The problem with looking the other way is that it can leave you blindsided. That appears to be what happened in Kyrgyzstan, where the United States had ignored official corruption and oppression while paying the government a hefty sum for an air base that is key to moving troops and supplies into nearby Afghanistan. The Obama administration clearly was caught off guard by the violent ouster of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev last week, and now the future of the U.S. base and bilateral relations are in doubt.
Bakiyev was swept into power by the so-called Tulip Revolution he helped orchestrate in 2005. He grew increasingly autocratic in recent years, concentrating power in his hands and tightening controls on the media and political opposition. While human rights groups reported attacks on politicians and journalists, torture in jails and rampant corruption, U.S. officials kept publicly quiet, leaving the impression that their only interest was use of the Manas air base.
Corruption and nepotism were Bakiyev's undoing. For example, he placed his son, Maxim, at the head of the Central Agency for Development, Investments and Innovations, which managed the country's financial resources -- including U.S. payments for use of the air base -- and which recently privatized two of the country's largest state-owned utilities. Maxim Bakiyev reportedly was the sole supplier of fuel to the U.S. base, and is believed to control the privatized utilities, which increased electricity, gas and water rates. Popular fury over the rate hikes fed the ranksof the opposition that forced Bakiyev from Kyrgyzstan's White House.
The United States doesn't get to pick the leaders of countries that are its strategic partners, but Kyrgyzstan is yet another example of why we must balance our military interests with our interest in opposing repression, promoting good government and maintaining U.S. legitimacy. The uncritical U.S. alliance with Bakiyev could easily sour relations with an opposition-turned-government.
The situation in Kyrgyzstan remains unstable. Roza Otunbayeva, a former foreign minister and onetime ambassador to the United States, claims to be in charge of a transitional government that will rule for the next six months. So far only Russia has recognized the interim government. The Kremlin is not happy with the presence of U.S. troops and influence in its backyard and would be pleased to see the back of Bakiyev, who reneged on a deal to evict the United States after Washington increased payments to $60 million a year plus millions more in fueling fees. Otunbayeva has said the U.S. will remain, but whoever ends up in power, it's a good bet the rent will increase once again. Meanwhile, the Obama administration must speak up for other U.S. interests, such as political freedom, an independent media and honest government.