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Base Motives

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The lead story in today’s New York Times looks at the deteriorating human rights conditions in the Kyrgyz Republic:

”You know what this is for,” Emilbek Kaptagaev recalled being told by the police officers who snatched him off the street. No other words, just blows to the head, then all went black. Mr. Kaptagaev, an opponent of Kyrgyzstan’s president, who is a vital American ally in the war in nearby Afghanistan, was found later in a field with a concussion, broken ribs and a face swollen into a mosaic of bruises. Mr. Kaptagaev said that the beating last month was a warning to stop campaigning against the president, but that he would not. And so he received an anonymous call only a few days ago. “Have you forgotten?” the voice growled. “Want it to happen again?”

Mr. Kaptagaev’s story is not unusual in this poor former Soviet republic in the mountains of Central Asia. Many opposition politicians and independent journalists have been arrested, prosecuted, attacked and even killed over the last year as the Kyrgyz president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, has consolidated control in advance of elections on Thursday, which he is all but certain to win.

No one who knows President Bakiyev—and I have known him for sixteen years—is likely to find this surprising. In a recent description of challenges to his administration, he put the word “freedom” in first place. Is he concerned that the Kyrgyz have too much of it? Accounts like the one above suggest that he’s out to give “freedom” a good, sound thrashing. So how does the United States react? Since early 2002, the Kyrgyz Republic has had an important position in Washington’s view—it is home to Ganci Air Force Base. And maintaining that military installation has been the alpha and omega of U.S.-Kyrgyz relations. The collapse of the nation’s nascent democracy hardly seems to be given a second thought.

Today, the two leading opposition candidates for president withdrew, charging fraud–a perspective almost universally accepted by the Kyrgyz. According to one poll only 26% of Kyrgyz voters believe their elections will be “free and fair.”

When interviewed, of course, American diplomats intone pious platitudes like this:

Interviewed about the political situation, another State Department official, George A. Krol, said reports of violence “greatly disturb the department.” “The United States doesn’t shy away from raising these issues with the Kyrgyz authorities,” he said.

But the realities of the situation were laid bare by former Kyrgyz ambassador to the United States Baktybek Abdrisaev in a February op-ed in the Washington Post:

Once the base was set up, I saw a fairly radical change in American attitudes. Before, Washington had consistently juggled a series of priorities–broadly speaking, they were security concerns, economic concerns, and advocacy of human rights and democracy. But once the base was established, it became clear that while other concerns might be voiced from time to time, only one thing really mattered: the air base. In the end, this shift served neither country’s interests.

He’s right about that. So far, the Clinton State Department has its Central Asia policy set on autopilot. It’s badly in need of a reassessment. And as it happens, the Central Asia policy of the Clinton presidency would furnish a solid reference point for a “restart.” Under President Clinton, Central Asia policy involved national security, energy, and human rights, and diplomats were encouraged to take a longer-term perspective on the region and its needs. They largely came to recognize that investment in the region’s human capital was more important than investment in its hydrocarbons and offered greater potential returns for the region and the United States. That would make a fine starting point for a new policy.

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