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Analysis & Opinion
16.04.10 Is Russia Behind Regime Change In Kyrgyzstan?
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Contributors: Stephen Blank, Vladimir Belaeff, Ethan S. Burger, Ira Straus, Alexandre Strokanov

As Kyrgyz democratic opposition forces took control of Kyrgyzstan’s government and the nation’s major cities after days of violent mass protests against the corrupt and repressive rule of President Kurmanbek Bakiev, it became clear that the opposition had strong support coming its way from an unlikely source – Moscow. Indeed, Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was the first world leader to speak with the head of the interim government in Kyrgyzstan Roza Otunbayeva, and quickly offered Russian financial aid to the new Kyrgyz authorities. Is Russia behind the regime change in Kyrgyzstan? Has Russia moved into the “democracy promotion business” in its backyard in Central Asia? What are the likely consequences of the events in Kyrgyzstan for Russian policy in the near abroad?

Moscow was the first world capital to recognize the new government in Bishkek (while the United States, the EU and China were still referring to Otunbayeva as “the leader of the opposition”), and disparaging public comments from Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials helped to pull the rug from under the deposed Kyrgyz president Bakiev (who has now officially stepped down from his post).

Putin's Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov told the Kommersant daily that Putin had initiated the call, and had talked to Otunbayeva in her capacity as the head of the interim government. Peskov said the Russian premier had had no contacts with Bakiev. "Bakiev is incommunicado in any event. It is Otunbayeva who is running executive power structures in Bishkek. It is therefore Otunbayeva we are in touch with," Peskov said.

A Russian diplomat told Kommersant that Moscow “warned Bakiev again and again that what he was doing, how he was behaving was wrong. Bakiev was too grabby. He kept reneging on his promises to Russia, and doing it out of plain greed." A senior official from the Russian government told the media that Bakiev had failed to "keep his word to shut down the American base in Manas."

Bakiev also reneged on the agreement he signed with Medvedev last year to establish a military training center in the southern regions of Kyrgyzstan for the CIS Collective Security Treaty multinational force. It was to be the second Russian military base in that country. A year later, Bakiev failed to sign any agreements with Russia to that effect, but authorized establishing a U.S. military training center in Batken.

Bakiev and his elder son Maxim were also responsible for embezzling hundreds of millions of dollars of Russian financial aid to Kyrgyzstan, and more than once cheated major Russian companies out of their acquisitions of Kyrgyz assets.

It is no surprise that Moscow had little sympathy for Bakiev and is ready to deal with the new government in Kyrgyzstan. It also appears that the Kremlin has been in close touch with the opposition leaders, and quietly supported their campaign to topple Bakiev.

A senior Russian diplomat told Kommersant that the developments in Kyrgyzstan did not take Russia by surprise. "This outcome was predictable. It actually was predicted," he admitted. "It is only the swiftness that is surprising." The deputy head of the interim government, Almazbek Atambayev, was flying to Moscow the day after the events in Bishkek to talk with Russian government officials. Russia seems to be aiding the new leaders in Bishkek on finding the best way to orchestrate a legitimate transfer of power to the interim government, and pressured Bakiev to resign voluntarily.

Meanwhile in Prague, at the United States-Russia nuclear summit, Michael McFaul, President Barack Obama's senior director for Russian affairs, emphasized that the United States did not view the conflict as any kind of proxy struggle between the United States and Russia. "This is not some anti-American coup; that we know for sure. And this is not some sponsored-by-the-Russians coup, there's just no evidence of that."

So is Russia behind the regime change in Kyrgyzstan? Has Russia moved into the “democracy promotion business” in its backyard in Central Asia? If so, is Russia acting out of concerns for democracy, human rights and good democratic governance, or is it simply acting to dethrone an unpopular, weak and corrupt leader who has more than once reneged on his promises to Moscow and failed to deliver on promoting Russian security and economic interests in the region? Has Moscow acquired the necessary tools for regime change that look suspiciously like democracy promotion, a play out of a U.S. book?

Has Moscow learned to work preemptively with opposition forces to dethrone the dictators of Central Asia? What are the likely consequences of the events in Kyrgyzstan for Russian policy in the near abroad? Will there be other cases of preemptive regime changes in other former Soviet countries, or is this a unique case where Russian influence was the only thing that mattered? Could this be a policy for Belarus, or should it be? What does this Russian foray in democracy promotion mean for the American posture in the former Soviet Union? Could Russia and the United Stated join forces in the fight against post-Soviet dictators? Or is it premature to think that they would view and treat these rulers similarly?

Ira Straus, U.S. coordinator, Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO, Washington, DC:

Russia presumably is "behind" the overturn to some degree. This should be viewed in the same rational way as when the U.S. is "behind" some developments. It deserves congratulations. On condition, to be sure, that Russia now doesn’t try to pressure the new Kyrgyz government in a polarizing anti-Western direction.

It would be skillful of Russia to do the same thing in Belarus: encourage an overturn of Alexander Lukashenko, led by democratic forces that are not anti-Russian. They would not be hard to find. It would bring Russia major dividends in the West and probably some dividends in Belarus as well. Russia should realize now from its experience in Ukraine that honest, free elections and media do not mean that the country must be run by anti-Russian forces. That would be even more the case in Belarus.

The other good news is that there are reports that the United States and Russia are talking, cooperatively, over how to proceed in Kyrgyzstan. This is how they ought to do it. For Kyrgyzstan and for other CIS countries. Where there is a need to facilitate the destruction of an unstable or troublesome regime in the CIS, there is no good reason why Russia and the West should not be able to cooperate on finding replacement leaders who are acceptable to both of them.

Instances will inevitably arise again when such cooperation will become needed in one or another CIS country. To prepare for it, Russia and the United States could now begin consultations on their respective clienteles in the CIS countries, and work out which figures in each country are acceptable to both.

The interim head of Kyrgyzstan was ambassador to the United States for some time. When I spoke with her here, she was amply pro-American, and defended the U.S. base with vigor. She was also open to the idea of the former Kyrgyz leader, Akaev, that the American and Russian bases ought to be combined into a joint base. That would foster cooperation among the two powers to exercise their influence jointly in the country, rather than in a competition that could tear the country apart. The proposal ought to be revived at this time.

If these things happen, they will take the “reset” to a new level, from polite to profound. Much more effective cooperation will in that case become possible on the truly important geopolitical challenges – Afghanistan, China, Iran, European security and NATO.

Ethan S. Burger, Adjunct Professor, Georgetown University Law Center, Washington, DC:

Although Russian prime minister Putin denies any role in the overthrow of Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev, his prompt recognition of the legitimacy of the new government in Bishkek has triggered some suspicions. It would be naive not to recognize that there is a difference between a wink with a nod from Moscow and Russia actively assisting in the replacement of the head of a state.

The United States appears to be taking a pragmatic approach to the situation. The reality is that Kyrgyzstan is part of Russia’s near abroad and the United States is very far away. As long as the United States has access to an airbase in a country from which to support the war effort in Afghanistan, it is unlikely to have much of an appetite for looking to enter into a spat with Russia over a country that few Americans have ever heard of or can locate on a map. The U.S. government's attitude makes complete sense, since Russian assistance in resolving the situation in Iran is so critical to avoiding a major conflagration that would take a high human and economic toll.

Vladimir Belaeff, President, Global Society Institute, Inc., San Francisco, CA:

There is really no evidence that the events in Kyrgyzstan were orchestrated in Moscow (or elsewhere, for that matter). Of course, one may get a “geopolitical frisson” by imagining a high adventure in the style of Tehran in 1953 (Operation Ajax) or some other exotic venue out of a Graham Greene novel. However, events currently developing in Bishkek and elsewhere in Kyrgyzstan may be driven entirely by internal political dynamics.

The fact that the Kremlin was “not surprised” by the events is not necessarily proof of Russian instigation – it may simply mean that Russian intelligence machinery regarding Kyrgyzstan is quite good at gathering and analyzing political information in real time.

It is interesting how the barest suggestion of a flimsy hypothesis evolves into a vision of Russia engaged in the “promotion of democracy” – originally an American agenda, which in turn had a lot of (ugly) resemblance to the Soviet “expansion of socialism world-wide.” “Democracy” was in that usage merely an instrument for extending influence into geopolitically sensitive areas – the same as “Soviet socialism” was perceived in the West. Precisely because of the Soviet failed experience with “socialism building” – notably, in Central Asia, among other locales – Russia is not very likely to repeat that ideological mistake, now by “building democracy.” Such projects remain much more of an American hobby.

Considering the air base in Manas, the more likely reason for unhappiness with Bakiev is not so much rooted in the existence of the base itself, but in how an apparent “bidding war” was engineered to force an increase in U.S. compensation to Bakiev’s government for the use of the site. Russia seems to be comfortable with the current activities at Manas, and it is a demonstrated fact that Moscow supports NATO’s logistical objectives in the region.
Far more significant is the situation with the reported embezzlement of Russian loans and subsidies and with hostile business dealings regarding Russian companies in Kyrgyzstan. These aspects may indeed be strong reasons for the Kremlin to welcome Bakiev’s departure – but they are still not proof that Moscow actually initiated a coup.

Very probably, the rational and practical concern in Moscow (and one supposes in Washington also) is a desire for political and social stability in Kyrgyzstan. Bakiev, like his predecessor, is unlikely to be politically viable in the future. It remains to be seen whether the current provisional government in Bishkek will be able to cope with the many problems of the country.

As present day experience demonstrates, many of the countries in Central Asia seem unable to establish stable political institutions – in particular of a democratic type. Building 21st century democratic institutions in societies with pre-feudal, tribal dynamics is beyond na?ve. It is almost as silly as building socialism there. Therefore, one should not expect that Russia is now orienting itself toward this kind of apostolic behavior.

Finally, one should remember that Kyrgyzstan is geopolitically important and weak at the same time. This is not a healthy combination. There are stronger actors in the region; Russia is nearby, America’s homeland is far away and NATO’s military is expected to reduce its regional presence.

In the above circumstances it is desirable that Kyrgyzstan form a stable, peaceful and not highly corrupt governance, to protect the country’s sovereignty and integrity. No external influence can substitute for the will of the Kyrgyz themselves. There are questions at present whether such will exists. Both America and Russia need a similar positive outcome in Bishkek.

Professor Stephen Blank, the U.S. Army War College, Carlyle Barracks, PA:

There can be no doubt that Russia was behind the coup in Kyrgyzstan (which is not a revolution, but merely a reshuffling of elites). It used its economic power to raise energy tariffs and retract previous loans to make the energy and electricity situation impossible, attacked Bakiev in the media, talked about mass demonstrations in Bishkek two weeks before there were any and, according to many reports, was in contact with the opposition. Since the opposition are all previous elites, Moscow found it easy to establish a rapport with them.

Secondly, this is a lesson to other Central Asian states that if they do not exercise total control over their state and are too independent, Moscow reserves the right and has the means to launch coups against them. No doubt each regime will respond to this in its own way.

But we must understand that this has little to do with democracy, but rather with north-south differences in Kyrgyzstan, Moscow's determination to assert its primacy there and to punish the regime for being too close to America. If the White House believes that this is not an anti-American coup, it is sorely mistaken. Manas may be safe, for it is not in Russia's interest now to undermine it. Nevertheless, its pressure against the base is unrelenting and can be expected to continue in the future, even if the new leadership is paid enough by Washington to keep it open during the fighting.

There is no likelihood that Moscow will join with Washington against dictators in the former Soviet Union. If anything, this presages a new round of great power rivalry in the former Soviet Union, where Moscow holds many of the cards.
Alexandre Strokanov, director of Institute of Russian Language, History and Culture,Lyndon State College, Lyndonville, Vermont:

First of all, the regime change in Kyrgyzstan could not occur if the previous regime was popular and not terribly corrupt. The problem is that leaders of the so-called "color revolutions," who came to power under slogans of a fight against corruption and promises to make life better for people, generally failed everywhere. We saw it in Ukraine, where the regime change did occur through elections. But Central Asia is not Ukraine, and the change of regime there looked more like the "tulip revolution" five years ago. Was Russia behind the events in Bishkek? It certainly was ready to accept them and could even bless the opposition in their actions. However, the events were mainly determined by the domestic situation in Kyrgyzstan and the failure of Bakiev's clique.

Does it mean that Russia moved into the "democracy promotion business" in its backyard in Central Asia? This is unlikely, because Russia better than anybody else understands the limits of democratic mechanisms and standards in the Central Asian reality. Russia is not acting to dethrone an unpopular, weak and corrupt leader, who has more than once reneged on his promises to Moscow and failed to deliver on promoting Russian security and economic interests in the region. Russia simply accepts and welcomes such dethronement.

I doubt that these events will have any consequences with respect to other Central Asian countries. Despite seeming similarity, Central Asian states are very different, and it is no accident that the "color revolution" first succeeded and then failed in Kyrgyzstan, but all of this had little impact on its neighbors. Actually, a regime change scenario is possible in other Central Asian states, but it is unlikely that Kyrgyzstan will serve as a model for it.

It certainly cannot have any applicability to Belarus. Again, because Belarus is not Kyrgyzstan and Lukashenko is not Bakiev. Could Russia and the United States join forces in the fight against post-Soviet dictators? United States and Russia certainly should cooperate and maybe even coordinate their activities in some parts of the world.

However, I seriously doubt that there should be a declared goal of "fighting against post-Soviet dictators." It is much more important for both countries not to allow the escalation of violence or sliding toward civil wars. Whether it be Mikheil Saakashvili or someone from the Central Asian region, such issues should be left for the people of their countries to decide.
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