Story Publication logo March 15, 2007

Base Politics


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Home to the sole U.S. forward operating base into Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan maintains strong ties to...

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On an unseasonably warm January day in Bishkek, the capital city of Kyrgyzstan, Edil Baisalov, a young activist, found himself in yet another standoff with the government. Baisalov has had a dramatic run over the past year, speaking out against corruption in the government and leading a successful series of protests in the fall to amend Kyrgyzstan's constitution and decrease the powers of the president. His work has been dangerous; he has survived an assassination attempt and several attacks. Today, however, Baisalov was at the tax authority's office facing charges that he hadn't paid taxes on property nine years ago. "You have to remember Henry David Thoreau -- 'To remain independent you have to own nothing,'" he said. "Many activists have had this problem, so I interpret this as intimidation."

Worried about the development, Baisalov retreated to his home on the outskirts of Bishkek, where he lives with his wife, daughter, mother, and father. Baisalov is on what he calls "paternity leave" after the birth of his daughter, but his decision has more to do with wanting to take some time off from politics and fade from the public eye.

In many ways, Baisalov, who has a reputation as one of the brightest young reformists in Kyrgyzstan, is cooling his heels. This year, he has been cut off from his funding from the American organization the National Democracy Institute (NDI), which once supported his civic activities to the tune of $100,000 a year.

NDI says that Baisalov had become too political, crossing the line from activist to politician for his work supporting Kyrgyzstan's fledging opposition. "When you're providing support, one has to be careful of what the lines are to be sure not to look like we're funding political activities," said a representative of NDI in Washington. "[Baisalov] had adopted a much more political profile, with participation in the demonstrations in November. Our support was for election monitoring."

But the line separating politics from activist is a thin one in Kyrgyzstan. After the successful Tulip Revolution in 2005 succeeded in ousting authoritarian president Askar Akayev, many hoped that new president Kurmanbek Bakiyev would usher in real reforms. But soon enough, Bakiyev refused to move on his promised agenda. The media remains largely state-controlled, and corruption is rampant.

Baisalov, with his stylish black glasses and perfect English, could pass for a young media executive in New York. His media savvy and Western training allowed him to quickly rise to national and even international prominence for speaking out against corruption and mobilizing Kyrgyz citizens to criticize the government. Using a blog, he detailed insider politics in Kyrgyzstan. He organized government protests and helped opposition leaders craft their public message. In the protests last November that forced the government to rewrite the constitution, limiting the power of the president, Baisalov could be seen on television every day standing right next to opposition leaders.

Kyrgyzstan, a mountainous nation bordered by Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, China, and Tajikistan, has been seen as an islet of democracy by the West. The 2005 Tulip Revolution, which followed in the wake of democratic revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia and Serbia, appeared to signify a turning point for Central Asia, with Kyrgyzstan the leader of the emerging democracies. But in short order, U.S. pro-democracy funders have been losing their footing across the region. The International Republican Institute has had its offices closed in several countries, and now is primarily active only in Kyrgyzstan. NDI, while fairing better, has also seen a dramatic cooling off in Central Asia.

Meanwhile, democracy in Kyrgyzstan is losing ground fast. After the successful November protests, the Kyrgyz government reversed several amendments to the constitution during December holidays. Why then, would NDI cut off Baisalov from his funding right at a time when it seemed democracy reformists needed support the most?

Baisalov thinks it's because he didn't want to play ball. "It was an unhappy situation because they didn't want to be seen as representing my activism and criticism of the government," he said. A representative of a democracy organization working in Kyrgyzstan, meanwhile, explained to the Prospect that popular suspicion and misunderstanding of the work of democracy organizations has grown since the color revolutions.

But others credit NDI's shift to something else: recent tensions over a U.S. air force base in Kyrgyzstan. That base was established -- giving the country a new strategic importance to the United States -- in 2001. After the government of neighboring Uzbekistan expelled a U.S. base from its territory, the Kyrgyz base took on even greater importance as the sole forward operating base into Afghanistan. Conflict has simmered ever since. In December, a Kyrgyz civilian was killed while trying to illegally enter the base, and that was merely the latest in a string of mishaps that has soured public opinion over the past year.

During base negotiations this summer, two U.S. diplomats were expelled from Kyrgyzstan for meddling in local affairs. Then, at the end of the summer, a U.S. air force major disappeared from a Bishkek mall. She surfaced some days later with her head shaved and dyed brown, saying she had been kidnapped. So far, there's been no public disclosure of what happened. (Meanwhile, also during the summer, the U.S. and Kyrgyz governments reached an agreement on a new lease for the base, to the tune of $150 million dollars.) In the fall, a U.S. air tanker clipped a Kyrgyz passenger jet, almost causing a major crash. The local press has jumped on every episode, both trumpeting and fuelling public dissatisfaction with the base's existence. The discontent has spread to the highest levels of government. Most recently, the Kyrgyz speaker of parliament told State Department officials in Washington that the base agreement needed to be renegotiated. He warned of a perilous downturn in Kyrgyz-U.S. relations.

Some local analysts say that the United States is scaling back its support for activists like Baisalov Kyrgyzstan in order to maintain its air base. Alisher Mamasaliev is an analyst who runs the Public Association Civil Platform. "In the last year, the position of the U.S. has changed drastically," he said during a meeting at his offices in a dilapidated Soviet-era building. "It has to do with the diplomatic scandal and with the fact that it's unclear where the financial payments from the military base are going. There are a few American politicians whose comments intervene in internal politics and that instigate the anti-American sentiment."

One result of this souring of relations with the United States, says Mamasaliev, is that Kyrgyz officials are now increasingly taking marching orders from Russia. Mamasaliev, who was recently dispatched to a meeting of young political leaders across the region in Moscow, says the Kyrgyz government is looking to cement closer ties with Russia and that the Kremlin is having dramatic input into local politics. "The closest economic and political relationship is with Russia," he said. "Our government relies on the support of Moscow, and with the Kremlin, the support is very visible."

One example is a policy that closely mirrors a new nonprofit law in Russia which forces all nongovernmental organizations to register with a new government agency, reporting all their activities and foreign funding. In January 2006, the Kyrgyz Ministry of Justice ordered an investigation of all foreign-funded NGOs in the country. The prime minister at the time, Feliks Kulov, went a step further and suggested a ban on all foreign NGOs. Both measures were eventually reversed.

But for activists like Baisalov, the message has been clear. Not only has Baisalov lost his U.S. support, he still suffers locally for being tied to American funders. Discredited by the government, he's often labeled an American lackey or agent. Even educated young people question his motives. A young Kyrgyz businessman, who regularly bribes government officials to import alcohol for sale in the country and who went to college in the United States, told me that he hates Baisalov above all because he makes it harder for him to operate. The same man asked me for any interview tape I had of Baisalov so he could tamper with it and damage Baisalov's public image.

Baisalov once dreamed of going to graduate school in the United States. He finished his senior year of high school in South Carolina -- one of the most formative years of his life, he says. But in the wake of his "divorce" from NDI, Baisalov is considering totally cutting his ties to the United States. "You know, I'm already called a Western agent, an American lackey," he said. "Imagine if I go to an American school. So I choose to stay here."

Baisalov says he is firmly committed to working in the civil sector to reform Kyrgyz democracy. But he has a new destination in mind for his travels. "Why not China?" he said. "That seems to be the future."

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