Putin the Great
Russia’s Imperial Impostor
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.”
Last November, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin reportedly told Kyrgyz Prime Minister Daniyar Usenov that he was displeased with the way the first tranche of the Russian aid had been spent, accusing Bakiyev of channeling the money through banks controlled by his 32-year-old son, Maxim. From then on, no more Russian aid would come, weakening Bakiyev’s stature at home.
But he had a friend in the U.S. government. The Bush and Obama administrations rarely criticized how he squashed political rivals or kept tight controls over the media. And U.S. officials seemed uninterested in calling attention to how the U.S. rent and development funds were spent. As one U.S. businessman who has been in Kyrgyzstan for more than a decade told me, “The priority of addressing issues in Afghanistan has certainly minimized the importance of America’s values here."
Yet as Bakiyev appeared to enjoy the support of Washington, he was making some unpopular choices at home. Early this year, authorities raised the prices for electricity, heat, and hot water by 170 to 400 percent. For years, international donors had been pushing for gradual increases in state-subsidized prices in order to help the ailing economy and service the utilities sector. The level of the announced increases, however, came as a shock -- and Bakiyev promised even more this summer.
In early February, just as the first of the new utility bills were being distributed, Maxim reportedly purchased Severelectro, an electricity distributor in the country’s north, for well below market price. He would benefit directly from the price increases; at the same time, he accumulated interests in the Kyrgyz telecom industry and immediately raised mobile phone rates.
With these moves, many Kyrgyz citizens began to aim what had been more general discontent directly at Bakiyev and his regime. In travels around the country, pensioners told me they were spending all of their meager state allowance on utility bills, sitting at home in the cold and dark to save money. While I was visiting remote villages high in the mountains of Naryn Province last February, groups of men and women quickly gathered, asking me to relay their criticisms, mostly leveled at the younger Bakiyev, back to Bishkek.
On March 9, when a Kyrgyz-American businessman named Eugene Gourevitch -- who has close ties to the Bakiyev family and Maxim’s banking interests -- was indicted in Italy for helping to defraud an Italian telecom company of $2.7 billion, Bakiyev blocked many news outlets that were reporting on the scandal, including the Kyrgyz-language service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and several Russian-language Web sites. Within weeks, he shut down three other local papers and an online television station for critical coverage of his family business.
Two weeks after the Gourevitch scandal broke, Bakiyev held a long-scheduled kurultai, or congress, of supporters from around the country. They pledged allegiance to his rule, and the president made dry pronouncements about unity and national identity. He was ridiculed in some of the remaining opposition press for saying the country no longer needed “Western-style democracy” -- but it was the language of the Russian press that surprised most observers.
Russian newspapers mockingly compared Bakiyev to Genghis Khan and the infamously despotic Saparmurad Niyazov, who christened himself “Turkmenbashi” (father of the Turkmen) and ruled over Turkmenistan until his death in 2006. Some news outlets reported -- not unrealistically -- that the Bakiyev family was siphoning off Russian aid for itself. It is highly unlikely that Russia’s state-controlled media was acting on its own; it was, most likely, following direct orders from the Kremlin. “An informational war is always a prerequisite for political decisions," Marat Tokoev, a media analyst in Bishkek, said at the time. As he explained, Kyrgyzstan has an underdeveloped press and thus has an “information dependency” on Russia, which means that stories published in the Russian media have a large impact on Kyrgyz public opinion.
Bektour Iskender, the founder of the popular Kyrgyz blog platform Kloop, told me that the blocking of Web sites and the closing of media outlets signaled to many people that their government had something to hide and fueled the restive mood in the country. But not many people in Kyrgyzstan have Internet access -- so how could the online crackdown have led to the upheaval? Iskender explained that the leaders in the opposition movement simply seized on the media closures to fuel popular discontent, which was driven largely by poverty and resentment over Bakiyev’s extravagance.
Moscow delivered the coup de grâce on April 2, when Putin announced a 100 percent tariff increase on Russian and Kazakh oil exports to Kyrgyzstan. Although the economic effects were not immediately felt -- and it remains uncertain if the tariffs will even remain in place -- it was clear that the tariffs would cripple the feeble Kyrgyz economy (the country imports all of its petroleum products from Russia and Kazakhstan).
On the evening of April 6, popular anger boiled over in the northwestern city of Talas. The next morning, a mob marched on Bakiyev’s presidential compound, called the White House, in central Bishkek. Security forces fired into the crowd, then fled, leaving 81 people dead.
For now, Bakiyev is hiding out in his native Jalalabad in southern Kyrgyzstan. He is open to negotiations, he has told journalists, but is refusing to cede the presidency. Small bands of his supporters appear to be organizing themselves for resistance.
The newly empowered opposition is made up of familiar political figures that have rotated in and out of successive governments, such as former Foreign Minister Roza Otunbayeva, Kyrgyzstan’s first ambassador to the United States, and former Prime Minister Almazbek Atambayev.
On the street, many people are skeptical that these new leaders will be any different from previous administrations. “The first night, the new government was sitting around dividing power while the city burned. There was chaos, and they were worrying about who has what ministry,” a Kyrgyz friend told me as we wandered around a makeshift memorial in Bishkek to those who died in last week’s violence. We were standing before the White House, a giant, ostentatious display of Soviet power built in the center of what was a provincial capital 20 years ago. It had been the scene of rioting a day earlier, and its fences were patched up with scraps of office furniture and a few burned cars.
On Thursday, the second night of looting, a gang of opportunist marauders briefly seized control of my street, blocking traffic and searching for goods to steal. They were drunk and revved up by rumors that Bakiyev had sent supporters to take over Bishkek. I was caught a block away from a friend -- a journalist who had come from Almaty to report on the upheaval and had just been threatened for looking Russian -- who was now nervously lost in the dark, disoriented by the screaming. Some of the men had guns. We were surrounded by the sounds of breaking glass and small-arms fire. Terrified, I ducked into a bush to hide. At that moment, half a block away, from its perch in the ransacked parliament building, the interim government was claiming everything was under control.