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Does the U.S. need to worry about Kyrgyzstan's new leader?

The self-proclaimed interim leader of Kyrgyzstan -- an obscure Central Asian state with a very important U.S. military base -- raised some alarms in Washington when she took a congratulatory phone call from Vladimir Putin and thanked Russia for its “significant help” in disposing of the regime of Kurbanbek Bakiyev. Bakiyev, after all, had defied Putin by refusing to close the U.S. Manas Air Base, which is important to the war in Afghanistan, even after Putin summoned him to Moscow last year and essentially paid him to do so.

An unnamed Russian official in Prague fueled the speculation by telling reporters Thursday that Kyrgyzstan should have only one foreign military base -- and that it should be Russian. So, did Moscow somehow sponsor this week’s popular rebellion-cum-coup in order to expel the United States from what it regards as its sphere of influence?

Not likely. I’ve met Roza Otunbayeva, the new Kyrgyz leader, as have many in Washington. She lived here for several years in the 1990s while serving as her country’s first ambassador to the United States. She is a product of the former Soviet Union; she was once the Soviet ambassador to Malaysia. But the good news is that she comes as close as anyone in Kyrgyzstan does to being a liberal democrat.

Otunbayeva, now 59, came to Washington in June 2005 as acting foreign minister following Kyrgyzstan’s last revolution -- one that, like that of the past several days, involved the violent ouster of an autocrat by mobs that stormed government buildings. That episode was called the "Tulip revolution,” in the spirit of the popular uprisings for democracy that had taken place in Georgia, Ukraine and Lebanon in the previous 18 months.

But the nature of the 2005 Kyrgyz uprising was more ambiguous than the other “color revolutions.” Some of its leaders were advocates of liberal democracy; others were simply rivals of the previous ruler, Askar Akayev. It wasn’t clear what direction the new regime would go in -- and as it turned out, a new autocracy, led by Bakiyev, began to entrench itself a few months later.

Otunbayeva, however, was a confirmed member of the liberal camp. During the visit to Washington, she stressed that she wanted “the United States to protect democracy and build democracy,” as I quoted her at the time. She asked then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for help in funding free media and in training security forces. She said the new administration would hold free and fair elections. And she said Kyrgyzstan should seek good relations with both Russia and the United States. “We want to debut a new country and a new attitude of the world toward us,” she said.

A few months later, Otunbayeva was forced out of the foreign ministry, and she soon became an opposition leader. Since then, she has watched, no doubt with frustration, as the United States cultivated Bakiyev, even as he constructed a corrupt, nepotistic regime and staged fraudulent elections. It would be understandable if she harbored resentment. She’s also only one of a few opposition leaders; her position as interim president doesn’t necessarily mean her views will prevail.

It nevertheless seems possible that Otunbayeva -- if she survives the ongoing turmoil -- will try to return to the program she spelled out five years ago. She’s been quoted as saying that the new regime will not immediately act on the Manas base, and that it will hold elections in six months. At best, Otunbayeva could lead a breakthrough for democracy in autocrat-dominated Central Asia -- which would be a win for the United States.

By Jackson Diehl  | April 8, 2010; 3:04 PM ET
Categories:  Diehl  | Tags:  Jackson Diehl  
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I thought Obama was going to end the wars by now.

Posted by: fireball72 | April 8, 2010 4:48 PM | Report abuse

"At best, Otunbayeva could lead a breakthrough for democracy in autocrat-dominated Central Asia -- which would be a win for the United States."

Not necessarily. The newly elected government might decide it doesn't want a US base on its territory. The country is a Muslim country, and the US's popularity in Muslim countries is not what it might be. Maybe Kyrgyzstan is an exception. We will no doubt find out.

Posted by: ColoradoJack | April 8, 2010 5:20 PM | Report abuse

"I thought Obama was going to end the wars by now."

It helps to listen to President Obama.

Even Candidate Obama said some interesting things.

That helps you avoid surprises.

Posted by: GaryEMasters | April 8, 2010 5:46 PM | Report abuse

If the Kremlin was in on this, I'd say the lady isn't likely to bite the hand that feeds her. Look for the air base to be closed within a year or so.

Posted by: Puller58 | April 9, 2010 6:55 AM | Report abuse

Anyone really in on who invested in this revolution can shed light on what is down the road for Kyrgystan. But even then it is "the law of the jungle" and the dust hasn't even cleared yet. The lions may have just made the kill but the hyenas are always close behind and looking for a cheap lunch.

Posted by: glenglish | April 11, 2010 2:37 AM | Report abuse

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