The Manas Morass

The overthrow of a corrupt, authoritarian government in the Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan on April 7 has focused attention on U.S. policy towards that region.  Critics argue that the U.S. focus on Central Asia as a transit route for supplies to troops in Afghanistan has caused the Obama Administration to ignore the kinds of human rights violations, corruption, and bad governance that led to this popular uprising.

On April 22, the National Security and Foreign Affairs Subcommittee of the House Oversight Committee 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 of aviation fuel from a company alleged to have been a front for the son of recently-ousted Kyrgyz president Kurmanbek Bakiyev.

Scott Horton, a member of the board of OSI’s Central Eurasia Project and Open Society Fellow Alex Cooley both testified at the hearing.  Horton 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 a key base at the Manas airport outside the capital city of Bishkek.  Horton argued that this policy of doing “sweet deals” from which 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.

Cooley 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 the regime’s repression and corruption actually destabilized the country and triggered the protests that led to the 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 wellbeing of all the host country’s people, and not just a small circle of leaders, their relatives and cronies.

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