Officials in both Moscow and Bishkek have cast the decision to establish a Russian air base in Kyrgyzstan as driven by national security concerns, citing the threat posed by Islamic radicalism. However, Western political analysts and Kyrgyz opposition politicians say the Russian deployment could exert considerable influence over developments within Kyrgyzstan itself. Many believe the Russian presence in Kyrgyzstan may portend an intensification of conflict between President Askar Akayev and his political opponents.
Observers note that the size of the Russian squadron to be based at Kant air base outside Bishkek has negligible strategic value. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. But the Russian base, observers add, has the potential to provide crucial support in propping up Akayev's embattled administration.
Since March, when security forces killed six civilians during a demonstration in the southern town of Ak-Sui, the president has struggled to contain anti-government protests led by opposition politicians. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archives]. Akayev opponents now accuse the president of making a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin: effectively allowing Moscow to restore a strategic outpost in Central Asia in return for Russia's support for the incumbent Kyrgyz government.
"It [the Russian deployment] constitutes a betrayal of state's interests," Topchubek Turgunaliev, a prominent Kyrgyz opposition leader, told EurasiaNet in an interview. Turgunaliev portrayed Akayev's decision on the Russian base as driven by personal considerations, namely a desire to remain in power
Western experts say Russia is unlikely to provide direct military support to Akayev for potential use in the deepening domestic political struggle. Yet, Russia could lend political and logistical assistance that enables Akayev to attempt a power play against his opponents.
"Closer ties with Russia create new potential opportunities for Akayev to crack down, and it indicates that Akayev very well may try to do so," said Martha Brill Olcott, a Central Asia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC.
Akayev himself has intimated that he may take "drastic measures" against his political opponents. The Kabar news agency quoted Akayev on December 4 as saying "it was no longer possible to treat calmly illegal actions by small groups of people pursuing their mercenary ends."
Turgunaliev and other opposition leaders sounded undaunted by the possibility of an attempted crackdown, suggesting that the president, even with Russian backing, lacks the power base to succeed. "Akayev can try to find a way out, but enough people have lost faith in him that he won't be able to survive long in Kyrgyzstan," Turgunaliev said.
Many Kyrgyz, according to Turgunaliev, view the establishment of a Russian base in Kyrgyzstan as a severe blow to the country's sovereignty. "Since 1917, we've lived under two empires - the Soviet and the Russian," Turgunaliev said. "We managed to leave the Soviet empire under [Former Russian President Boris] Yeltsin, but now we find that the Russian empire under Putin has returned."
Popular anger with the administration is fueled not only by the Russian base decision, but also by Akayev's moves in 2001-2002 to transfer territory to China and Kazakhstan. Turgunaliev also claimed that the Kyrgyz officials were at present mulling whether to cede territory to Uzbekistan. A December 10 article in the Uzbek newspaper Narodnoye Slovo, however, accused Kyrgyz authorities of indulging in "pseudo-patriotism" that was hindering agreement on a border delimitation pact.
At the same time, Kyrgyz are wary of the US presence in Kyrgyzstan at Manas airport. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archives]. While many see the United States as less of a threat to Kyrgyz sovereignty than Russia, Turgunaliev asserted that many are disenchanted with what they perceive as US double-standards. "They [US officials] talk about democratization. In reality, they support an authoritarian regime. They are financing corruption in Kyrgyzstan," Turgunaliev said.
Turgunaliev indicated that the political opposition was prepared to step up activities designed to force Akayev's resignation. "The political situation is now such that Akayev may be thrown out of office," he said.
Fiona Hill, a Central Asia analyst at The Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, said Akayev is in a vulnerable position. Since the Ak-Sui events, the president's policies have vacillated between efforts to repress and to find accommodation with the political opposition, Hill suggested. As a result of this zig-zag political course, Hill added, Akayev has few political allies. "He has lost the respect [within the government] of both those who want a hard line and those who want democratization," Hill said.
Both Olcott and Hill drew comparisons between Akayev's current situation and that of former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev during the late perestroika era in 1990-1991. Gorbachev just over a decade ago was struggling to maintain control over political forces including the emergence of strong political opposition, economic turmoil and a rise of nationalist desires among the then-Soviet Union's many ethnic groups that were buffeting society.
In response to the crisis, Gorbachev drifted into various political alliances of convenience, ultimately embracing hardliners intent on using coercive methods to forestall challenges to the Communist Party's sole decision-making authority. Gorbachev, however, demonstrated a lack of will in using force to crush his opponents, leaving him isolated. Hardliners, frustrated by Gorbachev's indecisiveness, eventually mounted an abortive coup in August 1991 that precipitated the collapse of the Soviet Union and Gorbachev's own demise.
Akayev now finds himself, like Gorbachev before him, confronting similar political circumstances and under growing pressure to clamp down, while having "little stomach" for authoritarian methods, Hill said.
In any event, future prospects for democratization in Kyrgyzstan appear bleak over the near term, according to Hill. The appearance of Russian armed forces in Kyrgyzstan "makes it more difficult for the United States to encourage Akayev to deal with the opposition," Hill said.
Justin Burke is the editor of EurasiaNet.
Justin Burke is Eurasianet’s publisher.