The Status of Kyrgyzstan Unrest and Supply Routes for Afghan Surge


June 27, 2010 saw the overwhelming majority of Kyrgyz voters approve the new constitution, transforming Kyrgyzstan to a parliamentary republic. The news was received with mixed sentiments of hope and uncertainty.

This analysis of perspectives looks at how the transition to Parliamentary Republic is being received in Central Asia, and what it could mean for the future of Kyrgyzstan. The ongoing issue of the Manas air base is discussed in light of the implications for the US supply lines in the region, should the base be closed. As the US surge in Afghanistan proceeds, keeping the troops well supplied is the key to victory.



Rosa Otunbayeva, former caretaker of the Kyrgyz interim government, has been sworn in as the caretaker President of Kyrgyzstan under the new parliamentary constitution. Otunbayeva plans to withdraw from politics after her caretaker term ends in 2011, but much could happen between now and then, and all eyes are now focused ahead to the October parliamentary elections.

Despite the fear that the June referendum would see more violence ensue in the ravaged country, it went off without a major hitch, with a 90 percent affirmative vote. Many experts claim that this was a stability vote, and that most of the voters have no real idea of what the constitution entails in the minutiae, but saw it instead as the ticket to some calm in the country. In the immediate situation, they may be right.

While the UN and US sent messages of approval and congratulations on the referendum, which in their view is step towards normalization, Russia has quickly changed her tune on Kyrgyzstan and come out against the constitutional reforms:

“Will this not turn into a succession of endless problems, reshuffles in parliament, the rise to power of these or those political forces, an uncontrolled transfer of authority from one hand to another, and, finally, will this not facilitate the arrival to power of the forces with extremist views?”

Russian President Medvedev’s sentiments, expressed at the recent G20 summit is far from encouraging, although there is widespread adherence to the view that Kyrgyzstan will not benefit in the long run from the changes to the constitution.

The problems lie in the entrenched power struggles within parliament, which is why everyone is now nervously eyeing the calendar for the countdown to the upcoming elections. Despite the best efforts of Otunbayeva to try and create a new chapter in Kyrgyz history-and she really is putting in a lot of effort-there remains the fact that Kyrgyzstan, and the region in general is not well disposed to democracy. The people may well want it, but there are those in the government that want to hold onto power, not let it go.

This political ‘immaturity,’ so named by Alexei Malashenko of the Carnegie Moscow Center, stems from the fact that Kyrgyzstan is used to a ‘strongman’ style government, authoritarianism and hereditary presidencies (as was the case with the Akayev and Bakayev ‘dynasties’). Furthermore, Kyrgyzstan is surrounded by countries with authoritarian style governments, and no one in the region is known for free and fair elections-the manipulation of the parliamentary system, via coercion and threat is almost a certainty, despite the best intentions of the new president.

Otunbayeva is therefore likely to have the biggest struggles within her own parliament, and things may well play out like President Medvedev suggests.

US Supply Routes

The US airbase at Manas, just north of the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, is still on shaky ground, as pressure from Moscow mounts to end the use of the Manas air strip by the US for military supplies and refueling. The base has been in question for some years now, but Russia is upping the ante on the fragile Kyrgyz government to evict its competitor in the region.

The US is currently paying US$60 million a year for the use of the Manas base, a deal negotiated with former Kyrgyz President Bakiyev. Otunbayeva extended the July 2010 lease agreement end, in light of the heavy load on the fledgling government, commenting that the issue of the base was “not a high priority for us” given the internal situation. It may become a high priority, if the tensions between the US and Russia vis-a-vis the status of the base reach further heights.

At present the Manas airbase is responsible for seeing all personnel in and out of Afghanistan, which now numbers nearly 100,000 US troops and serves as the main refueling station. The base also served to fly in all sensitive and lethal material and supplies into Afghanistan. This numbers at around twenty percent of the total war supplies sent to Afghanistan-the remainder mostly enters the country through Pakistan.

There are approximately 580 trucks traversing the Af-Pak border daily carrying US supplies, and these are increasingly the targets of militant raids and attacks. The supply line through Pakistan is by no means secure, with more than 150 local drivers losing their lives since the supply routes commences in 2002. Between five and six thousand trucks have been lost to militant activity.

Trucks have to travel nearly 2000 kilometers from the port in Karachi where the cargo arrives, to the Bargam air base outside Kabul. Despite the danger, it is still cheaper for the bulk of the cargo to go through Pakistan than alternative land routes, but the Manas base is seen as a vital pivot point for the Afghan war effort, and its use by the US would be considerably expanded given free-reign.

As security situation in Pakistan deteriorates the surety of supply lines through the Af-Pak border is less certain than ever.  Otunbayeva correctly pointed out in a recent interview that “the base is the most important agenda of the U.S. not our political development.” Her astute account must have irked some in Washington, but does little to change the fact that the US will bring pressure to bear on the new Kyrgyz government if there is a negative signal given on the renewal of the base lease.

In 2009 then-President Bakiyev upped the rent of the base from $17 to $60 million per year after threatening closure, but the new government will not likely threaten closure simply to try and increase rent-if another announcement of imminent closure arrives, it can be sure that Russia has brought to bear pressure of her own, and with either inducements or veiled threats (most probably a combination) won the new government over to the pro-Russian position of ‘only Russia’ in neighboring bases.

The fledgling government needs nothing less than a power tussle between two great powers playing out in its front yard, so Otunbayeva may well be playing the safest card by seeking to maintain the status quo while she gets her own house in order.

If the situation in Pakistan worsens and the supply lines through the Khyber Pass become strategically impractical, then Otunbayeva will be forced to reopen the book on the Manas base, given that in all likelihood, this is the most preferred alternate route for supplying the war effort in Afghanistan. Alternatively, if other supply routes become more challenging, the leverage of Pakistan only increases.

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