Richard M. Bennett
13th April, 2010
On March 17, the head of United States Central Command, General David Petraeus, met President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in the capital of Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek, to discuss bilateral cooperation and the situation in Afghanistan.
The visit came a day after the Barack Obama administration had confirmed the provision of some US$5.5 million to the Bakiyev regime for the construction of a counter-terrorism training center in southern Kyrgyzstan.
Within three weeks of this visit, Bakiyev, who had originally come to power in the “Tulip” revolution five years ago, had been overthrown and replaced by a provisional government headed by opposition leader and former foreign minister, Roza Otunbayeva.
Russia quickly recognized the new regime and was seemingly more than a little pleased with the outcome, thoughMoscow has since firmly denied playing any actual role in the unrest.
There is every reason to believe that the events cited above were actually closely related.
Russia under both Prime Minister (and former president) Vladimir Putin and now President Dmitry Medvedev had been growing ever-more displeased with the Bakiyev regime and its failure to close down the US Transit Center at Manas near Bishkek.
This Moscow has asserted had been promised in return forsignificant Russian financial support and technical aid. Moscow still firmly holds to the view that the only foreign forces that should be based in Kyrgyzstan are those of Russia.
The Russians have about 400 service personnel at Kant, north of Bishkek, and one of Moscow’s first actions following the change of regime was to send at least 150 additional paratroopers and special forces to reinforce the garrison there.
At the same time, the US reportedly confined its 1,200 or so personnel to the safety of Manas and also suspended all air operations through the base from April 7.
The Bakiyev regime had gained a reputation for brutality and the tough measures organized by the GKNB (State Committee ofNational Security) to suppress any and all opposition to what had become an inefficient and corrupt government.
The tools most widely used were the GKNB and since 2001 the SNB or Sluiba Nacional noj Bezopasnosti (Intelligence Service) – effectively a barely reformed local version of the old Soviet KGB, and the SGO, or Sluiba Gosudarstvennoj Oxpany (Secret Police).
When, however, thousands of protesters came out onto the streets of Bishkek it soon became apparent that few members of the armed forces or even the SNB/SGO were prepared to support Bakiyev to the bitter end.
Rumors were to quickly spread that Bakiyev and some of the more hardline elements of the SNB/SGO had brought in gunmen from as far afield as Latvia and Chechnya to do their dirty work.
Some supporters of the new regime claim that most of the protesters shot were killed by these hired assassins.
The situation remains uncertain and Bakiyev may not yet be finished.
Kyrgyzstan is ethnically divided between the Kyrgyz, who make up nearly 70% of the population, largely in the north, and the Uzbeks, making up about 15% and concentrated in the Fergana Valley in the south.
Bakiyev fled the capital on April 8 and is now hidden in an area that may still contain the remains of his original power base, mainly in and around Jalal-Abad and the city of Osh.
While supporters of the ousted president admit that the armed forces in the capital and north have gone over to the newregime, a question mark may still hang over the real loyalties of the southern military command, with numerous units based in and around Osh.
If these units, which include the 1st Motor Rifle Brigade (Mountain) in Osh and elements of the 25th Special Forces Brigade were to remain loyal to Bakiyev, then the seeds of a civil war based mainly along ethnic and geographical lines would be a distinct likelihood.
If, however, the southern-based units accept, even reluctantly, the change of regime, then Bakiyev’s options would become very limited and his chances of regaining power slim.
Consequences for Washington
It is unclear just how seriously the Obama administration in Washington misjudged the true nature of the situation in Kyrgyzstan.
The long-term consequences of the provisional government finally bowing to pressure from Moscow and refusing to renew the US lease on the base at Manas in July this year are likely to be more than a little unfortunate for Washington.
Manas international airport near Bishkek has been an important supply transit base for the US since late 2001. Bakiyev had indeed stated his intention to close it in October 2008 after agreeing to the Russian loan. He only reversed the decision, to the irritation of Moscow, when the US agreed to more than triple its annual rent for the base, to about US$60 million annually.
Its loss would be a severe blow to US diplomatic prestige in the region and could have potentially serious military consequences for US forces in Afghanistan in the event of terrorist activity causing significant disruption to the major supply routes passing through an increasingly unstable Pakistan.
The US Intelligence community is also likely to suffer from the loss of its facilities embedded within the US base.
Putin was the first foreign leader to offer recognition of Kyrgyzstan’s provisional government. This was in sharp contrast to the US State Department’s pronouncement of its ill-judged decision to continue to cooperate with Bakiyev, at least until he formally resigned.
Correct diplomatically speaking, but a decision that failed to click with many supporters of the new regime who had only very recently experienced the brutality of Bakiyev’s gunmen.
Putin made an immediate hit by providing recognition of the bravery of those who had fought and died on the streets of Bishkek.
Unsurprisingly, the provisional government of Otunbayeva proved equally quick to express its gratitude to the Kremlin, thanking Russia for its “significant support” and confirming that it would be sending envoys to Moscow for talks. Otunbayeva said in an interview with Ekho Moskvy on April 8:
We are grateful to the Russian Federation and to the Russian prime minister, because in those days there was the support, significant support from Russia that exposed the family of a criminalregime. This regime resisted until the last bullet yesterday, and unfortunately we have dead, and wounded.
Another opposition leader, Omurbek Tekebayev, later told Reuters that Russia had “played its role in ousting Bakiyev” and that there was a “high probability that the duration of the US air base’s presence in Kyrgyzstan will be shortened”.
The bear bites back
So what exactly was the role played secretly by Russia in the overthrow of the pro-American regime of Bakiyev?
Despite Moscow’s claims to have no part in the events of the past few weeks, it seems certain that Russia did indeed encourage and to some degree facilitate the revolution. The opposition was assured of early Russian diplomatic recognition and were kept closely informed of Bakiyev’s activities and his attempts to retain power.
Emissaries from the Russian SVR (Foreign Intelligence) and the GRU (Military Intelligence) are rumored to have played asignificant covert role in neutralizing Bakiyev’s military and security power base by persuading senior Kyrgyz officers to keep most of their forces off the streets.
Significantly, they appeared to have also persuaded the Kyrgyz High Command to throw their weight behind the provisional government, a crucial element in establishing the bone fides ofthe new regime and the stability of the country.
The great game, the struggle for power, influence and strategic position in Central Asia, has been in play since long before the days of Rudyard Kipling and the British Raj in India. This latest round appears to show that the “Old Bear” has not lost all its claws.
Russian strength and confidence has been growing again in an area that Moscow still feels should remain firmly within Russia’s orbit and is now quite clearly at the expense of Washington’s own regional ambitions.
Richard M Bennett is an intelligence analyst with AFI Research, a leading authority on national security, global intelligence, conflicts and defense.
(Copyright 2010 Richard M Bennett.)