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Apr 10

Written by: Diana West
Saturday, April 10, 2010 5:27 AM 

AP Photo: Protestors in the Kyrgyz cabinet room after seizing the government last Thursday.

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Remember that flash of headlines that whizzed by last week about rioting, revolt, civil war, whatever in one of those Islamic , consonant-jammed, '-Stans near Afghanistan?

That would be Kyrgyzstan, whose US base in Manas is the premier hub for US and NATO troops transiting in and out of Afghanistan. I gather flights in and out have been touch and (not) go since the capital was seized by factions opposed to the US bases, sending friendlyish President Bakiyev into hiding.

Today, Reuters reports that U.S. military Central Command has announced that all military passenger flights have been suspended and that cargo flights are "not guaranteed." Also:

Bakiyev's refusal to step down remains the main question as tenuous calm returned to the streets of Bishkek, still strewn with rubble and broken glass after days of violent clashes.

[Opposition leader Roza] Otunbayeva has offered Bakiyev safe passage out of Kyrgyzstan if he steps down. His exact whereabouts are unclear.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin became the first world leader to recognise the authority of the self-proclaimed government, just hours after it took power, raising suspicions that Moscow had played a role in the events.

Say it's not so, Vlad.

Otunbayeva has described Russia as a key ally and publicly thanked Putin for his support. Almazbek Atambayev, deputy head of the new government, met Putin in Moscow on Saturday but there were no details of the talks.

The Toronto Star has more:

After the coup this week, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was first to recognize the provisional government, while denying he had anything to do with the coup. But a Russian MP hinted that Moscow could send peacekeepers if the crisis spirals out of control.

Otunbayeva told reporters that her top deputy was holding talks in Moscow on Russian government aid, fuelling rumours that Russia was due for a comeback in a territory where it once held sway.

The coup also opens the door to a renewed power struggle between Washington and Moscow over the Manas base, which the U.S. opened after the invasion of Afghanistan, and Russia fiercely opposed.

Moscow has its own small base in Kyrgyzstan, and has reportedly made a deal to open another. But American boots on the former Soviet soil raised hackles in Russia and Bakiyev was able to play off the two rivals.

The Kremlin was outraged when the Kyrgyz leader accepted a $2 billion promise of [Russian] aid and loans after pledging to shut down the U.S. base, but later reneged when Washington agreed to triple its rent payments.

Moscow officials were quick to hint that Manas's days might be numbered, and an influential member of the new Kyrgyz government echoed their sentiments. Otunbayeva indicated that it would continue, although "some questions" remained.

"She's a known quantity, she's Westernized, and it's highly unlikely that she'd be in bed with Russia on the base issue," said Central Asia expert Annette Bohr of Chatham House in London.

Why am I not convinced?

But Washington's failure to hold Kyrgyzstan accountable for corruption and human rights abuses, even while protesting similar problems in Afghanistan, has alienated many of Otunbayeva's colleagues in the new government, as well as ordinary Kyrgyz.

The bottom line, says Bohr, is money.

"The U.S. contributes a significant amount to Kyrgyzstan's budget." That amounts to $177 million of its small $5 billion budget, in a country where the average annual income is $2,100.

To Washington, Kyrgyzstan is mainly an access route to Afghanistan. But Moscow's goal is more uncertain, observers say.

"It wants recognition that Kyrgyzstan is a sphere of privileged interest, and it wants control, "says Eurasia expert Alexander Cooley of Columbia University. "But how to do that, and for what? Russia doesn't know how to translate influence into monopoly." Especially in a country that has learned to manoeuvre in its own interest.

And, he says, Moscow's real threat is not from the West, but from China.

While Moscow and Washington faced off over the air base, China moved in briskly with infrastructure projects.

As usual.

Maybe it's time to throw in some sheep.

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