A Coup and a Close Call in Kyrgyzstan

Article excerpt

Byline: Owen Matthews

The violence that gripped Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, last week quickly turned into a dictator's worst nightmare when the snowballing riots forced President Kurmanbek Bakiyev to flee for his life. But by week's end most pundits agreed that the biggest loser was the United States. Kyrgyzstan is home to the Manas air base, a logistical hub for U.S. troops fighting in Afghanistan. Ever since Bakiyev came to power in his own 2005 coup, the U.S. has plied him with money and access to keep the runways at Manas open. That support, which came despite allegations of the regime's endemic corruption and human-rights abuses, did not endear Washington to the opposition leaders who have now seized power.

Further complicating matters is Russia, which has long wanted U.S. troops out of Kyrgyzstan. Bakiyev cleverly played the two off each other, extracting hundreds of millions of dollars from both. In recent months, however, Moscow turned against Bakiyev and sided with the opposition. The U.S. now looks to have backed the wrong side of a high-stakes wager.

Happily for Washington, the former opposition doesn't seem to hold a grudge. Their self-proclaimed leader, Roza Otunbayeva, quickly reassured American officials last week that the new government had no plans to shut Manas, and she has close ties to the West, having served as ambassador to both the U. …