Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Latent Cold War

Well, how quaint.

Days after meeting Russian President Dmitriy Medvedev, it became official that Kyrgyzstan's lame duck President Kurmanbek Bakiev has decided to close the U.S. Air Base near Kyrgyzstan's capital Bishkek. According to the Los Angeles Times, Russia promised Kyrgyzstan a package consisting of a $150 million aid grant, a $2 billion loan on highly favorable terms, as well as cancellation of the Central Asian state's $180 million debt. Oh, and on top of that is assistance in building a hydroelectric power plant, which will partly help Kyrgyzstan wean off its reliance on neighboring Uzbekistan for energy.

So, after the recent flurry of rumors swirling around the imminent closure of the U.S. Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan, it appears that closure is the name of the game after all. This is a key development in international affairs, for Moscow's, er, Bishkek’s successful shutting down of the U.S. base in this strategic Central Asian country--indeed, one very close to Afghanistan--means that the U.S. will lose its only base in all of Central Asia.

Russia already has a base in Kyrgyzstan. It is located in Kant—not too far from the site of the U.S. Manas base. In six months, Russia's base will be the only one left in this Central Asian state.

The U.S. was paying Kyrgyzstan millions of dollars per annum for using the base, but apparently Russia's terms were too sweet to pass up.

With the next presidential elections in Kyrgyzstan due sometime next year, a lot can change until then. But don't expect Moscow's support to result in a significant improvement in the standard of living in one of the world’s most corrupt countries.

Hitherto, Kyrgyzstan was considered a relative paragon of freedom, though relative is the key word here: Central Asia has authoritarian regimes in all of its former Soviet republics. By those standards, Kyrgyzstan was, as the region's best political reformer, an exemplar, but in recent year's President Bakiev has reversed many of those gains. Indeed, since coming to power in the spring of 2005 during the country's so-called Tulip Revolution, locals seem to think that things are now getting worse, not better, and not only as it concerns freedom of speech, but first and foremost in the economy.

Thus, it isn't so surprising that Mr. Bakiev is cuddling up to Moscow. Perhaps he is thinking that if it isn't possible to secure a clear majority in free and fair elections, boasted by Moscow's dollops of aid in the interim, than Moscow will at least be duly willing to recognize the elections as democratic regardless of what the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE) election watchdog group says. On that note he is certainly correct.

However, winning such an election will not make him any more popular among his own people, who may well prove again that the ultimate result of elections rests with them, irrespective of the likely machinations by the government elite.

Alas, as is all too common in post-Soviet politics, authorities seem too nearsighted to recognize this threat until it is too late.

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