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Moscow’s Subversive Hand to be Seen in Kyrgyzstan Overthrow?     Print Email

Chilling Effect on Outlook for EU Energy Security in Caspian

The violent struggle for power in Kyrgyzstan is a reminder of Moscow’s self-avowed determination to use every means in its power to bring back its old satellites into the orbit of the new Russia. As yet, there is no evidence of Russian participation in what seems to have been a well-organized coup. But even the upheaval and apparent sudden regime change there will alarm several groups with key interests in the U.S. and Europe.

Krygyzstan is one of the politically fragile Central Asian republics that share two key traits: they are vulnerable to Russian pressure and as a group they are vital sources of natural gas to bolster energy security in the EU. Kyrgyzstan is not a gas supplier itself, but it belongs to this “club,” and its fate will be read in coming weeks for ominous developments, particularly by three audiences:

  • U.S. strategists will be concerned about the future status of Manas airbase in Kyrgyzstan, an important link in the whole network of supply routes to the U.S.-led NATO campaign in Afghanistan.
  • Leaders in eastern Europe will worry about Russian encroachment. Already, they have seen Russian power recently re-asserted in two once-defiant ex-satellites: Georgia, which lost two provinces in a war with Russia two years ago, and this year in Ukraine. In elections there, the pro-Russian party regained power in elections that defeat the Western-oriented leadership that emerged there from the Orange revolution.
  • Perhaps most of all, leaders in Azerbaijan and other small countries in the oil-rich Caspian basin, will feel an ominous chill about the vulnerability of their own dynastic regimes, especially if the outcome in Kyrgyzstan is a pro-Russian tilt.

Azerbaijan and the other dynastic regimes on the Caspian Sea must constant, as a matter of political life and death, constantly weighing their choices between Moscow and Washington in terms of political protection and contracts for natural gas. Like Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan has a dynastic regime that depends heavily on outside powers to stay in office: the leadership in Baku fears that it is vulnerable to destabilization by the Kremlin if Azerbaijan is too accommodating to Western interests on gas and pipelines. Azerbaijan’s natural gas supplies will be vital in the success or failure of rival pipelines heading toward Europe, and Moscow has make it clear how much could be at risk – for the regime in Baku – if Ilham Alivev, the president of the republic of Azerbaijan, decides to send his country’s natural gas west through Nabucco, the U.S. and EU-backed pipeline, instead of the through alternative routes crossing Russia..

In its initial reaction, the White House went out of its way to proclaim that “this is not some anti-American coup. Time will tell, but for the moment that pronouncement sounds premature.

As developments unfolded this weekend in Kyrgyzstan, Michael McFaul, a senior White House adviser on Russia, downplayed any U.S. setback in Kyrgyzstan. He told media that it was clear who was in charge in Kyrgyzstan, but that the people who were “allegedly” running the country were not anti-American.

The people that are allegedly running Kyrgyzstan and I emphasize that word because it’s not clear who is in charge right now – these are people that we’ve had contact with for many years,” he told reporters.

“This is not some anti-American coup. That we know for sure and this is not a sponsored by the Russians coup,” he added.

He was speaking in Prague where U.S. President Barack Obama was meeting his Russian counterpart to sign a nuclear arms-reduction treaty. That event – cited in Washington as a sign of the administration’s success in pursuing a “reset” toward more positive relations with Moscow. The White House would be unhappy to see its message damaged by reports that Kyrgyzstan was an example of a Kremlin interpretation of “reset” that included mischief against a regime helping the alliance in Afghanistan.

For the moment, the perception in the wider world can be summed up in these terms: it may not be an anti-American coup, but it sure looks like a pro-Russian development (and a pro-active Russian move).

True, the new self-proclaimed leader Roza Otunbaeva, 59, has a local reputation as “Mrs. Clean” and she was her country’s first ambassador to the U.S. after the anti-Communist revolution in the early 1990s.

As Prague-based Radio Free Europe reported, she is considered an articulate and pragmatic politician, and a moderate voice able to negotiate among the country's fragmented opposition groups.

RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier describes Otunbaeva as "one of the most experienced Kyrgyz politicians" and that "she might actually be the most experienced politician in Kyrgyzstan today. By Kyrgyz standards, she certainly has huge international experience."

On the other hand, the new “interim government” immediately sent a delegation to Moscow, and some members of the new government in Bishkek have said publicly that Russia played a role in the change of power.

So there is a question: Has Washington been outmatched in guile, finance and influence by Moscow? True, this is a small, obscure country involving small direct geopolitical stakes, but its political significance – and “echo-effect” -- should not be under-estimated. For U.S.-European relations, it is a reminder to EU allies of the risks that the U.S. may be “over-reaching” in promising the Europeans that it can deliver gas from Central Asia and thus loosen the grip of Russia’s Gasprom on Europe’s energy security.

MOSCOW IS REVERSING DOMINOS THAT FELL WEST IN 1990S

Regardless of the outcome, the turmoil in Kyrgyzstan there will bring home to the reality of Russian readiness to work actively to undermine and overthrow regimes that seem to oppose the interests of the Kremlin and its ambition to restore a sphere of influence around Russia’s perimeter. In the Obama-Putin rivalry, it looks like Moscow is engineering a reverse-domino effect to reclaim pieces of the puzzle that fell westward in the regime changes after the collapse of Soviet domination in the early 1990s.

As developments unfolded this weekend in Kyrgyzstan, Michael McFaul, a senior White House adviser on Russia, downplayed any U.S. setback in Kyrgyzstan. He told media that it was clear who was in charge in Kyrgyzstan, but that the people who were “allegedly” running the country were not anti-American and were people “that we’ve had contact with for many years.” But he gave no more details beyond saying that this was “not a Russian coup,” while adding that it was not clear who was in charge there.

He was speaking in Prague where U.S. President Barack Obama was meeting his Russian counterpart to sign a nuclear arms-reduction treaty. That event – cited in Washington as a sign of the administration’s success in pursuing a “reset” toward more positive relations with Moscow. The White House would be unhappy to see its message damaged by reports that Kyrgyzstan was an example of a Kremlin interpretation of “reset” that included mischief against a regime helping the alliance in Afghanistan.

In much media reporting of the violent power struggle in Kyrgyzstan, the anti-government move is being described as a revolt. It is certainly that, but it also has many hallmarks of a being a well-orchestrated coup d’etat carried out by security forces that swung into action alongside a mob of demonstrators sent into the streets by the opposition.

Inside this thinly populated Central Asian nation, there has been a long-running struggle for influence between the U.S. – supported by Europe – and Russia. The focal point has usually been the status of Manas airbase as a staging post in the U.S. airlift to the front in Afghanistan. The government in Bishkek has used the rivalry to raise the price for both bidders – and that practice may continue under the new government. Even if it does, however, a regime brought to power with a pro-Russian label is unlikely to become a reliable link in the NATO supply chain.

Ironically, the self-proclaimed new ruler, ex-foreign minister Roza Otunbayeva was herself brought into office in the March 2005 “revolution” that was helped to power by the United States and in particular by the largesse of financier George Soros. However legitimate that was at the time in terms of popular support, the new democracy that emerged quickly split into rival factions, and the tensions at the top gradually became more violent as the once-partner leaders returned to their roots and escalated their rivalry to a regional and clan conflict.

There are superficial (and significant) parallels to the situation in Georgia and Ukraine and Russia has worked to exploit the vulnerabilities of these democracies there, which Moscow considers to belong to Russia’s “near abroad” – the euphemism for “Russian sphere of influence.” But these countries benefit from proximity to the EU and its political weight and they are developing denser networks of “civil society.” Little or nothing of the sort exists in Kyrgyzstan, which has a thin layer of democratic trappings as an overlay to clan (and dynastic warfare.

Within hours of the coup, Russian bolstered the garrison of its base there. The addition was reportedly only 150 troops, but the signal was surely big enough to be noticed by leaders of the little mobs in the streets of Bishkek, whose population of less than one million is nearly one-third Russians or people of Russian origin.