Is The US Fixation over the Manas Airbase Putting Us at Odds With Kyrgyz Democrats?

Alexander Cooley in Foreign Policy:

The Kyrgyz political opposition has also grown to resent Washington's single-minded focus on Manas at the expense of human rights issues. The opposition was stunned when President Barack Obama personally courted Bakiyev last year in an effort to rescind the decision to close Manas; Obama was criticized for jettisoning his democratic values in order to curry favor with the repressive Kyrgyz regime.

The conspicuous U.S. refusal to condemn Bakiyev's July 2009 presidential re-election, an election harshly criticized by international observers, further alienated Bakiyev's critics. Ironically, Washington's silence can be contrasted with the Russian media's denunciations of Bakiyev's corruption and nepotism. Of course, Russia's accusations come out of rivalry rather than genuine concern for human rights, but the attacks have nevertheless played well among the Kyrgyz public.

For now, Otunbayeva has indicated that status quo operational arrangements will remain in effect for the duration of the basing contract. However, as the base's lease comes up for renegotiation this summer, it is now a certainty that Bishkek will demand to restructure the contracts and change the base's legal provisions, if only to demonstrate to a suspicious public that all is not “business as usual” at Manas.

In response, Washington might be tempted to throw even more money at Bishkek: After all, it worked in the past.

But paying off the Kyrgyz is a short-term solution that will backfire in the long term. Instead, to protect Manas further down the road, the United States must convince the Kyrgyz people that it is interested in more than a transactional relationship. For example, the United States can publicly encourage the Kyrgyz interim government to nationalize the distribution of fuel to the base, as it has announced it will do with Bakiyev's private banks, and to make more transparent base-related payments to the national budget, as opposed to paying out to opaque companies with offshore registrations. Of course, U.S. officials — having just witnessed how chronic incompetence can generate the rapid collapse of a government — would also do well to re-engage on issues of governance and democracy.