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Ethnic Cleansing in Kyrgyzstan: More American Chickens Come Home to Roost

NEW YORK--Believe it or not, I don't scour the headlines looking for tragedies and atrocities to blame on the United States.     

But that's how it often works out.

When the big earthquake ravaged Haiti earlier this year, it would have been a relief to look at the resulting pain and despair and see nothing more than the terrible result of tectonic movements. It would have been nice to be able to blame nature. Or France.

But France's crimes were over a century old. The freshly spilt blood in Haiti was and remains on the hands of the Americans who raped the Caribbean nation throughout the 20th century, and opened the 21st by keeping relief supplies and rescue teams out of the disaster zone so long that the people trapped under the rubble had bled or starved to death.

Now it's Kyrgyzstan's turn to fall apart as the result of American malfeasance.

The images coming out of Osh, a culturally diverse Silk Road city in the Ferghana Valley that recently celebrated its 5000th anniversary, are reminiscent of the collapse of Yugoslavia. Ethnic Kyrgyz, resentful over the recent ouster of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev and angry about an economy that always seems to get worse, have murdered hundreds of ethnic Uzbeks because they support the new interim government. Kyrgyz rioters burned Uzbek-owned homes and businesses, prompting tens of thousands of Uzbeks to flee across the border into Uzbekistan. Buildings spray-painted with the word "Kyrgyz" were spared.

Even by the never-a-dull-moment standards of Central Asia, this is worrisome. When feuding neighbors like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have a dispute, they bring in Kyrgyz mediators due to their reputation for wisdom and levelheadedness.

U.S. news consumers following the Kyrgyz crisis are repeatedly reminded about America's airbase near the capital of Bishkek, used to supply NATO forces occupying Afghanistan. The base, they say, is what we should care about. As for the recent violence, U.S. state-controlled media implies, this is more of the same in a region where tribes are constantly at one another's throats. "In 1990," reminded the Associated Press, "hundreds of people were killed in a violent land dispute between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in Osh, and only the quick deployment of Soviet troops quelled the fighting."

But the base isn't why Kyrgyzstan really matters. The  big effect is that the events in Osh mark the beginning of a new surge of anti-Americanism with long-term repercussions.

Sadly the voices of the most reliable experts on Central Asia, people like Ahmed Rashid and Martha Louise Alcott, are missing from an Ameri-centric narrative cut-and-pasted from wire service stories and neoconservative commentators.

True, Osh can be a tense place. In August 2000 my drivers were detained by Kyrgyz cops on suspicion of being Tajik. Hours later, I was forced to flee when hundreds of guerillas of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a radical Islamic group allied with the Taliban and based in Tajikistan, swarmed into the city.

Nevertheless, the conventional wisdom is wrong. This latest outbreak of violence represents something new. First, it's worse: bigger and more widespread. Second, as most Central Asians know, it's delayed fallout from George W. Bush's misadventures in regime change.

Bush's military-CIA complex had more than Iraq and Afghanistan on its collective mind. Over the course of six years, they toppled or attempted to overthrow the governments of Venezuela, Haiti, Belarus, Georgia, Ukraine--and, yes, Kyrgyzstan.

In March 2005 a CIA-backed (and in some cases -trained) mob of conservative Muslim young men from Osh drove up to Bishkek and stormed the presidential palace. President Askar Akayev, a former physicist who had been the only democratically-elected president in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, fled into exile in Russia.

Akayev, considered a liberal reformer throughout the 1990s, had turned more autocratic during his last years in power. Still, he had nothing on neighboring dictators like Uzbek President Islam Karimov, known for boiling political dissidents to death, or Kazakh leader Nursultan Nazarbayev, who had his two main political opponents tied up, shot, dumped on the side of a road--and declared suicides shortly before a presidential election. As of 2005 Akayev held exactly one political prisoner in custody.

Anyway, Akayev's real mistake was crossing Bush. After 9/11 the U.S. demanded an airbase at Manas airport, paying nominal rent. Reconsidering after the fact, the Kyrgyz government demanded more money: $10 million a year, quite a chunk of change in a country with an average salary of $25 a month.

Bakiyev, the Osh-based leader who replaced Akayev, was supposed to be more accommodating. Instead, he threatened to kick out the Americans unless they raised the rent again. Which they did, from $17 million to $63 million.

And now he's in exile too.

Obama learned a lot from Bush.

Just two weeks ago, on June 2nd, Obama's Air Force was again at odds with the Kyrgyz over money--this time over jet fuel prices. The post-Bakiyev interim government of Acting Prime Minister Roza Otunbayeva wants to close the base-but, as the residents of Okinawa can attest, the U.S. military is harder to get rid of than crabgrass.

Kyrgyzstan was never a lucky country. Surrounded by neighbors with vast energy resources and other natural resources, the Kyrgyz have little but water and rocks. But it enjoyed a strategic location. Under Akayev, people were poor but the country enjoyed relative stability.

Since then there has been political disintegration, with southern provinces turned into de facto fiefdoms run by brutal for-profit warlords. Neither Bakiyev nor Otunbayeva, both brought to power by mobs, has enjoyed legitimacy or full acceptance. This is the real story: political and economic chaos masquerading as ethnic cleansing.     

Once again--as in Haiti--it's largely our fault.

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