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The Arab Spring, Kyrgyzstan, And Reaping What We Sow

U.S. soldiers board a plane bound for Afghanistan at the U.S. Transit Center at Manas airport.
U.S. soldiers board a plane bound for Afghanistan at the U.S. Transit Center at Manas airport.
Pundits and politicians have offered no shortage of explanations as to what inspired the Arab Spring.

Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi setting himself on fire in December to protest his humiliation at the hands of a corrupt government was the literal spark that lit the flame of regional protest. But Bouazizi's selfless act was merely the tip of the iceberg: the yearning for democratic change has evidently been deeply embedded within the Arab world, the most resistant region to the waves of democratization that have swept the globe since the end of World War II.

It's doubtful that the masses that gathered in the streets of Tunis and Cairo were anything more than remotely aware of the tumultuous events that swept the Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan in April 2010, if they were aware of them at all. But in many ways, Kyrgyzstan offers a template for the revolutionary changes currently roiling the Middle East. There, an autocratic and corrupt leader, Kurmanbek Bakiev, was forced out of office by a massive street protest (which, unlike those in Tunisia and Egypt, turned violent). An interim government quickly took the former regime’s place, held a constitutional referendum three months later, and followed that with a successful parliamentary election in November 2010.

Though the country's transition has been far from smooth (as witnessed by the deadly ethnic rioting that wracked the southern cities of Osh and Jalal-Abad in June 2010), Kyrgyzstan appears to be on its way to becoming the first parliamentary democracy in Central Asia -- a region second only to the Middle East in its inhospitableness to democracy.

As much as Kyrgyzstan may serve as a model for those nations in the Arab orbit undergoing unprecedented change, American policy toward the country offers important lessons for the future. Most significant among them is that the United States ought not to treat nations as a means to accomplishing other policy goals but as ends in and of themselves. In the minds of U.S. policymakers, Kyrgyzstan has mattered mainly because it hosts a military base crucial to the U.S.-led war effort in Afghanistan.

Viewed With Suspicion

The Transit Center at Manas -- located at the airport in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital -- has long been the most important transfer point for NATO troops and supplies to the theater. But far from feeling any degree of pride in Manas as their country's unique contribution to stabilizing Afghanistan, most Kyrgyz view it with suspicion. Its presence has been the single most important fomenter of anti-American attitudes in the country.

That's because the United States allowed itself to be manipulated by a series of unscrupulous Kyrgyz leaders who used Manas as a form of leverage in their bilateral dealings with the world's superpower. In early 2009, Bakiev announced that he would evict the United States from Manas. Moscow's fingerprints were all over the policy about-face, seeing that the message was delivered just days after Bakiev accepted a multibillion-dollar loan package from the Russians. Ultimately, the United States tripled the rent it paid the Kyrgyz government, essentially bribing its way back into Bishkek's good graces. (How much of this money eventually made its way from state coffers into Bakiev's bank accounts is unknown.)

The behavior of Bakiev and his similarly corrupt predecessor, Askar Akaev (who also dangled the future of Manas to extract support from the United States), was not much different from the extortionist rhetoric of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, both of whom told the West, "Apres moi, le deluge," regarding their supposedly anti-Islamist bona fides.

So it should have come as no surprise to U.S. policymakers that having overthrown Bakiev entirely on their own, Kyrgyzstan's new leaders did not take too kindly to entreaties from Washington.

"You came to us to help us build democracy," Roza Otunbaeva, a former opposition leader who now serves as Kyrgyzstan's president, told "The Washington Post" last year. "And then just one day, you put your hands over your mouth just to have a base."

An End In And Of Itself

While Kyrgyzstan's post-Bakiev crop of government officials have varied in their public statements concerning the role the United States should play in their country (with opinions generally ranging from vague to outright hostile), the view on the ground is almost uniformly suspicious of U.S. intentions. And who can blame the Kyrgyz for thinking this way?

Had U.S. policymakers seen Kyrgyzstan as an end in and of itself and not merely a means toward some other policy objective -- and as a country of over 5 million people and not just a ruling clique -- then we would not be in the quandary we are today. Thankfully, with the war in Afghanistan gradually winding down, Manas will play a less significant role in U.S.-Kyrgyz relations and the memory of U.S. complicity during the Bakiev era will hopefully dampen.

But as the Arab Spring matures, the United States should be prepared for Egyptians and Tunisians to be something less than grateful.

James Kirchick is a writer at large with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. This article originally appeared in the June issue of the Center for European Policy Analysis’ "Central Europe Digest." The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL