Clearing the Manas Morass

The following originally appeared in The Huffington Post.

The overthrow of Kyrgyzstan’s corrupt, authoritarian government in early April focused attention on U.S. policy in the country and the rest of Central Asia. Since 2001, the U.S. Air Force has maintained a key facility at Kyrgyzstan’s Manas airport, through which soldiers transit into and out of Afghanistan.

Last spring, President Kurmanbek Bakiyev threatened to close the base, only to change his mind when the United States agreed to pay more to use it. Critics argue that concern over the possibility of losing access to Manas caused the Obama Administration to ignore human rights violations, corruption, and bad governance that eventually led to the popular uprising that brought Bakiyev down.

On April 22, the National Security Subcommittee of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held a hearing to look into allegations that the U.S. military contributed to corruption in Kyrgyzstan by signing a contract to buy hundreds of millions of dollars worth of aviation fuel from a company that then subcontracted with firms alleged to have been fronts for Bakiyev’s rapacious son, Maxim.  Last July, Maxim organized his father’s successful re-election campaign.  Put plainly, he was in charge of rigging the election.  As a reward for a job well done, Bakiyev then appointed Maxim to head a new governmental organization called the Central Agency for Development, Investment and Innovation.

This put Maxim in a position to squeeze a percentage for the family out of virtually every economic activity in the country. According to a recent report by the International Crisis Group, one of the precipitating factors for the uprising was the fact that immediately after drastically raising electricity prices for the country’s largely impoverished population, the government privatized an electrical utility valued at over $130 million to a company controlled by a crony of Maxim’s for the ridiculously low price of $3 million.

Scott Horton, one of the witnesses who testified at the Oversight Committee hearing, noted that officials of the new Kyrygz interim government are unanimous in stating that the United States closed its eyes to corruption and human rights abuses under Bakiyev in order to ensure continued Kyrgyz government permission for the U.S. to maintain the Manas base.  He argued that this policy of doing “sweet deals” from which local political leaders of the day benefit may make the process of procurement and relationship building easier in the short term, but in the longer run impedes the United States’ effort to build a positive relationship with the host country.

Another witness, Professor Alexander Cooley of Barnard College, testified that the Kyrgyz case demonstrates the fallacy of the argument frequently heard in Washington that stability in Central Asia is more important to the U.S. than human rights and good governance. He noted that American officials came to accept Bakiyev’s authoritarianism as evidence of Kyrgyzstan’s political stability, when in fact the cumulative effects of Bakiyev’s repression and corruption actually destabilized the country and triggered the protests that led to his regime’s sudden demise.

Both Cooley and Horton concluded that the U.S. military presence in Kyrgyzstan can still be salvaged. This will only be possible, however, if the administration thoroughly investigates existing arrangements, and adopts a new, more transparent approach under which U.S. bases will contribute to the well-being of all the host country’s people, and not just a small circle of leaders, their relatives, and cronies.

As a starting point, the United States needs to ensure transparency regarding the $60 million it pays each year for use of the base, and the more than $200 million it expends each year under the fuel contract. Until now, that contract has been held by the Mina Corporation, a shadowy outfit with no past history in the fuel supply business. Kyrgyzstanis—including members of the new interim government—unanimously believe the company was used to funnel money to the Bakiyev family, just as it was used to enrich the family of Bakiyev’s predecessor, Askar Akayev, who was also overthrown by a popular uprising.

The U.S. Department of Defense has just announced that it is canceling the current fuel contract and will soon conduct an open tender to replace it. This is an encouraging first step, but is not by itself sufficient to undo the damage already done to the U.S. reputation in Kyrgyzstan.

The Department of Defense should require that the new contract be public and completely transparent. Not only should the contract and any subsequent subcontracts be published on the web, but the contractor and any subcontractors should be required to make public their beneficial owners. To ensure transparency, the U.S. government also needs to push the Kyrgyz interim government to be accountable for the money the U.S. pays for use of Manas.  Such an approach might be met with a positive response from the provisional government under newly appointed Interim President Roza Otunbayeva, who is widely respected for placing national interest first.

These steps would help protect the U.S. from charges of fueling local corruption and would demonstrate to the people of Kyrgyzstan that the U.S. supports them and not just whoever is in power. Given that the Kyrgyz public has brought down two governments in five years, this point might be crucial if the U.S. wants to keep operating the Manas base.

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