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In Kyrgyzstan, Still A Compromise

Since Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev announced two weeks ago that his country plans to kick the U.S. military out of a base, key to operations in Afghanistan, that it operates at Manas airport in Bishkek, there's been much media chatter about what the Obama administration and Pentagon will do. Negotiate with Bakiev, who has claimed the U.S. doesn't give his country enough money (and seems to be under Russia's thumb)? Or find another location for a base?

The latter option has raised the possibility that Uzbekistan, one of the world's most oppressive regimes, might host a base. The country was home to one for a few years after the Sept. 11 attacks, but it closed in 2005 when relations between the U.S. and Uzbek governments soured, mainly due to egregious human rights violations by Uzbekistan's Karimov regime. In an article today in Slate, Christopher Flavelle details Uzbekistan's horrendous record--torturing political prisoners, massacring hundreds of civilians in the town of Andijan, silencing the press--and explains why "[g]etting into bed with Uzbekistan could be Obama's first ugly but necessary foreign-policy compromise."

For this reason, many are hoping that Kyrgyzstan will reconsider its position. But it's important to remember that Kyrgyzstan, while not as repressive as Uzbekistan, is far from innocent when it comes to undermining democracy and human rights. And, according to many people living there, its record has recently degraded. "Worse," a friend and activist living there told me this morning, succinctly describing the country today in comparison to only a few years ago, when it was emerging from the pro-democracy Tulip Revolution. In its 2008 "Freedom of the World" study, Freedom House reported that, on a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 being the highest rating possible, Kyrgyzstan scored only a 5 in political rights. And, for the second year in a row, the country also received a downward "trend arrow," indicating a serious development threatening its wobbly steps toward democracy.

The most recent development? Kyrgyzstan is trending toward a one-party state. In late 2007, the Bakiev regime pushed through constitutional amendments allowing the president to dissolve the legislature, which he immediately did, and establishing a tricky new electoral system that, when the president called for snap elections, helped the pro-regime party, Ak-Jol, to consolidate power. The government ignored charges from the OSCE and other international bodies that the elections were flawed, and when protesters took to the streets peacefully, many were arrested. A friend and civic organizer was jailed simply for holding a sign that said "I don't believe" in front of the Central Election Commission office.

In the last few years, there have also been countless violations of civil liberties--Freedom House gives Kyrgyzstan a 4 in that area--including raids on human rights organizations, beatings of journalists, and, most recently, legislative moves to restrict Internet freedom and religious assembly. (See here for the most recent State Department report on human rights abuses, published last March.)

This isn't to say that, considering our needs in Afghanistan, we shouldn't have a military base in Kyrgyzstan. It is, relatively speaking, the most free of the Central Asian states. (Even my activist friend in the country said, "If were to choose between U.S. supporting Uzbekistan and [Kyrgyzstan], I would choose the latter." And that's keeping in mind all of the complaints local people have about the Manas base.) But it is misleading to call a potential U.S. base move to Uzbekistan the first "ugly but necessary" compromise Obama might have to make. Remaining in Kyrgyzstan would also be a compromise. It would just be the lesser of two evils.

Seyward Darby