- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Call it a Tulip Revolution in reverse. On April 7, widespread anti-government protests broke out in the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan. Within two days, protesters had stormed government buildings and overrun state security forces, the country’s president had fled the capital for his stronghold in the south, and a new interim government had been formed.

The scene was eerily reminiscent of events five years earlier, when a wave of pro-democracy protests swept Soviet-era strongman Askar Akayev from power in a transformation that became known as the Tulip Revolution. Back then, Mr. Akayev’s successor, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, pledged to abandon the previous regime’s near-unfettered presidential fiat, corruption and cronyism. Once in power, however, Mr. Bakiyev quickly reverted to Soviet type, cobbling together a regime as power-hungry, repressive and authoritarian as the one it had replaced. Now Mr. Bakiyev has gone the way of his predecessor, unseated by a coalition of opposition groups led by 59-year-old opposition activist (and former foreign minister) Roza Otunbayeva.

At first, it looked like change for the better. Despite her previous high-level posts, Mrs. Otunbayeva is hardly an establishment politician. In 2005, she was one of the leaders of the original Tulip Revolution that ousted Mr. Akayev. Less than a year later, with the Bakiyev government balking at implementing promised reforms, she reprised her opposition role, assuming chairmanship of the Asaba political party and agitating for constitutional reforms and greater parliamentary power. All of which initially raised hopes that Bishkek’s new government would turn out to be a good deal more pluralistic and accountable than the last one.

But there is mounting evidence that the coup in Bishkek actually was instigated by Moscow. Officially, the Kremlin has professed ignorance of the events in Kyrgyzstan, but activists there paint a different picture. “Russia played its role in ousting Bakiyev,” opposition leader Omurbek Tekebayev recently confirmed to reporters. And since taking power, Bishkek’s new leaders have wasted no time cozying up to their Russian patrons, lobbying Moscow for financial help and humanitarian aid to assist in rebuilding their ruined economy and - more ominously - for an expanded Russian military presence, ostensibly for security purposes. These steps have sent the unmistakable signal that, for all of its pro-democracy rhetoric, the Kyrgyz opposition is dancing to tunes played in Moscow.

All of this should matter a great deal to Washington. Because of its strategic location, Kyrgyzstan emerged as a key logistical hub for U.S. and Coalition operations in the days after Sept. 11, 2001. Eight-and-a-half years on, it still serves as a transit point for an estimated 15,000 personnel and 500 tons of cargo per month, making it an indispensable part of Washington’s approach to securing stability in post-Taliban Afghanistan.

At least for the moment, Mrs. Otunbayeva and company appear willing to continue to play this role. Bishkek’s new rulers have been quick to reassure Washington that the lease for the U.S. air base in Manas will be “honored” for the time being. Once the lease expires in July, however, nothing is certain.

Under Mr. Bakiyev, Bishkek sought to balance its relationships with Moscow and Washington. Last year, on the heels of a multibillion-dollar investment package and more than a bit of behind-the-scenes arm-twisting from Moscow, the Kyrgyz president announced the termination of Washington’s lease at the Manas facility. Back then, deft U.S. diplomacy succeeded in salvaging a key American strategic foothold in the “post-Soviet space”; Manas was rebranded a “transit route,” rent for the facility was tripled, and American forces were allowed to remain in-country. The reversal was a victory for Washington and a public setback for Moscow - one the Kremlin has not forgotten. Now, with a new, more pliable client in Bishkek, Russia might be able to accomplish what it could not under Mr. Bakiyev and force an American exit from Manas.

As goes Kyrgyzstan, so will go America’s standing in the “post-Soviet space.” In the half-decade since the first Tulip Revolution, the U.S. has weathered a dramatic reversal of fortune in the region. Through a series of economic and political manipulations, Moscow has slowly but surely altered the regional status quo in its favor, seeing an extended American presence there as inimical to its geopolitical interests.

Kyrgyzstan’s coup is only the latest installment in this tug of war over the energy-rich, strategically vital region that sits at the crossroads of the Middle East, Europe and Asia. But if it ends up constricting America’s freedom of action in Afghanistan and beyond, it just might turn out to be the most decisive.

Ilan Berman is vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington.

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