Letter From Bishkek

How Did Kurmanbek Bakiyev's Presidency Fail?

The downfall of Kurmanbek Bakiyev began with a betrayal. In February 2009, Bakiyev, the president of Kyrgyzstan, met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow, where he received a promise of $2.15 billion in Russian loans and aid. That same day, he ordered the U.S. military out of its airbase at the Manas airport near Bishkek. The United States set up the base in 2001 to support the NATO mission in Afghanistan; since then, the base had become particularly essential, especially after Uzbekistan ordered the closure of a U.S. base on its territory in 2005.

To nearly all Central Asia analysts, the deal was clear: Moscow had long wanted the U.S. military out of its backyard -- or at least a greater say in how U.S. forces operated -- and Bakiyev, in exchange for promises of cash, was happy to oblige.

Yet just four months later, in June, the United States agreed to increase its yearly rent for the Manas base from $17 million to $60 million. A further aid package promised $177 million to the Kyrgyz government. It was announced that the base would stay after all.

Although Bakiyev ostensibly added to his government’s coffers, he unwittingly set in motion the events that would eventually lead to his fall from power. Last week, a surge in nationwide public demonstrations in the Kyrgyz capital resulted in violent clashes that drove Bakiyev to abandon his office, effectively handing power over to a disparate and disorganized group of weak opposition parties. Five years ago, Bakiyev became president after his predecessor, Askar Akayev, was deposed in a popular revolt. Now, it was his turn to flee.

Alexander Knyazev, director of the CIS Institute, in Bishkek, told me that Bakiyev’s reneging on the deal with Moscow was a “key moment” -- not only in relations with Moscow but also in terms of his own political survival. Knyazev, who is close to the Kremlin, called the breach “prostitution.” He went on: “Many countries do that. . . . But Bakiyev did it in a very irresponsible and untalented way. He lied to Russia and got the money from the U.S.” For Moscow, this was “unforgivable.”

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