Kyrgyzstan was an ally of the US during the 15-year rule of president Askar Aliyev, who was toppled in an unexpected uprising last year. By contrast the new president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was elected on July 10 to replace his predecessor (who had fled the country), has turned to Russia and China for support. Relations between Bakiyev and the US government deteriorated further as a result of Bakiyev's demand last May for a much larger rent for the US military base in the country, and as a result of the mutual expulsion of diplomats. The recent efforts by Washington to improve relations are not unprecedented, but the tactics it normally employs to camouflage its ties with repressive rulers in the Middle East can only be regarded as dubious. One of these tactics is to claim that it is keen to introduce “democracy” or “democratic practice”.
Richard Boucher, the US assistant secretary of state, visited Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, where he met Bakiyev on August 11 for talks aimed ostensibly at improving relations between the two countries. According to Boucher, the involvement of the US in Central Asia aims at the development of “a region of stable democracies between the Middle East and South Asia, between Russia and China, a region that can stand on its own and move forward.” In particular Boucher was explaining the aims of the state department's South and Central Asian Affairs bureau, which he heads. This bureau had been created in angry response to the establishment of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), whose members include Russia,China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. The SCO was interpreted by Washington as a sign of Central Asia's growing resolve to manage its own security. Similarly, Washingtoninterpreted Bishkek's demands as a sign of its determination to stand up to the US. Believing that no such resolve follows from the region's relations with Russia and China, the state department has countered by removing Central Asia from its Eurasia department, which includes Russia and Europe, and putting it in an expanded South and Central Asian Affairs bureau, headed by Boucher.
Setting out to counter Russian and Chinese influence in the region is one thing, but claiming that the purpose of the move is to introduce ‘democracy' is another. The cynical nature of the claim is emphasised by the statement that the US is “disappointed” that Bakiyev has failed both to fulfil his pledge to promote democracy and to take steps to ease poverty and stamp out corruption. The current US government, which has made similar claims for its dealings with Middle Eastern countries, is not interested in relieving the political and economic problems of Central Asian populations as it is not interested in relieving similar problems in the Middle East. Even American experts on the region readily concede this.
According to Martha Brill Olcott, an expert on Central Asia at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the US's priority in Kyrgyzstan is to continue use of the Manas airbase, a key launchpad for military operations in Afghanistan. The base has become even more important for Washington since Uzbekistan ordered the closure of the base at Khanabad last year: it had been the only other base in Central Asia used by the US. Olcott also believes that the expulsion of US diplomats by Bishkek could be explained by the exertion of strong pressure by Russia, which was disappointed by the Kyrgyz president's decision to reach a settlement with Washington over the rent the US pays for its airbase at Manas. The settlement reached in early July concealed the new higher rent in a $150 million package for “assistance and compensation”. Bakiyev had demanded a rent-increase from $2 million to $200 million.
Negotiations for a settlement began in July 2005 after Bakiyev had demanded the increase. The president, who has no disinclination to rent bases even to the US government, was forced by the fact that not only was his country's economic situation deteriorating but also that the war in Afghanistan was becoming more complex and was expected to take much longer. He had no doubt in his mind that the US, which uses its base to launch attacks on Afghanistan, would pay up. But Washington also knew that it could not be forced to pay the full amount as long as it raised the rent substantially, given the fact that Bishkek was desperate for funds; hence the dual agreement on the $150-million package. That the increase in rent was disguised is no surprise: the US government must have been eager to save face.
But the conclusion of the settlement did not prevent Bishkek from expelling two US diplomats on July 11: they were accused of “inappropriate contact” with local non-governmental organisations (NGOs). It is this decision to expel the US diplomats that Olcott attributes to Russian anger at the settlement. But the US response to the expulsion of its diplomats came, nevertheless, in early August when the state department declared persona non grata two Kyrgyz diplomats working in Washington.
However, the dispute over spying should not be taken too seriously. Russia, China and the US have an agreement to fight “Islamic terrorism” in Central Asia, to which rulers in the region (such as Bakiyev) are also party. Spying on Islamic groups there and on others elsewhere who are suspected of having links with them is part and parcel of the agreement. But this does not change the fact that Washington has let loose its spying agencies, like the CIA, on many countries – particularly Muslim ones – and that even US courts are finding their activities distasteful. US supreme court decisions in recent months have declared unconstitutional some of the Bush administration's measures (such as detention of Muslims in Guantanamo Bay).
Given the countless deaths caused by the US military in Iraq, Afghanistan and other Muslim countries, it is not surprising that most Muslims in Central Asia do not believe that Washington is engaged in bringing ‘democracy’ or prosperity to them, as it claims. Nor is it surprising that they see in the US's shenanigans an implacable enmity to themselves, their interests and theirdeen.