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Kyrgyz Unrest Could Complicate U.S. Exit From Afghanistan

You might have missed it: a revolution almost happened in Kyrgyzstan earlier this week.

Attempts to topple the government in Bishkek have become an almost semi-annual event in Kyrgyzstan: in spring 2010, revolts in northwestern Kyrgyzstan metastasized into major protests that overthrew then-President Kurmanbek Bakiev and instated Roza Otunbaeva as interim President of the Central Asian republic. Since then–ethnic unrest in the south aside–Kyrgyzstan had seemed to be a model of democracy in a region not known for it. Elections last winter put Almazbek Atambaiev in the Presidential post, while parliamentary elections this September led to the independent Zhantoro Satybaldiev becoming Prime Minister. Not bad for a poor country plagued by corruption, North-South divides, and ethnic rivalries between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks?

Not exactly. After visiting the Kumtor gold mine, which is operated, drilled, and majority-owned by Canadian firm Centerra, Satybaldiev announced that he had no intention to nationalize the mine, which alone accounts for twelve percent of Kyrgyz GDP and more than half of the country’s total exports. That should have been enough to calm Western investors, whom Satybaldiev wants to attract to Kyrgyzstan, but the move infuriated many in a country where rural villagers have attempted to seize foreign bulldozers heading to gold mines. This, combined with a fair amount of political intrigue in the capital, led to opposition leaders and protestors storming the White House earlier this week; there were contradictory reports about whether gunshots were fired and by whom, but police were forced to bring out stun grenades, tear gas, attack dogs, and rubber bullets to prevent a repeat performance of the last “popular” overthrow of a sitting government.

Kyrgyzstan might be a far-away country about which most Via Meadia readers know little, but the country’s fate matters not just to several regional actors, but also to Washington.

Roughly two weeks ago, Moscow and Bishkek signed an agreement to have the former build and launch into operation two dams across Kyrgyz rivers. (Mountainous and lacking the natural gas or oil resources that several of its neighbors do, Kyrgyzstan is forced to rely on a combination of energy imports and Soviet-era dams to meet its energy needs; building more could lead it towards energy independence.) But political instability and nationalist fervor against foreigners ‘exploiting’ the country’s geological and hydrological wealth might mean that the anticipated start of construction, originally scheduled for this November, could be delayed. That, however, cheers up Uzbekistan, whose Ferghana Valley agricultural heartland lies downriver from Kyrgyz waters. Uzbek famrers wonder whether the Kyrgyz dam-meisters will provide the timely flows of water they need, and a delay in the start of the building projects will clearly be good news. Good news for now, that is, because tensions between the countries will undoubtedly skyrocket if and when the construction restarts.

The U.S., which leases Manas airbase from the Kyrgyz government, stands to lose much from instability in the region. President Atambaiev has repeatedly declared that he does not want the base used for any foreign military aviation after 2014, and protestors have gathered in front of the US Embassy in the Kyrgyz capital before to demand shuttering the base. All signs suggest that Atambaiev intends to maintain the existing agreement allowing US forces to use the base until the summer of 2014, which is timed to coincide with the Afghanistan withdrawal. But with protestors attempting to storm the US Embassy in Bishkek over the Innocence of Muslims film, and with Atambaiev’s hold on power looking more tenuous than before, the future of what will be an important node in coordinating the Afghanistan withdrawal is in question.

In the long run, events in this area will be shaped less by anything America wants or needs than by the rise of radical Islam, developments in local ethnic conflicts, and the ambitions and capabilities of Russia and China. The United States is not well suited to be the main arbiter of Central Asian politics, and assuming our Afghan involvement continues to diminish, it is unlikely that the United States will attempt to maintain a conventional military presence in the area. But until we extricate ourselves from the Afghan War, the fate of the base in Kyrgyzstan remains of concern, and the global not-war on not-terror will continue to be affected by what happens even in remote corners of Central Asia.

Getting involved in Kyrgyzstan was never a goal of American foreign policy, and staying there is not a major long term national interest, but for now we are there—and for now Kyrgyz unrest matters in Washington, DC.

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