The timing of this week's revolt in Kyrgyzstan, making headlines around the world, is telling. On Thursday the son and heir apparent of ousted president Kurmanbek Bakiyev, Maksim, was scheduled to speak at an economic forum in Washington. The meeting has been postponed indefinitely, and something tells me it may not be re-scheduled any time soon. As the Guardian reported today, interim opposition spokesperson and former Kyrgyz ambassador the United States, Roza Otunbayeva, said of the outgoing president: "His business is finished in Kyrgyzstan … in essence people were simply fed up with the previous regime, and with its repressive, tyrannical and abusive behaviour. They want to build democracy here."
It is a curious picture – a nation literally at the crossroads of the US "democratisation" project in Afghanistan violently erupting to eject a government that had benefited handsomely from US aid and lucrative insider contracts – despite a drumbeat of reports over the last few years of the ruling party's increasingly anti-democratic nature. But the American government's laissez-faire attitude towards the human rights situation in Kyrgyzstan isn't very hard to fathom. The strategic location of the country is a lynchpin in the US armed forces' movement of troops and supplies in and out of Afghanistan, via the massive American military air base just outside of the capital city of Bishkek. In fact when the government threatened to cancel the lease to the base last summer, the Obama administration wooed the president with a private letter, and eventually agreed to triple rent payments on the lease. In the meantime most people in Kyrgyzstan saw little benefit from this "strategic relationship."
"The human rights situation has deteriorated in the last two to three years, and especially in the last six months," Dr Andrea Berg tells me, a Berlin-based Central Asia researcher with Human Rights Watch. "There have been physical attacks and murders of journalists, closures of newspapers, trials against high-ranking opposition members. I think the last straw was the socio-economic problems, increase of the prices for energy, and on cell phone fees. The US has criticised certain developments in Kyrgyzstan, but in general the main concern was about stability. Human rights came second."
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Realpolitik can and often does have unintended consequences; the bloody revolt in Kyrgyzstan is just the latest example. Interestingly the protests, in which at least 70 were shot dead by security forces before the opposition stormed the parliament and wrested power, bear an uncanny resemblance to another popular revolt of the past decade half a world away. In 2003 the US-supported government of Bolivia was toppled amid state repression and violence after long simmering anger over resource nationalisations and utility hikes in the desperately poor Andean nation. That bloody episode led to the election of the first indigenous president in the hemisphere, Evo Morales, and a government decidedly at odds with US geopolitical interests in Latin America. The deposed president, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, now lives in exile in the United States – where he has been charged in two civil suits for crimes against humanity and extrajudicial killings during the protests that precipitated his resignation.
Kyrgyzstan, like Bolivia at one time, is hardly the only such small, democracy-deficient, country with some manner of "strategic relationship" that fits in to larger US geopolitical concerns – in fact it may be the rule. But the unexpected swiftness with which an unpopular regime was swept aside, and the potentially seismic impact it has on the US war effort in Afghanistan – is a good reminder of the inevitable breaking point produced by a US foreign policy semantically dedicated to human rights – that looks the other way while "strategic allies" loot their countries' assets, murder their journalists, and send troops out to gun people down in the streets.
In central Asia this groaning contradiction is louder than usual. While the war and occupation in Afghanistan was framed by President Obama recently as an effort at protecting "America's vital interests" in the region, there is at least periodic lip service paid to democracy enhancement and institution building in that country. But when democratic norms are trampled left and right in a neighbouring country, and the US looks the other way because it happens to be sitting on some prime real estate, we shouldn't be too surprised when things blow up and "strategic allies" fall before a storm of popular outrage. Given the evidence of business as usual, perhaps a foreign policy that prioritises the defence of human rights and discourages official corruption is actually the most realpolitik of them all.