Otunbayeva Ms. Popularity in Washington
So Kyrgyzstan President Roza Otunbayeva's visit to Washington is over, and while publicly the agenda was dominated by her acceptance of the "International Women of Courage" award and talk of democracy, we can assume that behind the scenes the discussions were heavy on the issue of the Manas air base that the U.S. operates in Kyrgyzstan.
A couple of weeks ago, the Kyrgyzstan parliament proposed a law that would tax fuel going to Manas, to the tune of about $40 million a year, which the U.S. is "vehemently opposing."
Otunbayeva, in her public comments, did not mention the base at all. I did talk to someone with knowledge of her visit, who says that Otunbayeva guaranteed that the base will function normally for at least another year, when a new government will take over.
And she met with President Obama and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, and the White House's official statement afterward mentioned Manas, in very conciliatory terms:
President Obama reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to support Kyrgyzstan’s efforts to consolidate its democracy. He thanked Otunbayeva for Kyrgyzstan’s support for the Transit Center at Manas and said the U.S. has taken steps to improve transparency about the Transit Center and payments connected to it, and pledged to maximize the benefits for the Kyrgyz people.
The mention of transparency and maximizing benefits of course refers to the ongoing controversy about the mysterious fuel deals that the Pentagon has made with companies Mina Corp. and Red Star to supply fuel, which have caused a lot of indignation in Kyrgyzstan.
Anyway, the tax issue appears to have stalled in Kyrgyzstan's parliament, with opposition and a postponement of further consideration of the bill. But further challenges are sure to come, perhaps accounting for why Obama has met twice with Otunbayeva in the last six months, making her by that measure (I think) the most popular leader in the Caucasus or Central Asia. She also met with John Kerry (chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee) and John McCain (top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee).
And for what it's worth, my source also tells me that Otunbayeva was "genuinely impressed" at how well briefed Obama and his staff were on the latest in Kyrgyzstan. Perhaps that's due to the departure of his former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel?:
At a political fundraiser in the fall of 2008, a congressional candidate introduced me to Rahm Emanuel and explained that I was an expert on Kyrgyzstan. Emanuel quipped that if one of his daughters ever needed to do a book report on an exotic land, he'd give me a call.
Or maybe Sasha or Malia had to do a book report...
Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.