Is Manas Behind Kyrgyzstan's Instability?
That's the thesis of a smart political scientist, who argues that the air base, as a concentrated source of wealth for whoever is in power, has provided a temptation for autocrats to consolidate power and for rivals to that power to challenge them. In his new book Chaos, Violence, Dynasty: Politics and Islam in Central Asia, Eric McGlinchey analyzes the differing political paths taken by independent Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.
The reason Kyrgyzstan has been more unstable has to do with the Kremlin's policies in the region in the late 1980s. But the catalyst that has led to two dramatic overthrows of the government is Manas, McGlinchey argues. Under the first post-Soviet president, Askar Akaev, Kyrgyzstan was propped up by foreign aid, the diffuse nature of which forced him to spread it around to other members of the country's fractured political elite to keep them on his side.
The Manas air base changed this dynamic, however. Although political and economic reform aid continued to flow, this aid was overshadowed both in the popular imagination and ultimately by the huge amount of wealth that was directly accruing to the Akaev family through American fueling contracts. Members of Akaev's winning coalition, perceiving they were not receiving their fair cut of the Manas wealth, began defecting and agitating for Akaev's overthrow.
And of course, as has been well documented, when Kurmanbek Bakiyev took power in 2005, he began to do the same thing as Akaev had, using the massive fuel contracts for Manas as a way to enrich his family.
Ironically, Akaev's and then Bakiyev's economic windfalls became their political downfalls. Disgruntled elites, knowing they could defect from the Kyrgyz executive and be rewarded for this defection in subsequent governments, did defect and indeed defected repeatedly. Kyrgyz political elites who were once members of Akaev's ruling coalition defected and became members of Bakiyev's ruling coalition. They then defected again and became leading members in Kyrgyzstan's new interim government.
Yesterday, Deirdre Tynan reported that the U.S. is paying $500 million a year to the governments of Central Asia for their services in running the Northern Distribution Network. That dwarfs the other international aid that goes into the region, raising the question: could the dynamic that McGlinchey describes repeat itself elsewhere in the region? The U.S. hasn't released any details of that $500 million, even how it's distributed among the countries. But it stands to reason that the lion's share goes to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, given that they are the most significant NDN partners. Tajikistan, in particular, shares with Kyrgyzstan a fractured political elite. Might this gravy train destabilize Tajikistan in the way that Manas did with Kyrgyzstan? It's worth pondering.
Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.
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