstan, even if it did demand political reform as a condition for continued payment of an increasingly expensive airport rent. Put simply, Kyrgyzstan needs the US$110 million a year. And under Obunbayeva's new leadership, there is so far nothing to suggest that the US Air Force base is unwelcome.

External pressure is needed to triumph over a Kyrgyz political system where corruption, self-enrichment and nepotism have been the status quo. This is not a call for neoconservative state-building or idealistic interventionism. But following over a decade of truly grassroots and democratic revolution, Kyrgyzstan is very much a country where the people want change. It is only the old political elite who do not.

In a recent interview, Obunbayeva said, 'I consider power to be an instrument with which to implement a program for the majority of people — and not for oneself or one's own family and relatives.' With luck, and a little help, Obunbayeva will be able to live up to her own ideals.

Photo, of the National Historical Museum in downtown Bishkek, taken by the author in 2009.